“I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful.” — President Teddy Roosevelt, in a 1906 speech in which he coined the term “muckraker”
If Roosevelt lived today, he might add in “blog” to the list of places where muckrakers do their work — and he probably would be a bit more scared of the work they’re doing. One hundred years after Roosevelt coined the “muckraker” term for journalists who uncover corruption and fraud, bloggers have taken the mantle once reserved for investigative print journalists and created a new brand of muckraking that moves at the speed of the Net and involves collaboration with readers.
One of the leading lights in muckraking online is now TPMmuckraker, a spin-off site from Josh Marshall’s Talkingpointsmemo blog that has long mixed reporting with political analysis from a liberal perspective. TPMmuckraker represents a new kind of investigative blog, with two full-time reporters, Paul Kiel and Justin Rood, who spend just about every waking hour following tips, sifting through political news and doing original reporting to uncover yet more political corruption.
Here’s how Marshall (pictured here) explained his thinking last March when he launched the new blog:
I had the idea to start this new site for a few different reasons. One was that I’d like to have a site like this that I could read. Another was that I’ve been increasingly interested in blogs as a hybrid form of journalism…I figured that with a couple hungry reporters who could devote themselves to doing this full-time and a few interns to help them, we could bust open a lot more stories, make more trouble and just have a lot more fun. So that’s what we’re going to try to do….They’ve got muck; we’ve got rakes.
And 2006 was perhaps the perfect year to launch a muckraking site, with 19 members of Congress under Federal investigation — not to mention the mushrooming scandals around lobbyist Jack Abramoff, former GOP Rep. Duke Cunningham, and former GOP Rep. Mark Foley. TPMmuckraker has helped break numerous stories and subplots, from the sweetheart home sale to Rep. Jim Ryun (R-Kansas) to the finding that every single recent contributor to Pennsylvania’s Green Party Senate candidate was a GOP supporter.
But TPMmuckraker has more than just the corruption boom in its favor. The pair of blogger/journalists who update it daily don’t have the bureaucracy or weight of a sprawling news organization on their shoulders, and are free to link to other mainstream media reports, build on them or break stories at will. Though Marshall runs daily editorial meetings with Kiel and Rood, the two work with a freedom unheard of in most newsrooms.
And while the site has largely focused on the storm of GOP scandals, it has recently proved its non-partisan chops by focusing like a laser on the possible corrupt past of Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), who is a contender for the chair of the House intelligence committee.
I spoke to Rood and Kiel in separate phone conversations, and the following is an edited version of our talk in a combined format.
Tell me a bit about your background and how the site started.
Justin Rood (pictured here): I have a more traditional background in journalism, writing for Congressional Quarterly and a publication called Government Executive and freelancing. I saw an ad on Josh’s site looking for people who wanted to cover scandals and corruption all day, and I couldn’t think of anything better.
Paul Kiel: I had worked at Harper’s magazine as an intern. It’s a pretty rigorous program there for interns. I worked on fact-checking the index, which had me calling all over, running down important and entertaining documents. I had to run around to find a letter smuggled out of an Iraqi jail, which was the hardest one I had to find…Then I went to the New School to get an MFA in non-fiction writing, because I was interested in longer form writing and essays as well as journalism.
That was when Josh was launching TPMmuckraker. I applied for the junior position, and the senior position went to Justin [Rood], who has more journalism experience. What also helped me get the job was that I had worked as a paralegal at a law firm, and I had worked on the Martha Stewart case, so I came with a good understanding of the criminal defense system. And with our subject matter, that’s been very useful, for the Abramoff scandal, for instance.
I was hired in December and we did a soft-launch with a regular roundup of corruption stories, the Daily Muck. We dump that into one column every day. I started doing that every day. Justin joined up in February. We did posts on Talkingpointsmemo, and took the training wheels off and launched the site in March.
Have you done this kind of investigative work before?
Rood: I had done investigative projects, but not the sprawling work when you think of investigative work. I had done that work before, but I was finding it to be very frustrating to be a reporter in Washington and seeing the Abramoff scandal unfold, and seeing the Cunningham [bribery] scandal unfold and not writing anything about it. I had complained to my editor at one point, I felt like being alive during Woodstock and not actually having gone. How do you explain to your kids that you were right there when it happened and you didn’t cover any of it?
