People still read news, but the howls of pain from the business grow always louder; the news about the news is all layoffs and paywalls. I’d like to offer a cheery counter-example.

Let’s start with a boring corporate press release: TPM Ad Sales Revenue Up 88% In First Half of 2011. “TPM” stands for Talking Points Memo. I’m a fan. Like most people who find politics and policy interesting, I’ve enjoyed the last few years of US politics. In particular I’ve been watching America’s self-induced “debt-ceiling” meltdown with a sick fascination. And like most people with interesting jobs, I don’t have that much time to invest in being a politics junkie.

So, what I do is read TPM.

Back Story · TPM started as the personal blogging vehicle of Josh Marshall; I followed a link from somewhere to the blog back in 2003 or so and was pretty well instantly hooked.

So were a lot of other people, and several times a year on TPM there are stories about how they’re opening a new office or hiring a new reporter or whatever.

Also, within a few weeks of my starting at Google, I noticed on Josh Marshall’s tweetstream that they were having severe pain with an upgrade in their Google ads machinery. I managed to get lucky and find the right Googler to tell, and the story had a reasonably happy ending. But along the way, I learned the realities about the kind of dollars a successful site like TPM can pull in, and let me tell you, they’re eye-opening.

Conclusion · It’s obvious: Right now in the twenty-first century, it’s perfectly possible to run a healthy, profitable, growing business built entirely on news and opinion. Thus, the incumbents who are shrinking and screaming and cutting and charging must, in some respect, be doing it wrong.

The reasons why TPM has succeeded seem straightforward; let me try to capture a few:

Voice · TPM’s is strong and personal. Originally it was just Marshall’s, but he has brought other voices to the fore who, while broadly consistent with his, are clear and distinct.

Writing · It’s good; polished, well-proofread, nearly 100% free of grammar and usage glitches. And at the same time, lighthearted, colloquial, transparent.

Reporting · I’ve read a lot of different sources on this subject matter, and I think TPM offers the best reporting you can get. They tell the story, in a way that’s free of cant and jargon, of what the dynamics are in any of Washington’s debates; who matters, which issues are the sticking points, and what’s likely to happen.

They find out first, then they dive deeper. That’s what reporting’s supposed to be.

Passion · There is a school of thought out there holding that all politicians are thieves, wastrels, and fools; so hopelessly corrupt that “don’t bother voting; it just encourages them”.

Which is bullshit. Politicians are people and sure enough, some are corrupt or foolish or just mean. But a high proportion really do think that government is something that is not only necessary but a good place to invest effort with the goal of improving the world. And the ones I’ve known have been, by and large, pretty smart.

TPM is appropriately (and amusingly) cynical about misbehaving politicoes (check out the hilarious Golden Duke Awards). But it’s obvious at every moment that they really do believe in politics as a grand civic process; that what happens in Washington is real and matters; and that on most of the big issues, some of the proposed paths are better and some are worse.

Transparency · TPM is not neutral; its viewpoint is mainstream-US-liberal, which is to say they’re right-wing by world standards, and baby-eating commies in Republican eyes.

They are remorseless in their attacks on Republican illogic, stupidity, and duplicity. But they are also pretty ruthless with misbehaving Democrats, both on matters of policy and (increasingly, of late) tactics.

They are 100% transparent in their biases, and I’m certain many Republican insiders, who disagree profoundly, still read TPM because they value the quality of the reporting and analysis.

There may be one or two Republican readers out there, and to them I’m sorry, but in the Dubya-and-since era, treating that party as substantially either crazy or stupid is a fairly mainstream position. Possibly the Republicans are right that homosexuality weakens marriage and tax cuts don’t cause deficits and imprisoning a world-leading proportion of your population increases public safety and deregulating the finance industry is good economics and invading large Middle-Eastern nations (then staying) improves America’s security, as does spending more on the military than the rest of the world put together. And maybe the rest of the world is wrong on these things. I doubt it, though.

But I digress.

The Good News · We need the news business to keep us informed and manage democracy in a sane way. Here we have an existence proof that the business, run correctly, is still a good one to be in.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: MikeD (Jul 31 2011, at 14:38)

I agree with your conclusion that an online news business is viable & that older news companies are doing it wrong - but 'doing it wrong' in the way called out by the Innovators Dilemma. They simply can't break free of their 'supply chain' and delivery channel but cannot bring in the advertising dollars to sustain that.

However I think you missed some points with how TPM succeeds - they are very vertical, which allows them to focus and excel, and they have no legacy distribution (no paper or radio/tv broadcasting). Their operating costs for publishing are much much lower. I suspect they have lower costs to bring in advertising as well - I don't know how big their direct sales team is, but it doesn't seem like they are landing big deals - it didn't take long to see a "world of warcraft" ad, which isn't going to be a top dollar direct campaign.


From: Paul (Aug 01 2011, at 07:44)

However, TPM didn't announce they made a profit, just that their ad sales were up, and didn't they get given a few million by some firms a couple of years ago? If it was working that well, they wouldn't have needed the money.

I think the jury is still out whether online media is a going concern. Look at salon and slate.


From: Nick Carr (Aug 01 2011, at 09:25)

<em>It’s obvious: Right now in the twenty-first century, it’s perfectly possible to run a healthy, profitable, growing business built entirely on news and opinion. Thus, the incumbents who are shrinking and screaming and cutting and charging must, in some respect, be doing it wrong.</em>

I guess it depends on what your definition of "it" is. How many full-time reporters does TPM employ and how broad are the beats they cover? To what extent are they doing original reporting versus synthesizing the reporting coming out of other outlets?

I don't know the answers to those questions - perhaps TPM has a robust reporting corps doing original reporting in an array of areas, including those that don't naturally pull eyeballs - but I think they're important in judging how well the TPM model fills society's journalism requirements.


From: example (Aug 27 2011, at 15:59)

"Like most people who find politics and policy interesting, I’ve enjoyed the last few years of US politics."

Seriously? I don't think anyone who actually lives here in the US finds this "enjoyable" at all. Except for Wall Street bankers maybe.

Our country has gone full retard.


From: Eric Mill (Sep 04 2011, at 10:28)

I haven't been reading TPM for nearly as long, but I picked it up in early 2010 and have struggled to put it down. While I agree that they're the best of their kind of reporting on the American left, I would not want them held up as the model of what all journalism, online or offline, should be.

They're focused on politics, and I don't think it's certain that their kind of website could thrive if it was general purpose, or focused on any other topic less emotional and anger-driven.

We still need the NY Times and the Washington Post and other traditional brands of journalism, where journalists at least pretend to put aside their biases and put out something which a chance of getting forwarded around through *everyone's* email lists, not just 40% of the population.

I'm not saying you disagree with any of that -- I just think it's worth noting that the future would suck if our choices out there were only between the TPMs and the Drudges.


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