Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight



April 23, 2003:

Here's what I think

Political pundit Joshua Marshall opines on his blog, Talking Points Memo (http://talkingpointsmemo.com)

A.J. Liebling once noted that "freedom of the press is limited to those who own one." Joshua Micah Marshall '91 is demonstrating that this old saw is growing increasingly irrelevant.

Since November 2000, Marshall has published Talking Points Memo, a frequently updated "blog" site — Internet shorthand for "web log" — that gives his personal analysis and spin about current events and politics. Though web-traffic figures are notoriously slippery, Marshall's site now attracts as many as 20,000 unique visitors a day — up from 3,000 one year ago — and is quickly moving up the charts of most-visited political websites.

According to the site Alexa.com, which measures website traffic, Marshall's talkingpointsmemo.com has gained ground on two of its models and competitors — andrewsullivan.com and kausfiles.com — and has also gained on such institutional political-opinion sites as The New Republic Online and National Review Online.

Not even Marshall, 34, could have predicted that Talking Points Memo would take off so quickly. Marshall, unlike the media world's most attention-grabbing pundits, is no fire-breathing conservative. Nor, for that matter, is he a fire-breathing liberal. He readily admits to being "a Clinton fan" whose ideology is "center-left." His tone, while sometimes pointed, has a far lower wattage than Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly.

Equally striking, when Marshall established the site, he possessed almost no name recognition — even within his own Washington media universe. His only real job in journalism had been as an editor with The American Prospect, a liberal magazine that boasts a modest number of subscribers.

Perhaps most impressively, Marshall has managed to build a popular media property for literally peanuts — epitomizing how easy and inexpensive the Internet has made projects that once had high barriers to entry.

Marshall's only expense is $25 a month for access to a web server, and he's able to carry pretty much his entire office — a laptop, cellphone and web camera — in a shoulder bag. That's an infinitely lower financial burden than that shouldered by most opinion magazines, which require editorial staffs, office space, and print runs — items pricey enough to condemn most political publications to long-term financial losses.

"I think what people like about blogs is that they're updated frequently," Marshall says in an interview at a Washington Starbucks outlet where he does much of his work. "There's also a sense that it's one person speaking. You don't have to talk through the impersonal wall of conventional journalism — blogs have a personality, and readers have a greater degree of intimacy with the author."

Marshall is well acquainted with his readers: He gets 100 to 150 emails a day from them. From anecdotal evidence, Marshall's readers appear to be political junkies who mostly live outside Washington — "a mix of professionals, lawyers, and academics," he says. "They must be logging on at work, because there's a big dropoff on the weekends." During the week, he says, traffic picks up at 9 a.m., peaks between 12 noon and 1 p.m., and then glides down until the close of business.

Some of Marshall's bigger splashes have come from his attempts to puncture Republican allegations of voter-registration fraud in last fall's tightly contested South Dakota senate race, as well as refutations of charges that Clinton White House staffers committed vandalism before turning their offices over to the Bush administration.

But the attention peaked last December, when Marshall shone a spotlight on pro-segregation comments made by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. — comments that forced Lott to retire from his leadership post amid a media frenzy. The mainstream media initially ignored the story, but coverage in blog sites — especially Marshall's — eventually snowballed. In the midst of the controversy, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote that Marshall "is must reading for the politically curious, and, more than anyone else, is responsible for making Trent Lott's offensive remarks the issue they deserve to be."

If Marshall's greatest hits seem pro-Democratic, that's only part of the story. Marshall takes pride in being unpredictable. "One reason I left the Prospect was that there was a strong political orthodoxy — my politics weren't the magazine's," Marshall said. "I wanted an outlet where I didn't have ideological oversight, and where I could write more freely, with a more personal element."

Specifically, Marshall is more hawkish on foreign policy than many Democrats. In fact, Marshall took substantial heat from his readers for taking a more aggressive stance against Iraq than many Democrats were comfortable with. (Marshall has since become disillusioned with the Bush Administration's handling of the confrontation.)

Unlike other political websites that mostly link readers to previously published reports, perhaps with a snarky line or two of authorial comment, Marshall makes a point of utilizing fresh reporting for his items, which he typically posts one to four times a day. Marshall is able to do this by leveraging his work as a contract columnist and freelance writer for such magazines as The Hill and The Washington Monthly.

"What I try to keep in mind is that — obviously — I'm not a news source of record," he says. Especially now, with the war against Iraq underway, "there are obvious news sources to go to if you want to find out what's happening moment to moment. What I try to look at are things that are not getting attention. I write about the issues I think are important."

Marshall, who grew up near Claremont, California, majored in history at Princeton and — in retrospect, somewhat surprisingly — took part in no extracurricular activities either in journalism or in politics. After earning his degree, Marshall moved on to Brown University to earn a doctorate in history. (This spring, Marshall finished his dissertation — about 17th century relations between Indians and colonial in America.)

As a graduate student, Marshall found that he liked, but did not love, teaching. So when the opportunity to switch to journalism arrived, he took it. "When you're an academic historian, you write from a descriptive perspective, not a proscriptive one," he says. Marshall's blog site allows him to be as proscriptive as he likes.

By now, Talking Points Memo is earning a "non-negligible" amount of money from reader donations — not enough for Marshall to live on (he relies on his freelance work for that) but enough to cover his modest costs many times over. More important, Marshall's decision to establish a website has left him with a far wider reach and renown than almost any other project he could have taken on.

"In the middle of last year, I considered shutting down the site, not because I didn't like it, but because I was wondering whether I was investing my time correctly," he says. "I wasn't sure, because doing the site meant doing less long-form magazine journalism. But over time, I decided that it was a good investment of my time. Now, I can't imagine any reason why I would stop working on the site."