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Talking Points Memo: from participatory to public media?

A transcript of Joshua Micah Marshall's keynote speech at the inaugural symposium of the Park Center for Independent Media offers some interesting clues about how open online platforms allow individual media producers to serve public media functions.

Marshall started his blog, Talking Points Memo in 2000, during the Florida recount. At the time, he was the Washington editor of The American Prospect, a DC-based liberal magazine of opinion—a job he soon quit to freelance. The blog had a personal tone and a partisan bent, and started out very much as a one-man shop. But by 2004, Marshall had learned that he could ask his readers for both financial and editorial support. "What I did on the site was a hybrid of traditional journalism and what we now call collaborative journalism," he explained. He asked readers to track down comments of members of Congress about privatizing social security, following the issue "at the ground level."

Free to follow his investigative instincts, Marshall began to hone in on corruption charges dogging Congressman Duke Cunningham. The story expanded into a full-blown scandal when the U.S. attorney prosecuting Cunningham was fired—one of several firings around the country that turned out to be politically motivated. Marshall decided to launch a fundraising campaign to hire a few more reporters to join him on the site, raising money for a new section: TPM Muckraker. Readers donated a bit more than $100,000, most in small increments of $50 or less. TPM is a for-profit outlet; much of the site's revenue now comes from blog ads, and over the years Marshall has hired several other reporter-bloggers and added other sections, including TPMElection Central, TPMtv and TPMCafe.

Investigating the Cunningham story once again gave readers an active role. They sent in reports of other U.S. attorney firings from local papers around the country, and weighed in with questions and theories. "The particular advantage our readers gave us was a really big deal," said Marshall.

TPM turned out to be at the leading edge of investigating a controversy that eventually broke national headlines and resulted in the August 2007 resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Marshall explained that this would not have been possible if the blog was trying to serve a general-interest audience:

One of the things that is most important about independent media is that you have news organizations not part of the model where they ideally want to be everybody's dominant news source. If that's not the case, you don't have that need to satisfy everybody--and that underlying need to prioritize balance over accuracy. That's why the existence of an independent media sector is so important. Also, the more voices you have, the more takes on the news, you're just going to have a more vibrant and diverse news ecosystem—as opposed to having two or three gatekeepers that control the news.

While this may sound like the stock rhetoric employed by independent media makers over the years, TPM represents a new model. Not only was Marshall able to build his media outlet much more easily and lucratively than previous generations of independent publishers, he could do so in the participatory online environment because of his embrace of reader input, passion and labor. TPM has become the hub of an engaged public—one concerned with political and electoral issues, and willing to devote time and money to dissecting those issues together.

So, is TPM public media? In some important ways, no—Marshall's unabashed progressive stance makes the site less attractive to all comers, constraining debate and areas of coverage and raising questions of bias. In other ways, TPM is more public than much of public broadcasting, in that it draws readers in to participate in conversations about problems central to our democracy, to find and define truths, and to act upon them. The open platforms and business structures that supported the evolution of this blog into a nationally-recognized source for investigative journalism—community-building software, Google ads, open video platforms—have also paved the way for many other advocates and journalists to create their own niche sites, tackling key topics from across the political spectrum. The result is a more volatile and dynamic national discourse, with new experts, pundits, advocates and reporters springing up around flashpoints.

This is uncomfortable territory for traditional journalists, accustomed to both internal hierarchy within outlets and a national hierarchy of publications dictating the legitimacy of certain stories. But according to Marshall, this new "ease of entry" may be permanent, as long as the structure of the Internet remains open. "The way TPM came into existence—without any concept that it would be a company with multiple employees—simply wouldn't have been possible in any technological universe before the one that existed in the last ten years," he says.

Who knows what the next decade might bring?