Joshua Micah Marshall is an American Polk Award-winning journalist and liberal blogger who founded Talking Points Memo, which The New York Times Magazine called "one of the most popular and most respected sites" in the blogosphere. He currently presides over a network of sites that operate under the TPM Media banner and average 400,000-page views every weekday and 750,000 unique visitors every month. Marshall and his work have been profiled by The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times, National Public Radio, The New York Times Magazine, the Columbia Journalism Review, Bill Moyers Journal, and GQ. Hendrik Hertzberg, a senior editor at The New Yorker, compares Marshall to the influential founders of Time magazine. "Marshall is in the line of the great light-bulb-over-the-head editors. He’s like Briton Hadden or Henry Luce. He’s created something new."
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I am the editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com. I know a little about politics, publishing and history. Ask me whatever you want.
Okay, thanks everyone. My hour is up plus a few minutes. I didn't get to answer every questions. But I think I answered most. Thanks so much for being readers, for those of you who are readers. And thanks for your interest. I'll try to follow up on some of my answers in editor's blog posts. Thanks and goodbye for now.
One of my favorite things about TPM is its frequent coverage of fringe figures and movements. For example:
Charles C. Johnson Openly Wonders If He'll Be Assassinated Over Cochran Coverage
Feds Seeking $7M Worth Of Privately-Minted 'Liberty Dollars'
Can you talk a little about what you enjoy about these stories? Who are some of your favorite characters from the past few years?
Not even sure where to start on which are my favorites. But yeah, I love these stories. And the interest and focus ultimately comes from me - in the sense that it originates there and over time I've hired great people who share this interest and fascination. At some level it's simply entertaining. But on another I think we learn a great deal about our country and our culture from fringe figures and movements that are almost by definition muted and pushed to the margins in mainstream news coverage. I'm glad you also like these stories.
Cosigning your first point. I loved the more cerebral left-leaning take on politics, but now it's obnoxiously clickbaity. I'm sure it generates more clicks, but my respect for the journalistic integrity of the blog has declined over the past couple of years.
I appreciate your feedback. I think 'clickbait' is a pretty self-referential term. I generally applies to things a particular reader doesn't like. I would note that one of the first big stories that TPM got notice for, way back in 2001 was the Condit scandal, which was the ultimate tabloid scandal. So I have always thought we can do both things, have thoughtful, compelling analysis and raucous tabloidy coverage of scandals. (And no, I do not see tabloid as a bad word.) But it's also true that TPM is a different beast than it was when I ran it alone. It's what I wanted to create. But it is different.
Been a reader and a big fan for a long time, I know plenty of people will ask questions about the election/what's ahead, so I wanted to go off in two slightly different directions with my questions:
1) I currently see the Democratic Party as having two major problems. The first is a policy problem - there are plenty of exciting policy proposals that live on the left, but rather than forward these agendas Democrats have largely been held to just defending the President's record, and offering vague guarantees of protecting existing government programs. While this is disheartening, it seems like a pretty easy calculation to change, and one that will happen over time.
More damning to me is how bad Democrats have been at what you've coined as "bitch-slap politics". Around the country Republicans hit opponents on all kinds of personal issues, and Democrats appear to completely flail in the response. It seems to me that this kind of politics will only become more and more influential - can you imagine a Democratic party that is able to come out on top in these exchanges?
2) I've found TPM Prime to be a really exciting subscription model, and one of the things I have loved over the years is you and your company's willingness to explore new platforms as a medium to both share content but also to engage with your audience. What are other new areas you can imagine (or are planning) TPM moving into, be it in 2015 or beyond?
Hi. Thanks for the question. On the first, I'm not sure when this will get better for the Dems. But what I think is important to focus on is how the problem isn't just personal - to do with the individual candidates. It's characterological about the party itself and also tied to the nature of the Dem coalition. The GOP is a more coherent part. It's also more authority driven. This makes this kind of approach to politics inherently more challenging for Democrats. Doesn't mean it's not possible at all. Just more challenging. I'll try to address this more in a post.
On point two, thanks so much. Really glad you like Prime and we're going to make it a lot better and fuller in 2015. We have a lot of new stuff coming in 2015. One of the biggest is a new section that will debut in January that's our first foray into broader coverage of American culture and society beyond the fairly narrow confines of 'politics'. So stay tuned and thank you.
