Josh Marshall says he "didn't have much sense going in of what TPM would become" when he started blogging on the Florida presidential recount at Talking Points Memo a decade ago. Neither did anyone else. Blogging didn't exactly seem like a wise career choice for a political journalist in his early 30s, with aspirations to be a long-form magazine writer.
"So sometimes I would ask myself: why am I doing this?" Marshall said of Talking Points Memo, which turned 10 years old over the weekend. "It doesn't make me any money when I'm barely able to support myself as it is. ... But the truth was that I liked it. A lot. Not only did it free me of editors, which is something lots of writers yearn for, whether it's good for them or not. But the form felt liberating too."
Marshall may have felt liberated from the trappings of a traditional news organization, but over 10 years of blogging, he ended up creating his own cutting-edge, left-of-center online news organization with staffers in New York City and Washington.
Asked about the site's greatest accomplishment so far, Marshall said he's proud of its coverage of the firing of U.S. attorneys during the Bush administration—for which TPM won the prestigious Polk Award—as well as its coverage of attempts to privatize Social Security privatization and of this year's health care reform debate.
Ten years from now, Marshall said, he expects TPM to be "one of the leading news organizations in the country covering hard news and politics" and less focused on its founder. "I find it particularly gratifying these days when I meet someone who's heard of or is even a fan of TPM but has never heard of me," Marshall said. "Or they ask me how long I've been working for TPM. In any case, I'm not sure we're quite there yet. But, yes, I do not have any doubt that TPM could and likely will exist after I'm no longer actively involved with it on a daily basis."
In the Q&A below, Marshall spoke to The Cutline about the early days of political blogging, whether blogging is still stigmatized in the journalistic mainstream, and where he sees TPM in the increasingly competitive online political journalism world.
THE CUTLINE: How did other political journalists you know from the print world react when you starting blogging?
JOSH MARSHALL: I think at first people were sort of entertained by it, but also didn't know quite what to make of it. The two other folks in the D.C. journalism community doing it—Mickey Kaus and Andrew Sullivan—were vastly more well-established and better known. [Kaus celebrated 10 years in June 2009; Sullivan hit a decade in October.] I do remember trying to keep it a secret from some of the people I considered my mentors in the business. ... So it was kind of a curiosity more than anything. But I started getting the attention of editors and other people in the business and it started getting me writing gigs. And that gave me confidence that I was on to something.
TC: The National Journal's Marc Ambinder—in a farewell-to-blogging post last Monday—wrote that the term "blogger" still "carries a stigma among high-level editors and the standard-setters of this business that needs to be erased." Do you agree?
JM: It's not something I give a great deal of thought to. What I'm really into is reporting, finding out new facts, confirming them and explaining them. A blog is a medium to do that in.
But it covers so much territory that it's hard to know what it means sometimes. When I started TPM I wasn't familiar with the word, didn't know it existed. From the start it carried a lot of baggage—both the negative stuff but also a lot of hype and nonsense about how "bloggers" were going to change the world. I always tried to keep my head down from all of that and keep doing what I was doing.
TC: Nick Denton recently said that he's bored with blogs and that Gawker Media sites will shift to a new format next year. Clearly, TPM has grown a lot from a one-man operation and strictly reverse-chronological posts to a more comprehensive site with staffers in New York City and Washington. And yet, it's still described in the "about" section as a blog. Do you consider TPM a blog or an online news outlet or are these just arbitrary distinctions?
JM: I don't think of it as a blog. And we've stopped referring to it as one in most of our materials. To me, a blog is something done by one person or maybe a small group of people. And the key is that it's something that person does: They're following their own instincts and interests; they're not taking assignments from an editor. But if you look at how TPM operates, it's not remotely like that. We have a squad of reporters who report to editors. And those editors report to a managing editor. ... I think of it as a news organization, a news website. That's what it is.
TC: How has the Internet changed political journalism for you since 2000—both has a journalist and news consumer? Are you surprised that since you started TPM, there's now a plethora of sites covering Washington, including Politico, Huffington Post and the Daily Caller?
JM: It's definitely a different world. Almost so much so that it's hard for me to know where to start to describe the changes. One thing it has done that's been good for us is that you've had all these Web-native sites or old-media sites coming closer to the way we do things, breaking out of news cycles, adopting more iterative styles of coverage, etc. Seeing that happen hasn't always been comfortable. You realize over time, "Wow, we don't have that space all to ourselves anymore." But that's forced up to keep refining what we do, coming up with new approaches.
TC: What are some ways the traditional political media has become more like TPM over the past 10 years? Are there some ways TPM has become more like the traditional media?
JM: They've become faster, more iterative, more willing to break out of established genres to match writing approach to subject matter. Pretty much all the ways that you'd expect and that they've had to do. We've become more formal in our editorial structure, and the site itself has become structured more like what you'd think of as a news site. Everything I've seen over the last five years has been about convergence. But it's hard for an organization to change. Every organization has its own DNA.
Note: This interview was cut for length. Editor Andrew Golis, formerly TPM's deputy publisher, was not involved in the writing or editing of this post.
(2009 photo of Marshall courtesy of Talking Points Memo)