In a talk at Ithaca College in 2008, Talking Points Memo founder Josh Marshall described the growth of Talking Points Memo and the importance of independent media. The year he gave the talk, Marshall had won the Polk Award for his 2007 investigation of politically-motivated firings of U.S. Attorneys by the White House that led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Marshall was at the college for the 2008 Park Center for Independent Media Symposium.
Marshall described the importance of an active readership for independent media. When he asked his readers to help him fundraise for a trip to cover the New Hampshire primary, Marshall raised between $6,000 and $7,000 in less than 24 hours, which he said “was a very very big deal” due to the state of his finances at the time. Marshall said the blog evolved into a hybrid between traditional journalism and collaborative journalism featuring help from readers. Marshall described how he used readers to find what individual members of Congress were saying in town hall meetings. This allowed him “to follow the debate at the ground level in a way that traditional journalists weren’t able to do.”
Readers also played a major role in TPM’s investigation about the firings of U.S. attorneys across the country. Marshall had readers send in information about fired U.S. attorneys that was reported locally. Marshall said the “very deep level of skepticism we had about the people we were covering, and the neat advantages of our relationship with our readers” were essential in the uncovering of that story.
Today, eight years later, it is still clear Talking Points Memo has a strong relationship with its readers. Directly under the banner of “TPM” on the website, there is a link to an email address where readers can submit comments and news tips. Although the site has grown into an operation that employs more than a dozen editorial staff members, it is clear TPM remains a site with a close connection to its readers.
In 1999, the Hartford Courant announced they were purchasing five weeklies in Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts. At the time, Mike Allen wrote a story in the New York Times that detailed the purchase. The Courant was aiming to increase its youth audience, purchasing the five papers that reached a combined circulation of 270,000. Although the publisher of the Courant said at the time the publications would remain separate, readers were concerned about the Advocate’s future. Alyssa S. Peterson, the owner of web design firm, was quoted in the article saying, “This is big brother taking over. The Advocate is everything The Courant isn’t. Where do we go now?”
The five papers purchased were the Hartford Advocate, New Haven Advocate, Fairfield County Weekly, The Valley Advocate and the Westchester County Weekly. Today, only The Valley Advocate still exists. The Westchester County Weekly folded into the Fairfield County Weekly in 2001. In 2013, the Hartford Advocate, New Haven Advocate and Fairfield County Weekly merged into a single publication: CTNow.
This was hailed by the Courant as a “strategic realignment of our suite of entertainment products”. This statement shows a sad truth about the devolution of the once journalistically-strong alt-weeklies. The 1999 story in the Times about the takeover of the alt-weeklies noted the “tough political coverage, including unflattering recent cover articles on major figures in both major political parties, and persistently critical takes on the state’s deal to bring the New England Patriots to Hartford. The environment and campaign finance also get heavy coverage.” CTNow, on the other hand, is solely an entertainment publication.
However, it is not all bad news for the independents. The Valley Advocate is still going strong, over forty years after it was founded. According to the Valley Advocate’s website, the paper “invests time developing stories about people, places and topics that the mainstream media doesn’t have the time or, in some instances, the desire to pursue.” As I wrote in February, a couple of independents have arisen to in Hartford to cover the state capitol, and The New Haven Independent was founded by a former New Haven Advocate reporter dedicated to continuing independent journalism in New Haven. Although the alternative weeklies have disappeared from the state, new independents have risen to fill the gaps.
The Nation, one of the oldest, most prominent progressive magazines in the country, is facing the problems that are facing other legacy media: the struggle to change their focus to online-first as print struggles industry-wide. The oldest weekly magazine still in existence, The Nation launched a beautiful new redesign of their website in July 2015 to celebrate their 150th anniversary. In a press release from the magazine, editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel is quoted as saying, “While I am delighted to honor the magazine’s illustrious history, these times demand that The Nation be ever bolder, willing to unshackle our imaginations and ready to think anew,” she said. “The site redesign is elegant, nimble and innovative, and I believe it will ensure that The Nation is more vital than ever for the next generation of readers.”