I've been a long time reader. I've greatly enjoyed your personal feedback on the political climate. You and Brian Beutler are two of my favorite reads.
My question relates to the Edward Snowden leaks. When the Edward Snowden leaks happened a year and a half ago or so, it seemed like your opinion was one of indifference or of support of the extent of the NSA spying. Or you were against the release of information (I may be misremembering this due to how long ago it happened).
Now that some time has passed, what is your opinion today regarding Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks?
Thanks in advance
I think my position on this was and is a bit more ambivalent than it has sometimes been portrayed as being. The post of mine that generated the most heat wasn't really pro- or con- Snowden but my effort to explain people's very different reactions to what Snowden did. And trying to make sense of the mix of beliefs and commitments that informed my own reaction was definitely part of that.
It's a hard question to fully address in a short reply. But on balance I would say that an act can be both moral and meritorious but still a crime and a serious one.
I’m a long time reader of TPM and at least used to be a big fan and I have a bunch of questions about the site. I can’t help but notice that TPM has gone the same way as other “news” websites and has been having more and more misleading, sensationalized headlines. Especially from some of your reporters. cough Sahil cough Between that and the lack of copy editing it is getting hard to be as big of fan of TPM as I used to. I mean you routinely have articles that attribute quotes to the wrong person just from carelessness. So my question is why has this happened and what can be done to turn it around? Is this the inevitable future of journalism? Has TPM Prime not made enough money to help move away from a click based revenue stream?
Also about what percentage of revenue is from TPM Prime vs. ads? I was going to join TPM prime, but as a student I wanted to wait until the monthly plan came out so I could try it before purchasing a year’s subscription. I was about to say fuck it and give it a try, but then I started noticing the decrease in quality at TPM, so decided it wasn’t worth it. And with the more and more invasive ads, you guys are the site that finally made me get AdBlock. So now I am just another free loader complaining about how your product sucks!
PS, the new comments suck. Trying to follow a conversation without threading is horrible.
I'm heartened by your critique because it suggests that we can maintain as readers people who seem to loathe everything about the site. And that's a good sign for our continuing growth. On the specifics, there is always room for improvement. And for us typos are a continuing issue we deal with. The speed at which we publish is part of the reason but it's not an excuse. The rest of your criticisms though range from false to trollish to ridiculous. On the point about Prime, it accounts for about 1/10th of the company's annual revenue.
Do you think Andrew Sullivan's subscription business model is a one-off or the future of online publishing? Can ads, "native" ads, sponsored content, etc really sustain the nytimes, washpost, etc in the future? In short, are we nearing the end of freemium news content online?
A lot of different publications and a lot of different models. In general, I think the governing reality of digital publishing is the oversupply of publications. That governs everything. In general, I think more and more digital publications will decide that some level of revenue from readers - though probably not most of the revenue - is necessary. Not in all cases but in a lot of cases.
Hey Josh, longtime TPM reader. You are my second go-to site every day, after Political Wire.
Ever think about expanding your site's health care journalistic footprint? There's a lot of interesting things going on policy-wise that I think a lot of people would be interested in knowing about.
One more small question: could you bring back the ability to scroll through the Livewire? Things tend to fall off of there after about two hours during a busy day and I used to rely on the Livewire in keeping me up to speed.
I'll see about Livewire. On healthcare, we may be able to. There are a few new things we have coming in 2015 which will add in that respect. But we're a small organization. Very small. Something like 23 people. And though we did a little outside investment in the past, I have no intention of doing that in the future. So we have to be very judicious in what we spend on. And we need what we spend on to generate revenues and profits we can plow into doing new things. That doesn't mean we can't do new things of course. TPM's finances have improved dramatically over the last couple years. It just means we have to be very judicious and we need what we produce to have an audience and a way to support itself. Having said all that, health care policy and health care economics is one of the most important issues in the country and will continue to be for a long time. So it's an issue we will continue to prioritize.
Hi Mr. Marshall. Big fan. Got a couple of questions:
1) You never seem to do much in the way of large media appearances, whether that be more serious things (The Daily Show) or shows angled more comedically (CNN, for example). Do i just fail to catch you when your on, or is that more deliberate on your part? Do you just not get invited because TPM isn't cool, or is it more a decision to not go on the press much?
