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.