Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Josh Marshall is inventing a new mode of reporting

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Josh Marshall has been inventive and entrepreneurial in looking at the news business and modern technology and putting his finger on how to leverage the power of the Internet to do better reportage. Here are some of my thoughts:

First, much of the media have very poor reporting because they are owned by large corporations who (a) are risk-averse, and (b) have their own private agenda. So stories and dumbed down or ignored altogether, and information is either presented as infotainment or purely entertainment: the story of a missing white woman, particularly if she’s young and blonde and attractive, can hog the news slot, pushing aside stories about the Iraq War, about deliberations in Congress, about the discovery of corruption, about the decline of the dollar—in fact all news, except perhaps for a puppy trapped in a well.

But a small organization completely owned and controlled by someone who’s very interested in hard news can have focus and look at significant stories. In fact, that’s the old model of the good city independent newspaper: a publisher who loves news and makes sure his or her paper reports it, and who is ornery enough to ignore pressure from merchants and politicians and to fight hard for stories to beat the competition. But now city newspapers generally local monopolies owned and directed by large corporations, and they spend their energy avoiding offending anyone and trying to cut costs.

So that’s one part. Another part is that he went from a blog ( to a bigger news bloggish sort of thing: This he started by asking his readership to make enough contributions so he could hire a couple of reporters to do real investigations. So far as I can tell, he hires young, hungry, smart investigative reporters who want to make a name for themselves by the stories they uncover, who then “graduate” to a job in a larger organization—e.g., Justin Rood. They have lots of energy to investigate, they learn a lot by truly investigating and reporting—and see their stories published on TPMmuckraker—and they don’t have to worry about stepping on toes.

So with TPMmuckraker he has, in effect, a small city independent newspaper. But wait, there’s more: he leverages the eyes and knowledge of his readership. When he gets his hands on an enormous document dump from the Bush White House, he puts it up on the Internet and has he readers go through it to see what many eyes can find. (One saying of open-source software is that, with enough eyes looking at the code, all bugs are shallow—the same thing applies: with enough eyes looking through the documents, nothing remains hidden or is overlooked.)

His readers have come up with pearls from the stacks of documents, and practically overnight. Moreover, Marshall is not hesitant to task readers: “Call you own US Representative and tell us his or her position on X and email us with the response you get.” Following that, he provides updates: which Representatives have taken a position (and what that position is), which are waffling, and which are still to be heard from.

For example, his Baker Street Irregulars, as it were, almost overnight identified the two Senators who had placed a (secret) hold on the public database of earmark projects: Ted Stevens and Robert Byrd. The identification was by process of elimination: identifying all the Senators who stated that they had placed no hold on the legislation, and finally discovering who the two were. As soon as the two were identified, they immediately removed the hold: it was too embarrassing to take the action in public.

So his reportage, amplified by thousands of volunteer helpers, not only gets the story, it produces action.

And now he’s showing us the future of TV (as it were) news: short YouTube “programs” of 5 or so minutes, in which he carefully and thoroughly walks through some particular issue, helping us understand the personalities, possible motives, and complexities. These little programs also indicate the direction in which he will be looking—and help the volunteers see where they can help.

This focus and detailed presentation of a developing story is, of course, exactly what network news programs should be doing, but cannot—because they have too many masters to satisfy, too many bases to touch in a single broadcast, and some sort of weird balance they try to achieve with entertaining stories, looney stories, stories of weird happenings, etc.—with important stories apparently last on the list and having the lowest priority.

This is something to keep an eye on. Marshall is building a real news empire—real news, and real empire, though right now it’s still just the family business. But it clearly is going to grow, because it’s one of the few games in town for those who follow politics. And the major media are starting to realize that he’s scooping them. As is now well know, Jay Carney (TIME Washington Bureau chief) condescendingly dismissed what Marshall’s outlets (TalkingPointsMemo and TPMmuckraker) was digging up on the attorney purge—at a time when the outlines were only beginning to become clear as Marshall asked readers across the nation to send in what they knew about their own US Attorney and what was happening. Carney pooh-poohed the whole effort, and told us with unbelievable smugness that Marshall was tracking some weird conspiracy, but there is no conspiracy there at all.

Carney did have the grace to say that he had been wrong, but I don’t think he’s come close to seeing what’s coming at him as news reporting increasingly exploits all the advantages the Internet delivers.

It’s an interesting development to watch unfold before our very eyes.

Written by Leisureguy

12 April 2007 at 11:26 pm

Posted in Government, Media

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