Lessons from 'Talking Points Memo' and the U.S. attorney scandal
Commentary: The latest scandal engulfing the White House might have escaped public notice if not for the work of one influential blog. Here's what your news organization can learn from it.
By Robert Niles
Three weeks ago, I challenged the accusation that blogs are a parasite on traditional news media, quoting sources who cited examples of blogs that have done significant original reporting. This past week, one of my favorite blogs, Joshua Marshall's Talking Points Memo, earned plaudits for its work in uncovering and illuminating the latest Bush administration scandal -- the partisan firing of several U.S. attorneys.
I fess up -- I'd planned a feature on TPM's pursuit of this story as well. But since CJR, Eric Alterman and the LA Times have beat me to that reporting, I will leave you those links, and proceed with the conclusions I've drawn from Marshall's example.
Other journalists are your allies, not your enemies
Marshall and his staff broke quite a few "scoops" in their months-long investigation into the firings, which was reported on TPM and its sister site TPMMuckraker.com. But they shed much light on the emerging scandal by stitching together reporting from local journalists as well.
TPM Media reporters gathered information by working phones, swapping e-mails and searching documents as well as following reporting from San Diego's Union-Tribune and North County Times, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and McClatchy's Washington bureau covering the firings of respected local U.S. Attorneys and their replacement with Bush administration loyalists.
Years of publishing as near-monopolies have left U.S. newsrooms isolated, looking within for resources to report stories. Work by others covering the same beat is viewed with suspicion, and rarely credited. Now, the Internet has enabled countless new competitors to move in on those beats. For many journalists, the gut reaction is to retreat farther, to decry "bloggers" and distrust anything they write.
But Marshall and those like him reveal the irony of online news competition. Success lies not in fighting competing voices, but in embracing them. With more voices reporting, journalists now can reveal a more complete and accurate truth for their readers.
Important stories need clear narratives
Bouncing a political story around the "A" section from day to day keeps all but the hardest political junkies from following it. Newspapers do a reasonable job of formatting stories into topical sections and anchoring a few recurring features to the same position in the paper on a regular basis. But ongoing daily stories often bounce from page to page within their section, presented under an ever-changing variety of heads and with few design elements to tie the stories together, helping sustain the narrative from day to day.
Reading Marshall's TPM reminds me not so much of reading the New York Times, but of listening to a frill-free network newscast. You've got your trusted voice (Marshall) leading you through a linear narrative of the day's most important work from his company's staff (plus other sources, see point above). With effective use of voice and hyperlinking, Marshall is able to draw new readers into the story, allowing them to catch up, while keeping the narrative moving for long-time followers.
Newspapers do a lousy of job of sustaining narratives. Broadcast's always whipped print on that front, and now blogs such as TPM can combine the best of both worlds, providing print's depth with broadcast's voice and narrative.
Get people talking about your story, to keep it alive
TPM has long linked to other bloggers from its home page. It publishes RSS feeds. Marshall created a companion site, TPM Cafe, to provide a social gathering place for readers to share news and opinion with one another, building reader loyalty to the site. Marshall has worked hard over the years to develop respect, and incoming links, from other popular liberal and center-left bloggers. TPM even has a Facebook group for its fans.
All these actions helped make TPM part of a larger online community, which paid off with links to and discussions of its content, creating the echo chamber that helps sustain TPM's narratives. Other news organizations can do the same. Link to other writers whom you respect. Converse with them, through your pages. Create online social networking opportunities for your readers, so they'll stay longer on your site, and spread the word when they click elsewhere. Couple those efforts with the clearer narratives that the blog format enables, and you can keep your reporting in the front of readers' minds longer, giving it the chance to catch fire.
If you break a scandal, and nobody reads it, is your story really news? The local papers that TPM cited faced that problem. Without an echo chamber to repeat and amplify the story, even the toughest original reporting has a hard time getting widespread public attention. Decades of operating as near monopolies have atrophied many newspapers' ability to build buzz. Bloggers, with no brand names to rest upon, simply work harder at it.
Forget "balance." Go find the truth
Don't insult your readers by balancing factual reporting with "cover your rear" lies. If someone in the government is abusing his power, stand up for the public and call out the offender with your reporting. And don't let a bunch of smug, insider "know-it-alls" knock you down.
Time magazine’s Washington bureau chief, Jay Carney, mocked TPM's reporting as a partisan conspiracy theory. The L.A. Times editorial page, which these days reads more and more like a reprint of the right-leaning Reason magazine, also pooh-poohed the emerging scandal, in a Jan. 26 editorial. (To his credit, Carney's backtracked and recently lauded TPM's work.)
Marshall's crew is a throwback to an earlier age, when columnists on the Washington beat worked harder at reporting than at spin. Which makes ironic the main site's name, "Talking Points Memo" -- a D.C. insider term for papers circulated to help officials and lobbyists better spin the news their way. The sister site's name, TPM Muckraker, better reflects the work Marshall's team does.
It's bad in the White House
But that's the perfect time to go rake some muck. Why should Josh Marshall's crew be the only ones?