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American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December/January 2010

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Talking Points Memo launches a Washington bureau, augmenting its reporting firepower.

By Karen Carmichael
Karen Carmichael is an AJR editorial assistant.     

No art adorns the white walls of David Kurtz's office in the brand- new Washington, D.C., bureau of Talking Points Memo. He can't offer a chair to visitors because he doesn't have an extra one. The only furniture is a massive desk, one chair and a desk lamp.

"It's a little bare-bones" right now, says Kurtz, the managing editor of Talking Points Memo, newly transplanted from Missouri to D.C. But he has everything he needs to coordinate TPM's D.C. operations and report daily in the Internet age: a phone, a laptop, an extra computer monitor and his BlackBerry.

Since its inception in 2000, Talking Points Memo has been at the forefront of political blogs, winning a Polk Award for its coverage in 2007 of the scandal surrounding the Bush administration's firing of U.S. attorneys. Now, as it opens a Washington outpost when many traditional news organizations are cutting back in the nation's capital, the blog appears to be transitioning into a full-fledged news organization.

"TPM has really broken out of the blog pack by putting an emphasis on original reporting, which as we know isn't cheap," says Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz.

The Washington bureau, which debuted in late September, is a logical extension of TPM's growth, says founder and Editor Josh Marshall. "As we've matured as a news organization, we wanted to compete with other news organizations in Washington," Marshall says. TPM frequently sent reporters to Washington before but never had an established base. It's good to have the distance from the Beltway culture provided by the site's New York City headquarters, Marshall says, but "we don't want to take second place in our ability to cover Washington, D.C."

The new bureau shares a suite with the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies in downtown Washington, only minutes from the White House. Several walls were knocked down to turn three former offices into a spacious newsroom. Furniture and decoration are still minimal as the staff continues to settle in: three desks for reporters Christina Bellantoni, Brian Beutler and Evan McMorris-Santoro, a few chairs, phones, computers and a flatscreen TV that's on all the time--often tuned to Fox News Channel. TPM does a lot of coverage on how the media cover stories, McMorris-Santoro says.

As the organization has grown, TPM has steadily added respected hard-news reporters to its staff. The site scored a coup when veteran reporter Bellantoni recently joined the D.C. staff. A journalist for 10 years, Bellantoni has spent the last six with the Washington Times covering Virginia politics, Congress and the 2008 presidential election. TPM was able to lure her away to serve as its senior reporter/blogger and White House correspondent because "I'm a big believer in new media," Bellantoni says. The site's worth has been proven by its success and the awards it's garnered, she says. "It has a very rich, sophisticated, informed readership," she says. "This is an organization that is going places."

Marshall founded TPM in 2000 as an offshoot of his freelance journalism. "I didn't start it thinking it would be a business or a publication or anything beyond me," he says. But as the site became more popular, "it became a bigger and bigger part of what I did professionally."

After the 2004 election, Marshall took stock of what he hoped to accomplish with the blog. Initially, he thought he might take a step back from TPM to work on a book project not connected to politics. Instead, he set about expanding the site.

"What I decided was that we were moving into a period when blogs and the new-media news space was about to take off in a period of tremendous, very rapid growth, and I wanted to be part of that," Marshall says.

In 2005, TPM began to grow as a business with employees and a strategy as a news organization, and spun off new sites under its umbrella. Marshall started TPM Café in 2005, TPM Muckraker and Election Central in 2006, and TPM TV in 2007. Election Central has now been transformed into TPM DC. In the initial conception, each site was distinct, Marshall says, but they've now been consolidated into one site, with the primary news section page serving as a portal for all the blogs.

As could be expected of an online news site that thrives on reader participation, TPM is connected to social networking venues. "It's really important to us to find the readers wherever they are," McMorris-Santoro says. TPM has almost 15,000 fans on Facebook and more than 7,000 followers on Twitter. Readers can send in story tips to the Facebook and Twitter pages, which are used to post the most important news stories. TPM staffers, meanwhile, have their own Twitter accounts and use the free online telephone service Skype to keep in contact with each other throughout the day.

Unlike traditional news organizations, "we're not taking another model and changing it piecemeal to work online," Marshall says. "We were born this way."

The site has always been able to generate enough revenue from online ads to fund itself, David Kurtz says. The D.C. expansion was underwritten by a small group of outside investors. The organization has a paid staff of 16, with plans to continue to grow.

But hiring staff can be a delicate business. Traditional print and broadcast organizations look for employees with specific skills to fill established jobs, Marshall says. In the new world of online media, that doesn't always apply. "There are still very few organizations that do what we do, and there's almost no track record for it," Marshall says. "We have to evaluate people for a job they haven't done before."

Online publishing is a "fast-paced work environment, not for the faint of heart," Marshall says. TPM hired Bellantoni because of her solid reporting skills and familiarity with new media, he says. "We wanted someone who would not just survive but be continually inspired and excited by the new-media innovation that we have to do on a daily basis," Marshall says. "We're a very fluid and scrappy organization, and we want the team to think like a team."

Very few blogs can boast TPM's financial strength. "I think Josh Marshall's effort is garnering more respect, but I don't know how much of a model it will prove to be because most sites don't have the cash to hire reporters who do real digging," Howard Kurtz says. "Opinion is much cheaper in the blogosphere, and that is undoubtedly valuable, but TPM merges some of the virtues of the old and new media."

TPM's origins as a left-leaning political blog could affect its credibility for some. "TPM is really an advocacy operation that has moved toward journalism," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. From what he has seen, "The amount of shoe-leather original reporting is a small part of what they do." He distinguishes traditional opinion reporting from what he calls the journalism of affirmation, where writers "expect to arrive at preconceived notions." Pundits such as Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow "see themselves as agents of a movement," and many bloggers feel the same way, Rosenstiel says. "It remains to be seen as TPM evolves in this space further whether they're going to be the journalism of opinion or the journalism of affirmation."

Opinion doesn't compromise TPM's reporting, says Slate media columnist Jack Shafer, because it's impossible for a publication to escape a point of view. TPM's readers are aware of it, he says, and aren't "intellectually swindled in any way." Howard Kurtz agrees that Marshall hasn't hidden TPM's liberal slant. At the same time, he says, Marshall "seems to have incorporated a form of straight reporting that isn't driven by ideology. I think readers have to factor in its liberal persuasion, but when you hire reporters like Christina Bellantoni, readers can see that straight journalism, even on an ideological site, isn't always [affected] by a point of view."

Either way, Kurtz adds, the broad reach of the Internet in researching and disseminating information is a crucial tool for traditional and new media alike. "We should welcome the fact that the Internet is becoming more of an outlet for original digging."

With the opening of its Washington bureau, Talking Points Memo is becoming an ever more powerful player in the online news arena. "There's a huge appetite for all kinds of news that the Web is able to serve," Shafer says. "I think that what Josh is doing is bringing new competition to a very competitive sphere."



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