How does your editorial process work on a regular basis? Is there an office or do you work virtually?
Rood: I work virtually. Talkingpointsmemo has a headquarters in New York City where Josh and Paul work, and they have some interns and staffers. There are three main sites: Talkingpointsmemo, TPM Muckraker and TPM Cafe. TPM Cafe has Election Central, which takes a lot of time and manpower to keep up to date. I’m down in DC, I work out of my apartment and around town. We stay in touch online, and all the editing and publication obviously is online.
How does editing work? Does someone edit your stuff before it goes online?
Rood: It’s definitely a different editing process than what I was used to at other publications. For the most part, Paul and I work through posts and talk about them as colleagues. A lot of that is done in an informal way — ‘That looks important, you should move that up in your post’ as well as the basic copy editing, making sure the links are accurate. If either of us have any question about the accuracy of a statement or other routine problems, we take it to Josh.
Other than that, he’s not editing everything that goes up?
Rood: No. We all are online and chatting at all hours of the day and evening. Questions and concerns are raised that way. For the most part, it’s instant messaging. If there’s an issue that requires more than a simple answer, then we’ll do it on the phone. We have regular editorial meetings by phone on a daily basis.
Is it a full time job or contract?
Rood: It’s definitely full time. More full time than any other job I’ve ever done. As for hours worked, whatever it is, it’s less than what Josh does. I’d say it was between 50 and 60 hours per week, and being on call for all the other waking hours. There’s the nervous tic of constantly checking one’s Blackberry for all the dozen or so alerts you get from tipsters and editors and colleagues.
I saw that they ask people to donate to the site and that there are ads. How is that working out as a business? How is the site funded?
Kiel (pictured here): There was an online fundraiser. Josh had been covering the Abramoff scandal as it was blowing up, and he wanted to do more reporting to move that story forward and organize all the stories popping up about this scandal and the Duke Cunningham [bribery] scandal. He didn’t want to get monopolized by that subject but he thought that it was important.
He set up a PayPal link, and it was all readers donating to help start it. He did the same thing when he launched TPM Cafe. His goal was to get enough money to pay Justin and me. The site’s been doing very well. We’re getting ad revenues for our site, so it’s a mixture of donations and ads.
Rood: My checks don’t bounce. I take it that it’s working well.
So that initial funding was to cover your salaries for a year. What happens after that? Will he have to go back to fundraising again?
Kiel: No, that was just to get everything off the ground, but now we’re coasting on ad revenues.
How much effect do you think you had on the election results?
Kiel: We have some readers who believe we were the reason that people thought corruption was such a big issue. That’s overstating it a lot. We do know that a lot of journalists read us. As far as that goes, there’s a strong case to be made that we helped the stories get covered. It’s good to have a place on the web where people know they can go to stay on top of these stories.
The Social Security stuff that Josh did on TPM was formative in terms of what the impact of the site could be. There was also the reporting on the robocall stuff [where GOP-funded groups called with recorded messages with negative info on Democratic candidates]. There’s no question that that wouldn’t have been such an issue if we hadn’t covered it the way that we did. Now there is legislation in a number of states, and there’s legislation being introduced by [Sen. Barack] Obama that [Sen. Harry] Reid is promising to pass among his first 10 bills to make illegal what the NRCC [National Republican Congressional Committee] did. We’re very proud of that.
How do you compare this type of reporting to what you were doing in the past? It doesn’t seem like the traditional investigative reporting style, because you’re posting frequently and depending on tips for collaboration. How do you see this as being different?
Rood: I would look at it in three different aspects: the reporting, the writing and the interaction between readers and reporters. As far as the reporting goes, it’s pretty standard stuff, with the significant difference being that traditional reporters and editors don’t consider us to be competition. They don’t consider us to be a traditional publication, so there’s a much greater sense of cameraderie among other political reporters and it’s not unusual for us to be in touch if a scandal breaks in Nevada or Rhode Island at whatever newspaper or television station and talk with them. It works well, because as well as our own reporting, we’re keeping readers up to date on the local papers and local media outlets, so they’re getting more national exposure based on what we write about them.