2) A lot of the coverage of Ted Cruz seems to emphasize him as some type of almost cold blooded, hyper ambitious, nearly reptilian Machiavelli, as well as focusing on what seems to be an inordinate influence in the house conference and Senate chambers. I know you have some passing interaction with the man, and my question is; do you believe he's as influential in the house, or as ambitious as he comes off as? Do you feel a lot of his more partisan acts are designed to bolster his potential presidential run, or are the actions of a true believer?
3) Have you read any of the Perlstein novels ( The Invisible bridge, Nixonland, The Goldwater one, etc)? If you have, do you see any direct (or even indirect) parallels between those books and our current political situation?
4) How much do you buy into the whole "Demographics is Destiny"/ Inevitable leftward march to utopia that seems to be a very prominent opinion in lefty circles?
5) Is there any way to get TPM to stop use 'trolling' in it's titles? Is it just that you like the word? It's a cute word and all, but Josh; it's in like every other headline. What's the deal?
On media appearances, it's mainly me. I devote a huge amount of time to running TPM (of course along with a lot of other people). And I generally turn down media appearances because it's almost a full time job in itself. I kind of enjoy doing it. But it's very time consuming.
On Cruz, I think both machiavellian but also a true believer.
On demographics is destiny, unfortunately it's not. Democrats have a lot going in their favor in the general direction of the country. But as they did just after the Clinton administration, demographics aren't automatic. They don't in themselves create a politics. So I do not believe in the inevitability. You build a politics on top of demographic realities that can be more or less friendly. But you have to build it.
How did you develop such a thick skin on Twitter? I know the very nature of opinion writing invites criticism, but I see some of your exchanges with people, and I think I would just wither on the vine with some of the vitriol that gets hurled your way.
As you say, you have to develop a very thick skin to be in this line of work. And I have one. But I am by no means immune to the toxicity of it. And it gets pretty intense on twitter. Sometimes I'm not immune. I just don't show it. Sometimes I just have to turn it off for a while. But again, I've been doing this for fifteen years. You get accustomed to it.
Hi Josh, I'm a longtime reader of TPM, and I value the insight and information provided by your website.
Thanks for all you do!
Our current budget doesn't really make it possible to operate outside of DC and NYC. But hopefully in the future. And I've wanted to open a west coast operation for a long time. On the Dems thrashing in 2014, there's a lot that was cooked in - running in hard states, a 6th year of a president's term, a series of weird developments which soured the public mood, ISIS, Ebola, etc. etc. The two points I would make it that positions aren't a politics. Individual policy positions don't cut it. You can get agreement on those and not have them win elections. You need a broader politics, viewpoint and approach to the country's problems that those positions fit into. And the Dems struggle with that, and for a lot of reasons, some good, some not so good.
A bunch of different things fit into what happened. But the one thing that stands out to me is this. We talk a lot about inequality. But the real issue is that most people are not getting ahead at all. That means that all the good economic numbers do not really resonate. And the truth is that Democrats don't have a clear set of policies to change that. It's not clear ANYONE has a good set of policies to change that. These are trends that are at work to different degrees all over the world. So it's a tough issue. That leads to a level of economic discontent that is very hard for Democrats. And the answers to it are not easy. It goes way beyond poor organization or messaging.
Hi Josh. Thanks for doing an AMA. TPM is such a central part of my daily reading (and has been since the internet's Jurassic era) that it's great to have the opportunity to just say thank you for that.
My question is, what issue have you personally most changed your mind about over the years? It seems difficult to believe that the various experiences of starting a family, growing your business, monitoring the political process so closely for so long, and so on, that all of your views have transmitted unchanged from the start to now. Where have you sensed the biggest change?
Again, thanks for everything and continued good luck to you.
Huh, that's a really good question. And I'm not sure I have a terribly good answer. I would say that my personal priorities have changed a great deal, which is probably expected and normal when one goes from late twenties to mid-forties and has a family and a business. I think one thing over the years running TPM was that I started off with a reflexively negative attitude toward much of the left. And I still have some of that. In many ways, I've always been more middle of the road than a lot of my readers. Some of that is just temperamental, life experience whatever. But I have learned for many different reasons to have more respect, more sense of fellow-work and values, with people to the left who I do not necessarily agree with.
I guess the other point is that I have become more aware, more attuned to the inherent damage of US military action abroad. I don't mean knowing more about people being killed or physical damage. I basically knew that all along. But I mean the international scar tissue for lack of a better word created by military action. This doesn't make me a pacifist or a dove. But it makes me more skeptical of military action. And that's probably one reason I've been more sympathetic to Obama's reluctance to get involved in more conflicts abroad.
