Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 7, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

BLOGGING AND JOURNALISM....What's the difference between a blogger and a journalist? Well, bloggers are typically hobbyists who specialize in comment and opinion, while journalists are professionals in print and on TV who do original reporting, have big audiences, and the ability to influence public debate. Of the few who occupy both worlds comfortably, one of the best known is Joshua Micah Marshall, a D.C. area reporter since 1997 who is also the author of Talking Points Memo, a respected and widely read blog that attracts upwards of 12,000 visitors daily. In fact, you all read him every day already, don't you?

Marshall has been writing TPM since shortly after the Florida election fiasco began, making him not just a popular blogger but one of the longest established as well. Writing from a moderate left perspective, he devotes his blog almost entirely to politics and foreign affairs, and last December was one of the first to break the Trent Lott story, following it up with a blizzard of original reporting and sharp commentary until Lott finally called it quits just before Christmas.

At the same time, his print career has also blossomed. He is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, appearing there most recently with a devastating critique of Dick Cheney's competence, and two weeks ago began a stint as columnist for The Hill, a weekly newspaper dedicated to the inner workings of Congress.

So what's it like being both a blogger and a mainstream journalist? Do most mainstream journalists even know the blogosphere exists?

I decided to ask, and Marshall says there's good news for bloggers everywhere: more and more mainstream journalists are paying attention to what we write: "Those folks read blogs. And they'd also like to imitate them. There's a lot of crossover." The entire interview is below.


CALPUNDIT: You're a professional journalist: you write pieces for a lot of different outlets and they pay you for them. Conversely, blogging pays nothing. So what was the initial motivation to start blogging?

JOSHUA MICAH MARSHALL: I think I had several initial motivations for starting my site, but none of them were all that thought out, or directed to any particular end. When I was in graduate school in the 1990s I had done work in web design. So I had some knowledge of how to run a website and just an interest in having one. I was also a fan of Mickey Kaus's site. And to a great extent, when I created my site I was imitating him.

The other motivation was a bit more complicated. At the time, I was working for a magazine. And I felt very constrained not really free to write what I actually thought, largely constrained along ideological lines. So part of what I was doing was finding an outlet where I could speak my mind. So where I was working at the time had something to do with it.

But to be fair, when you're writing for a magazine you never have complete carte blanche to say whatever you want. So, wherever I'd been working, the prospect of untrammeled freedom to air my thoughts probably would have been attractive. At that magazine, though, I was rather trammeled.

So I launched into it at the beginning of the 2000 election recount and it caught on rather quickly and I found I really enjoyed doing it.

Now, not long after I started the site I quit my job and started freelancing. And it immediately occurred to me, or rather I worried, that TPM was going to cannibalize my freelance writing. Obviously, you only have so many ideas and so many words in you a week. And how was I going to support myself if I was writing a lot of them on my site and not getting paid for it?

The truth was that I found that I really enjoyed doing TPM, even though it was very hard to justify in financial terms, and at least difficult at first to justify in professional terms. So the rationale followed the fact that I liked doing the site and probably wasn't going to stop, not vice versa.

What I decided was that TPM was a loss-leader for my professional writing career. I wouldn't make any money off it directly, but it would allow me to improve and expand my skills as a writer, attract attention to my writing, and eventually get seen by editors and other folks who would offer me paying gigs. That was the rationale that I came up with to justify to myself why I was doing this, and why I was sinking so much time into it. And to a great degree it turned out to be true.

So in the end, has TPM helped your career acting as a "loss leader" or have you found that it cannibalizes stuff that you might otherwise sell to paying markets? Take the Trent Lott affair, for example: did it attract editors who wanted you to write about it for them, or did it turn them off since all your best stuff was already on the Web for free?

It's sometimes difficult, often impossible, to tell just what prompts an editor's or someone else's interest in your work. On balance, however, I think there's no question TPM has functioned as a loss leader for my journalism career. To some degree it does cannibalize my work. Often, once I have written a lot about a given topic on TPM, editors aren't as interested in my writing up the same ideas or points for them. Understandably so, I suppose, and increasingly so as TPM's audience has grown.

Back in the days when the readership was really small this wasn't a problem since so few people read. (That really varies from editor to editor. And it has a lot to do with the sort of publication it is, audience overlap and so forth.) In the case of Lott I did write at least one paid piece on the subject (I think that's all a column in the Financial Times.)

But it's not that direct usually. TPM has increased my name recognition as a writer. And over time that leads to more work. To the best of my knowledge, the editors I'm now doing the most work for both first became familiar with my writing from reading TPM.

Does the blog ever help you directly? That is, do readers ever see something on your blog and then send you material that turns into something you can use in your outside work?

