How TPM Got Started


Over the years, I've become increasingly convinced that when all is said and done, the significant aspect of my journalism career won't be anything I've written, but the fact that I was present at the creation of Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall's pioneering blog. Tomorrow is TPM's 10th anniversary, so for future historians and other interested parties, and in the spirit of wishing Josh and his staff a happy anniversary, I thought I'd share the story of how it all got started.

At the time, Josh was Washington bureau chief for the American Prospect, which was less grand than it sounds. The office was in a ratty downtown building above a magic shop. One way you could mark the change in the election cycle was when the rubber Al Gore mask was replaced by one of George W. Bush, alongside the fake rubber vomit in the display window. The staff consisted of me and Nick Confessore, now with the New York Times. Although Josh must have been about 30, and Nick and I in our twenties, the whole vibe of the place was like some John Hughes movie where the daft parents have gone off and left their adolescent kids run of the house. It wasn't that we threw a lot of keggers or anything. Just that the traditional, grown-up, stuffy "boss" figure was palpably absent, which fostered a wonderfully loose and creative environment.

Back then, Josh was not yet the clean-up, happily married father of two we know him to be today. He was best captured by Matthew Klam in a New York Times Magazine profile that described him as looking "like a wrinkle bomb had hit him." He kept odd hours, slept through deadlines, and then performed insane, Pepsi One-fueled marathons of reporting and writing that produced brilliant journalism. An image lodged in my mind from those days is walking into Josh's office one Monday around lunchtime and finding him sound asleep on his couch in the same clothes from Friday and surrounded by about 30 empty two-liter bottles of Pepsi One (not exaggerating). Point is, he operated on his own clock.

The 2000 election--or more precisely, the recount--was a very Josh-friendly event in that it presented a scenario that, on one level, involved all sort of complicated, byzantine rules and procedures that needed figuring out, which was always a fascination and a strong point for him, and on another level offered clear and outrageous examples of conservative bamboozlement and liberal-establishment witlessness, which was another thing that got him going. Looking back, I can see that TPM was destined to start here.

One day, after a morning of working the phones, Josh came out of his office looking as though he'd imbibed more than his usual liter-age of Pepsi One. He was on fire about some travesty of media coverage related to the recount (looking back at his first post--to read it verité-style, click here and scroll to bottom--it must have been about Ted Olson). I remember him pausing and asking Nick and me, "Dude, do you guys think it would be weird if I did a thing like Kaus is doing?" This was in reference to Kausfiles, which had begun the year before. Nick and I shrugged and said that it wouldn't be weird at all. Then, when Josh disappeared back into his office to create what would become Talking Points Memo, Nick and I decided that actually, yes, it would be sort of weird, because who but a fool would write for no money?

What was amazing was how prolific Josh was right off the bat, reporting and writing and analyzing--recognizably blogging, although at the time no such reference point existed, so it mostly seemed like the manic pursuit of a really smart, idiosyncratic guy who slept on the office couch. Manic, but always interesting. Josh quickly amassed a small but influential Washington readership and started getting tips and intel from them (including some prominent conservatives), and I remember it dawning on me that he had figured out a new way of doing journalism that nobody else had grasped yet. At the time, it seemed like all this would be in the service of his traditional long-form print career, and so it seemed neat and clever, but not revolutionary in the way that it does today,

That, too, gradually changed. When Josh left the Prospect and began breaking real stories on TPM he started devoting more and more time to it. From the outset, he'd marvel about the relationship with readers, which I didn't fully appreciate until he started up a collection to do a reporting trip to New Hampshire that he had to shut down when too much money came in to spend on one trip. During those first few years, TPM headquarters was the Starbucks at 19th & R in DuPont Circle, where I'd meet Josh and hear the latest updates. It became clear at some point that the blog was going to be his primary career focus, which seemed a little insane, but by that point I was a believer. Ten years later, what's as impressive to me as the journalistic aspect of TPM is how Josh has built it into a thriving business. Because if you knew him in those early sleeping-in-his-clothes years, that is really the only surprise. He was always going to be a great journalist.