Josh, i'm a big fan and have read you for years. Thank you for all your astute and knowledgeable insights.
Having a very close-up look at our political system for all these years, and with recent events like the disastrous midterms and Citizens United etc., how do you avoid becoming cynical and pessimistic?
I notice you respond to reader letters frequently. While I find it highly commendable, I'm curious how many letters do you read a day? I fear what your inbox must look like after a big event like the midterms.
We get hundreds of emails a day and I read lots, sometimes all of them personally. But I should note that when I say read it's often more like skim, iterating down through our inbox, looking at headlines, skimming ones that seem interesting, reading some in-depth. But reader emails are a key, almost central part of how I approach running the site. I'm not able to respond to very many. But at least eyeballing the great majority is something I do. And at a management level we make it a big priority for staff to read them as well. Because more sets of eyes will catch more things, etc.
On cynicism, we're on a boat. If the boat has problems, it's still our boat. And it's better than being in the sea.
Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, voter fraud is considered a serious problem in many parts of the US. It's so serious, apparently, that states have passed laws that require voters to show an approved government ID to cast their ballot. These laws have the stated intent of preventing fraud, but the actual effect is lower turnout in key demographics that happen to usually not vote for Republicans.
Do you think the legislators and govorners who have passed and signed these Voter ID laws are sincere in their intentions and beliefs or are they cynically trying to manipulate the electorate?
I want to believe that it's the former and that they're just dumb, not evil.
You can get yourself to believe a lot if you really want to. A mix of ignorance and bad faith.
I am 36, so my direct political awareness is basically Clinton's first term on. One of the most dispiriting things about watching Washington over the last 20 years or so is the ratcheting up of delays and obstruction tactics over the years (the fillibuster, the Senate's slip system, chaos among the House Republican caucus to be able to negotiate anything with the president, etc.). Most of the blame, but certainly not all, laid at the feet of the Republican Party. Are you fundamentally pessimistic or optimistic that Congress will figure a way out of this mess? If you were given the opportunity to be a Congressional leader on the Democratic side, what would be your long game to improve the functioning of Congress and get better policy outcomes there?
Very big question I'm not sure I have a good or short answer to. I think the closest I can come to answering it here is to say I think the procedural stuff we look at is just symptoms. The country is moving through a period of intense division. So I don't think the issue is the structure of our government. It's much more substantive and deep.
I was one of those professors who mailed the flyers in Montana.
I've basically totally dropped out of TV over the last few years for reasons I don't totally understand myself. The last shows I watched regularly were a few HBO shows and a slew of silly reality shows my wife and I watched.
Aside from things I read for directly doing my job here I never read anything about politics. I only read history and never recent history. I'll post a list of books I've liked recently.
I or TPM pays for the NYT and I think the WSJ. I tend to read people more than publications. But to everyone reading, don't be like that. Read TPM.
In terms of the business, what are the lowest and highest points for you as a publisher as Talking Points Memo has grown over the years? Once you started ramping up, was there ever a dark moment when it looked like TPM wouldn't be able to survive much longer?
I'm a pretty conservative businessman. I plan a lot and try to have three or four fallbacks at any one time - that's served me and the company well. There have definitely been dark points and one point in particular when I had to seriously rethink how I was approaching running the business and reprioritize. But I've been blessed with a lot of good luck and a lot of great employees. And today TPM's financial health is better than it has ever been on every important measure. Doesn't mean things are perfect. We're still small and have tight budgets. But I'm very optimistic about where we are and where we're going.
Josh, how do you see the Cruz caucus behaving during 2015? Will they accede to McConnell and party discipline, or will they -- and particularly Cruz himself as he gears up for a presidential run -- force confrontation and chaos for its own sake?
Relatedly: what are the contours of the next debt ceiling hostage negotiation? Did Obama successfully re-bottle the debt ceiling genie last time?
With Cruz, I think it's all about him. Both because it's all about him but I think in his worldview, principle falls into line with whatever is up with him.
Hi Josh, I'm a huge fan of your work. Thank you for doing this AMA.
On your twitter feed you often retweet a lot of the crazy replies you get from all sorts of right wing trolls. You engage with them from time to time as well. Just reading through some of these conversations, I feel stressed and anxious and awful about the world. I could never do it, knowing how awful some people are. If I were in your shoes I would never even engage. How do you deal with that stuff and compartmentalize it and not lose your faith in everything ever while still confronting people?
