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 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
"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
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
"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
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."