The press release offers some interesting information about The Nation’s online audiences and strategies. According to the release, TheNation.com’s audience has grown “exponentially year over year, with traffic driven by a vibrant social media presence and accessed across numerous platforms- nearly half of its readers come from mobile.” The Nation now reaches nearly 3 million unique readers a month, which is more than four times the amount TheNation.com had reached a few years ago (the release is not specific about this time frame). The most interesting thing I discovered about TheNation.com was that the largest online demographic reached is millennials, people aged 25 to 34. Ten percent of TheNation.com’s readership is under 24 years old, another impressive feat.
An Editor’s note from Richard Kim adds additional information about The Nation’s online strategy. Kim writes The Nation publishes about 70 articles online each week, which go out to 420,000 Twitter followers, 290,000 Facebook fans and 200,000 email subscribers. “It’s become an industry cliché to lament how the Internet rewards content mills that churn out the equivalent of digital fast food,” Kim said. “But here at The Nation, the exact opposite has proved true: The more we learn about our readers, the more inspired we are to create great journalism for them.” Kim wrote that the most-read articles online at The Nation were reports on the crisis in Ukraine, Israel’s siege of Gaza, online feminism, police brutality and the effects of lobbyists on American politics. The Nation shows that it is possible for legacy independent media to be successful online.
The 2016 election has been a time of increased polarization and intense negative allegations against some of the candidates. William Jacobson, a clinical professor of Law at Cornell Law School and founder of the blog Legal Insurrection, is trying to stay above the fray.
Jacobson founded Legal Insurrection in 2008, and the blog has become one of the more prominent blogs in the conservative blogosphere. According to the site’s about page, Legal Insurrection hit one million views within their first year of existence, and readership has grown since. The website gets around 250,000 visitors a month, and features bloggy-content expressing conservative views and attacking liberal views and liberal politicians, primarily Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and likely Democratic nominee for President Hillary Clinton.
Although Jacobson said the website usually sees an election-year boost, he said that the site has not yet seen that boost in this election year. A possible explanation is that the site is attempting to stay above the fray as the Republican primary has been highlighted by the controversial rise of businessman Donald Trump. For example, on March 25, The National Enquirer published a story claiming Ted Cruz has had five different affairs. On Legal Insurrection, Jacobson wrote a post titled “The Thing”, which explained,“The thing is about The Thing is that I don’t want to spread what might be false rumors, on the other hand, The Thing is now a thing on TV and elsewhere, so it can’t be totally avoided.” Jacobson’s post included reactions from those involved, to inform the readers while attempting not to be part of the problem by aggressively spreading the rumors.
This election year, Jacobson said the site is trying to stay true to itself and not get too involved in the horserace political coverage that is so prominent throughout the media.
The National Review, an independent conservative magazine with a robust online presence, is facing the same problem conservatives and the establishment Republican party is facing: the insurgent presidential candidacy of Donald J. Trump. In January, the magazine published a highly-publicized special issue of the magazine, in which more than twenty prominent conservative leaders, thinkers and pundits lay out their personal grievances against Trump’s candidacy. Some of these conservatives included Cato Institute executive vice president David Boaz, Weekly Standard editor-in-chief William Kristol, and former Fox News host Glenn Beck.
In an editorial featured in the issue, the editors of the magazine wrote their strongly-worded case against Trump. “He is not deserving of conservative support in the caucuses and primaries,” they wrote. “Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones.” The editorial notes some of Trump’s positions that have changed, such as his views on abortion, gun control, health care and taxes. It then goes more in-depth, explaining the editors’ belief his current rhetoric on policies is contradictory at best and nonsensical at worst, on topics ranging from illegal immigration to the fight against ISIS. “Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself,” the editorial concludes.
In the time since the publishing of the editorial January 21st, Trump has won three out of the first four states to vote and it is likely he will win many more tonight. Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review, has been aggressively anti-Trump on twitter. Yesterday, Lowry told Howard Kurtz on Fox News that he was unsure if the magazine would support Trump in the general election.
Other conservative independent outlets are facing a similar question. Bill Kristol, the editor-in-chief of the Weekly Standard, another prominent conservative magazine, has said he could never support Donald Trump, even if he were to win the nomination. With Donald Trump looking like he will be the Republican party’s nominee, independent conservative outlets will be forced to decide whether or not to support him in the general election.