I certainly get a lot of ideas and tips from readers. Some of them extremely valuable. One of the stories I "broke" about the Trent Lott situation came directly from a tip from a reader, which I then confirmed through traditional reporting means.

I'm not sure though that there's ever been something I've turned around and used in a non-blog piece. Certainly, there may have been. I just don't specifically remember. To a great degree, looking back, the two things are very difficult for me to disentangle, since my blog and non-blog work tend to be combined in my mind.

How plugged in to the rest of the blogosphere are you? Do you read a lot of other blogs? Which ones?

Probably not nearly so much as I should be. I know about and visit the most-trafficked ones: andrewsullivan.com, kausfiles.com, instapundit.com, atrios, altercation calpundit, of course. And I stop by pretty frequently. And I've visited and read many others. But I have a pretty hard time keeping up. I'm probably less well-blog-read than a lot of folks who have blogs or just read blogs.

And unlike most blogs, you have almost no permanent links to other sites only three in fact. And you rarely link to other blogs in your text. Any particular reason for that?

Well, there's two questions I guess. There's a very short list of blogs I have links to. There used to be one more, The Bull Moose, run by Marshall Wittman, who had to shut his site down to become John McCain's Communications Director.

Basically that very short link section just started for links to publications I write for frequently, almost as a tongue-in-cheek sort of thing, and then for a couple blogs of folks who were good friends and/or had been generous with advice in my career. So basically there's no real rhyme or reason to why that list is so short. It started short and basically stayed short.

As to linking to other blogs, it's not a matter of any conscious choice. The links are just driven by the posts, i.e., what seems to make sense to link to in a given case. A lot of the posts that I do are either based on my own reporting or work from stories that are coming out in the daily newspaper press. So my links tend to be to big national newspapers like the Times and the Post and other similar outlets, and then the websites of the cable news nets. I suppose the difference is that there are some blogs that do a lot of inter-blog debates. And I tend not to do that much of that. And thus, I guess, fewer links.

The other day, out of the blue, I got a call from a Washington Post reporter, asking about something he had seen on my site. Do you get the sense that more mainstream reporters are starting to pay attention to blogs, if only to keep up with what people are chattering about?

Absolutely. I think there's no question. It's been building slowly for more than a year. But I think that in the last four or five months it's really gained momentum. There are a lot of journalists who've read a number of the DC-based sites for some time. But there was always a big generational tilt to who read. Now I think it's broader. The whole Lott debacle got the blogging community a lot of attention.

But in a lot of ways I think it just brought into the open what was already happening, that blogs had become a real part of the larger news and commentary ecosystem. And that they can drive debate. I think it's a bit like talk radio was a dozen years ago. It evolved as a significant force for some time before it was finally recognized as such.

A lot of reporters have for a long time read blogs often ones run by their friends as a sort of guilty pleasure. But I think just recently there's a new sense that news is being made there; opinions are being formed; stories are being broken that you don't hear about in other places. And so even your more buttoned-down reporters have started to take notice.

Talk radio has an audience in the tens of millions; Rush Limbaugh claims 20 million all by himself. What's your sense of how big blogging could get? What's been the growth rate of traffic at TPM over the past couple of years?

How big it could get I really don't know. The rate of growth for my site in recent months has been pretty rapid. But in absolute terms it's still quite small compared to any of the even somewhat popular talk radio shows.

You know a lot of journalists and reporters in the DC area. Do you think more of them will follow the lead of people like you and Sullivan and start their own blogs? And if they do, how do you think their employers will react? Would the New York Times, for example, even allow one of their reporters to operate a political blog?

Good question. And like most good questions, I don't have a good answer. Clearly, a number of journos are starting weblogs. Sometimes they're not updated that frequently and thus lack the critical mass or critical frequency that makes a weblog a weblog. What I do see happening is this: many bloggers imagine a very binary or oppositional relationship between themselves and the "big media." Not true. Those folks read blogs. And they'd also like to imitate them. There's a lot of crossover.

What I think will happen is that you'll see a lot of newspapers and news networks incorporating blog-like things into their sites. So for instance I could certainly imagine the Times setting up one of their political correspondents with a blog. I know another big paper has considered bringing a blogger onto their website. I imagine that would be something like the set up Alterman has with MSNBC.

A blog operating under the aegis of a media company would have to operate a bit differently. Corporations need copy-editors to go over copy, editors to sign off on posts, lawyers to vet things. So my question is how much these "blogs" will be like the blogs we think of now. I think we're most likely to see the form blogs evolving in a number of different directions. Independent blogs, blogs run by media companies, blogs that are really vehicles for advertising a particular product or company, etc.

Kevin Drum 12:03 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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