One thing, you have to develop a very thick skin. And I have, though in a lot of ways I'm a fairly sensitive person. Another part of it is that the toxicity gets to me too. I just compartmentalize it, though not always successfully. And in some ways what comes out there is the aggressive, pugnacious part of me that's a basic part of my personality. So in some ways it's that weakness in me (temper, aggressiveness) that makes me engage. At the end of the day, thick skin and walling off the private part of yourself.
What's up with an LA, NY, DC, etc city beat? I would love to have a TPM take on local issues in major metro areas.
Also, what about a social media tip feed or instagram feed? Livestream reporting? (I saw some amazing live feeds from Ferguson, MO recently.)
I'm not talking local school board meetings necessarily. But honestly many macro issues originate and get going on the micro level.
I would love to do this. And we've actively considered it. To some extent, it's still under consideration. But the economics of doing it are challenging. But I'm very into doing it if we can/could find a way to make it work.
Josh, I have been reading TPM for years and really appreciate your reporting and take on politics. My biggest complaint about TPM is that the quality of the comments has seemed to take a huge nose-dive in the last year or two. Several years ago, I greatly enjoyed reading the comments readers would make, as they were, fairly smart and insightful. Now, I feel like the comments add very little to the discussion and are mostly just cheer-leading or jeering. Have you noticed this and, if so, do you have any thoughts as to why this happened?
That's a tough one. Obviously, the comments are to a significant extent outside our control. The big change we've made of late is to make drive-by commenting a little more difficult to try to cut down on flame-wars and rants. I think the better conversations happen in TPMPrime, in The Hive, because that's a more dedicated group that has a lot of incentive to keep the conversation thoughtful and civil. That's not an upsell for Prime just something inherent about conversations that are limited to core readers. But the point you make definitely hits on a key challenge we face.
Hey Josh, long time reader first time caller.
Do you have any regrets running the "Campbell Brown Is Getting The Same Treatment Michelle Rhee Got" opinion piece on TPM?
I don't. Not because I agree with it or disagree with it. But I want the people who run TPMCafe to be casting about for a wide range of pieces.
What impact do you think the republicans having a Senate majority will have on us?
Pretty limited effect if it's overturned in 2016.
I think at least part of the reason is how they kept switching their comment system several times, which frustrates casual users and so the place becomes a circlejerk. Not to mention the current comments system is completely awful. Why didn't they stick with Disqus?
There were several reasons we didn't stick with Disqus. But the principle one is that we wanted to have our own proprietary login and we didn't want to be part of their data harvesting, which is the centerpiece of their business model. Having our own login, which was critical to launching TPMPrime and our discussion forums isn't something Disqus simply wouldn't allow to work. But they force you to use their system and harvest your users data.
I've been a loyal TPM reader for years now. You folks are pretty much my #1 trusted political news source.
You seem to have strong opinions on issues and a strong worldview, yet your coverage is generally quite fair without indulging in the bullshit "all sides have validity" debates that make CNN an unwatchable mess.
Is a lot of your time spent reflecting on your obviously passionate views and not having them interfere with editing a widely respected news source?
Your editorials are not usually polemic, but they are very strongly opinionated. From the outside, I can't imagine how you can turn on that dispassionate reporting about racists/idiots/liars without losing your fucking mind.
PS I enjoy your endless Twitter troll engagement far too much...
I would say i probably enjoy the twitter troll engagement too much too.
On editing TPM, it's central to what we do that we always want to be crystal clear with readers when we're expressing an opinion or even advocating a position and when we're reporting news. The internal structure of the organization is build around preserving that distinction. But we try to make it clear even in individual pieces. It's about having a fundamental honesty with readers, being clear when you're doing this or that.
As for difficulty, me and David Kurtz and the other key people in the organization are really fundamentally news people. I have the luxury and privilege of being able to express my opinions basically whenever I want, which is truly a great privilege. But opinions and viewpoints always have to be challenged by facts, new news. So my own personal sense of viewpoint and fact is one that I'm happy to keep them separate. Everybody's assumptions and unexplored biases need to be examined. Always. No one should be excluded from that. But if I thought we were knowingly misleading readers or tipping the scales I could not live with myself. I'd close down the site.