Kiel: We talk to lobbyists, we get tips from the Hill, we get anonymous tips, which reporters have been getting as long as there’s been reporting. Our tips will come from very astute people, who are just reading their newspaper and something doesn’t sound right to them. On the average, we get about 150 to 200 emails per day. A lot of them are reader thoughts, but you get a lot of tips that way from citizens who just keep on top of things.
We couldn’t have done the robocalls story if we didn’t have readers all over the country who not only had telephones being called with robocalls, but they also read their local media. We can’t read every local newspaper. A story of that scope we kept on top of by virtue of people sending us tips, people watching their local media. We were checking SEC records to see where Republicans were spending their campaign money, we called the campaigns. We don’t rely solely on readers, we don’t rely solely on sources — it’s a mix of things.
So you’re also becoming more of an aggregator than just a reporter?
Rood: Exactly. And another thing that’s changed about this is that it’s so broad that it’s a constant balancing act — not just day to day, but minute to minute — on whether you’re going to be working on an original story or covering something that somebody else is writing. That’s the reporting piece of it. The writing part of it, as a blog, it’s broken down more into smaller incremental bits of news. So rather than launching an investigation and going six months or even three weeks before you publish something, we’ll start writing as we’re figuring things out.
The writing style is much more conversational, and you’re writing as if you’re in partnership with the readers. You’re constantly reminded of who you work for, which is very different than being a reporter in the traditional model where you spend so much time — I used to do this — having dinner and coffee with your sources. It’s good to be in touch with the people you’re actually writing for.
So you don’t feel like you have to meet with sources as much in person?
Rood: I still meet with people in person, it’s just…that brings me to the third point, which is the interaction with readers. It’s just so much more immediate to people and they’re incredibly willing to share their opinions. And they’re much more collaborative. People are constantly sending along tips, whether it’s personal observations or information buried on some website or it’s context that someone would only know if they worked in Washington 25 years ago with the chief of staff of a lobbyist that’s mentioned in the story. That’s tremendous, it’s wonderful.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing incrementally instead of having a big report at the end?
Rood: I think it’s just different, and not only is there room for both, I think there’s a need for both. We serve an audience that wants to know about every development in key scandals and they want to know every tidbit when it happens. Whereas a major newspaper covering a scandal might report on it once or twice a week, there are smaller stories that they’ll roll up when they check back into that scandal. On the other hand, the set-back pieces that give perspective on the characters of the scandal and what it means in the larger sense are crucial.
Who do you view as competition?
Kiel: We view the newspapers as competitors. We try to get the stories before they do. We view other blogs as competitors, but at the same time, we’re happy to build on the work on newspapers and other blogs. That’s the thing that’s neat about this, we don’t have to own the story. There might be an angle of a newspaper story that we can knock off a bit or give a different angle and move forward a little bit. There’s so many different types of stories that we do. We’ll do a story that covers everything from A to Z, and then we’ll do nugget stories. We might say, ‘The Washington Post came out with this story yesterday, but this is an angle that wasn’t covered in that story.’
The papers are much more loathe to be that candid that they’re working off the work of another paper.
Rood: I don’t have a good answer about our competition. On one hand, I’ll see that we got scooped on a story by a small blog in a certain Congressional district where the scandal is taking place. And then sometimes we’ll see a story that we broke show up in the New York Times or picked up by the Associated Press. At the same time, a lot of other bloggers and mainstream reporters are associates of ours, and we regularly check in and work with them on developing and following stories.
I think that’s what we’re moving towards, and that’s a good thing. Anybody who gets it first and gets it right wins. We’ve had to fight our battles for recognition for stories picked up by mainstream publications without any acknowledgement that we broke them. But I used to work for mainstream publications so I know that happens all the time anyways! [laughs] But I think we’ll see more sites come about where amateur journalists learn to work with professional standards.
On the conservative side, it seems like the investigative work is more ad hoc.
