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Pioneering blogger Marshall wins Polk Award

Brown graduate Joshua Micah Marshall, best known for his efforts a pioneering blogger and the leading light of Talking Points Memo, gets his due in today's New York Times:

On Tuesday, it was announced that he had won a George Polk Award for legal reporting for coverage of the firing of eight United States attorneys, critics charged under political circumstances. The “tenacious investigative reporting sparked interest by the traditional news media and led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales,” the citation read.

Also last week, the Justice Department put him back on its mailing list for reporters with credentials after removing him last year.

Mr. Marshall does not belong to any traditional news organization. Instead, he is creating his own. His Web site, Talking Points Memo (www.talkingpointsmemo.com), is the first Internet-only news operation to receive the Polk (though in 2003, an award for Internet reporting was given to the Center for Public Integrity), and certainly one of the most influential political blogs in the country.

To scores of bloggers, it was a case of local boy makes good. Many took it as vindication of their enterprise — that anyone can assume the mantle of reporting on the pressing issues affecting the nation and the world, with the imprimatur of a mainstream media outlet or not. And most reassuringly, it showed that fair numbers of people out there were paying attention.

Mr. Marshall was recognized for a style of online reporting that greatly expands the definition of blogging. And he operates a long way from the clichéd pajama-wearing, coffee-sipping commentator on the news. He has a newsroom in Manhattan and seven reporters for his sites, including two in Washington.

Yet Mr. Marshall does not shy away from the notion of blogging. “I think of us as journalists; the medium we work in is blogging,” he said, something that can involve matters as varied as the tone of the writing or the display of articles in reverse chronological order. “We have kind of broken free of the model of discrete articles that have a beginning and end. Instead, there are an ongoing series of dispatches.”

Seven years ago, Mr. Marshall was a Ph.D candidate in early American history at Brown University; the Washington editor of a liberal magazine, The American Prospect; and a new blogger. He had started the blog as an outlet for his ideas and to track the recount fight in Florida — the name came from a term bandied about during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

“If I had quickly happened into a staff position at The New Yorker, I probably wouldn’t have done this,” Mr. Marshall, 39, said of his migration to full-time online journalism.

In that time, he seems to have followed a business model unlike the founders of many of the dot-coms: Begin as a tiny operation. Manage to gain a following. As the audience grows, ask readers for donations and accept advertising. As the advertising and donations grow, add reporters and features. Repeat as often as needed.

Ads came in fall 2003, when politically conscious Internet users were starting to focus on the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and “I remember there being peak days of 60,000 page views, which was really incredible.”

“Ads started bringing in, in relative terms, a decent income for me relatively quickly,” he said

Soon after there was the first fund-raiser, to cover the cost of reporting on the New Hampshire primary of 2004. It brought in $6,000 in about 24 hours. There were fund-raisers in 2005 to create new projects: TPM Cafe (tpmcafe.talkingpointsmemo.com), where readers and experts can debate political issues, and TPMMuckraker (tpmmuckraker.talkingpointsmemo-.com), the site that was kept off the Justice Department’s mailing list. All are grouped under the parent TPM Media.

“The basic model is we are an ad-supported company,” he said. “Often when we want to do some major expansion, we go to readers.”

Traffic has continued to grow. Mr. Marshall said that on average over the last 18 months, the sites have had 400,000 page views a day. He put the number of unique visitors a month at 750,000 (about 60 percent of the traffic of The Nation, a long-established left-wing magazine).

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