Rood: While Josh has an ideological bent — he’s clearly identified as a progressive, liberal blogger — we consider ourselves non-partisan. It would be nice to see a similar site come out of a conservative blogger. There are lots of people who do stuff similar to what we do in different ways.
There’s been some excellent investigative work done on conservative blogs, some of which we participated in, such as the unmasking of the secret Senator, the blog reporter’s day in sun. It was the secret hold on the Coburn-Obama bill, and it was great. I think the appetite for doing this type of work is huge and I’d like to see more of it, and we will. The question is how fast the blogosphere will professionalize and how fast we’ll see amateur bloggers adhering to standards that professionals do.
What do you see in the future as far as investigative work? Will there be more partisan work, more non-profit, more hybrid efforts of amateurs and pros?
Kiel: Unfortunately newspapers are cutting staffs, which is unfortunate. As far as citizen journalism, we think that’s great. We have TPM Cafe with reader blogs, and there are a number of stories that we’ve picked up from blogs like the Kos Diaries or TPM Cafe.
There’s two issues, one of them is the legitimacy issue for the outlet. That’s an issue for citizen journalism. The problem is that you have to get people to take you seriously. If you’re working from a public document that’s reliable, then that’s one thing. But if you’re a private individual working on your blog and you have to depend on anonymous sources to get the story out, [the problem is] nobody knows who you are and no one’s going to take the story seriously.
I don’t believe in the ivory tower idea, but legitimacy is hard to win. People value news outlets for their legitimacy, which is very hard to do. So that’s a problem for the citizen journalism movement. So there will be a reader blog, and we’ll gladly cite them as a source for a tip and we’ll report it out. As a blog, we’ve received some credibility from mainstream journalists and then they’ll cite us, so maybe it will work as a chain or something like that.
There’s also the time issue. We work more than 40 hours per week, and it takes time to report. That leads to professionalism in journalism. There are readers of ours who I don’t understand… they spend all their time going through lobbying disclosure forms and it’s inspiring for sure. They’re just muckraking, which is their hobby. I wouldn’t do it in my free time.
Rood: I think we’ll definitely see more and not less from all quarters. I think some excellent investigative work comes out of partisanship. I don’t have a problem with that if it’s executed in an ethical way and with professional standards. You heard about ABC’s The Blotter? We should see more mainstream media moving into blogs. It’s cheap to produce, it’s incredibly fast, and it’s wonderfully organizable. Hopefully we’ll see more coming out from partisan groups, and more coming out from non-partisan groups. What’s exciting to me is all the tools that are coming out for professionals and amateurs as far as covering politicians.
The opportunities that exist to dig up the new story are huge, to find the next Duke Cunningham. And our own readers are becoming very sophisticated in doing everything from business look-ups to property records. It was the old days before I was even around when you had to go down to the county office to pull up the records. Now so much of it is online and it’s going to be even more so in the future. I’m horribly excited about the whole thing, I’m horribly excited about blogs as a type of news publication, and about what will be an explosion of reporting by amateurs and from all quarters.
How will things change after the election?
Kiel: Josh has announced some expansion plans, not very specifically. He is looking to add a blog, the subject of which is under wraps, that he’d like to launch by the beginning of next year. We’d like to add some editorial staff. Right now we are four people, and Josh does all the advertising stuff, he wears about six hats. I spend some time doing photo editing, some HTML. We all do everything, I clean the bathroom. [laughs] It’s one of the great things because I know what’s going on everywhere, but I’m also supposedly reporting stories all the time.
Rood: I don’t think scandals will change after the election. I would turn the question around and say, ‘Are we worried about running out of scandals?’ and I’d say no. That’s probably the most sound part of our business model. If we’re put out of business because Washington cleans up its act, I will consider that the best layoff I’ve ever received.
What do you think about the work done at TPMmuckraker? Do you find it to be valuable in tracking government corruption? What other muckraking blogs do you read? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
NOTE: I’ll be taking off the rest of the week to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S. There’s a lot to be thankful for this holiday season, but I’m probably most thankful for having such loyal readers who have shared so much knowledge here on the blog. Thanks!