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August 01 2011

20:00

“A great story to tell to advertisers”: How TPM increased its ad sales revenue 88 percent from last year

This June, Talking Points Memo had the biggest ad sales month in its eleven-year history, closing out a half-year period that saw ad sales revenue grow 88 percent over the same period in 2010.

First of all: Yowza. Second of all, though: That number, while big, isn’t entirely out of left field. “We’ve been growing at double-digit — sometimes approaching triple-digit — growth ever since we started our direct-sales ad program,” TPM’s founder/editor/publisher, Josh Marshall, told me. So while the 88 percent stat is a record, and “we love that number,” he notes, it’s also “not dramatically different from what we’ve had in previous years.”

Still, though, it’s worth a moment of pause. Because here is a web-native news organization that started as, you know, Some Guy’s Blog and that is now able to sustain itself — actually, grow itself — based on digital ad revenue. At a time when many news publishers are struggling in a sea of digital dimes, TPM, it seems, is finding a way to turn those dimes into dollars.

Marshall attributes the success largely to TPM’s organizational double-down on direct ad sales. In 2009, as it expanded its presence in D.C., the site — which had previously relied on networks like Blogads to support its operations — began investing in in-house advertising efforts, bringing on a sales VP and taking advantage of TPM’s famously loyal user base to make a compelling pitch to advertisers. And at higher CPMs.

“The big thing is really talented people doing the sales,” Marshall says.

And another thing is time: Ad sales are about relationships, and cultivating them can’t happen overnight. The real growth of TPM’s ad sales numbers really “started to kick in after we’d had some time to tell the advertisers about the site, about the value proposition of advertising with us,” Marshall notes.

And a big part of that proposition is the thing that advertisers are actually buying when they sign on with TPM: the TPM audience, the collective of dedicated (and also, generally: affluent, educated, influential) people whose eyeballs advertisers generally want to reach. Advertisers so far have included big national brands like Toyota, BP, HBO, Goldman Sachs, and CVS; media outlets like Current TV, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal; and organizations like Harvard Business School, America’s Natural Gas Alliance, the Association of American Railroads, the American Council of Life Insurers, and the Obama 2012 Re-Election Campaign. (That last group is a big part of TPM’s ad strategy, particularly for its D.C.-based audience. The advocacy market tends to have deep pockets — and “everybody wants to have their story told to the people who are calling the shots, who live in D.C.,” Marshall points out.)

But TPM’s readership isn’t limited to the District (indeed, this has been a pretty good month to remind us that Washington news is national news), and part of TPM’s pitch is that its audience nationwide is particularly engaged with its content and mission. (And also, again: affluent, educated, influential.)

And that’s evidenced in part by an annual reader survey that TPM conducts, consisting of over 30 questions, asking readers to send TPM data about themselves and their reading habits. TPM’s 2011 survey was introduced with a quick request for completion from Marshall; it was live for 24 hours; and it received, Marshall told me, some 26,000 completed results.

Again: Yowza.

So TPM offers not just a quality audience, in terms of the demographics advertisers like, but also a highly — even hyper- — engaged one. Readers often visit TPM multiple times a day. They trust it. They consider themselves, often quite literally, to be a part of it. Because of all that, Marshall says, “we have a great story to tell to advertisers.”

It’s a story, sure, that’s a fairly unique one in today’s news environment. Political coverage of the depth and intensity TPM offers may lend itself to reader engagement; it’s also hard to duplicate, though, especially at more general-interest publications. But as news outlets big and small, general-interest and niche, consider their futures, TPM’s experience can be instructive — not only editorially, but also financially. There are basically two TPMs: There’s TPM, the new media visionary and crowdsourcing pioneer and Polk Award winner and “prototype of what the successful Web-based news organization is likely to be in the future“; and then there’s TPM, the scrappy startup that is trying to make a viable business of web-native political reporting. TPM’s ad-sales success suggests the tantalizing possibility that, even in today’s murky media environment, TPM 1 and TPM 2 can actually be the same thing.

November 15 2010

15:00

Josh Marshall on Talking Points Memo’s growth over the last decade: Moving from solo blog to news org

It’s funny to think back to the Talking Points Memo of ten years ago, just a strip of text down a single blue page. (It also had a red-background phase before settling in on the beige color scheme it still has today.)

On November 13, 2000, Joshua Micah Marshall launched the site as a place to blog the presidential election recount in Florida. The tone was different then, much chattier; witness how often Marshall referred to himself as “Talking Points” in the third person, as in “Talking Points heard….” But over the next decade, of course, Marshall not only kept his blog going but grew it into one of the most cited models for online journalism, winning prizes, innovating with the crowd, attracting capital, and growing to a staff of almost 20. (Disclosure: TPM’s growth employed me at one point.)

In honor of TPM’s tenth anniversary, we emailed Marshall some questions about the growth of TPM and the direction it’s headed. He’s been dropping hints about future plans on Twitter, and he’s thinking a lot about what mobile devices will mean for news. And he says TPM is getting ready to experiment with a paid membership model early next year — but not a paywall.

There are some valuable lessons for anyone in the midst of, or considering launching a startup. Here’s the full transcript.

LKM: TPM is turning ten. Are you where you even close to where you thought you would be when you started? Are you where you thought you would be even five years ago?

JMM: Ten years ago, in November 2000, I don’t think I don’t think I gave any thought to where it was going. So I didn’t have any sense of where it would be. But five years ago was when I made the decision to build TPM into a multi-person news organization. Basically in the early spring of 2005. And on balance I’d say, yeah, this is about where I thought we’d be. Certain things are different. At the outset I thought more in terms of launching a series of basically distinct sites. But over time, I saw the logic of taking a more consolidated approach, making TPMMuckraker, for instance, more of a section within a TPM news site than a site in itself. But in terms of scale, topics I wanted us to cover, the move toward paid advertising as the core funding model, it’s about where I was shooting to be at this point.

LKM: You’ve tweeted about your disappointment in outlets repurposing content for the iPad rather than imagining something new. How did you think about TPM and the iPad or tablets? Do you think tablets will create a totally new form in the next few years, the way blogging emerged as its own form?

JMM: We’re focusing a huge amount of resources and thinking on mobile devices. Just to give an example, the percentage of visits to TPM that come from mobile devices is currently rising at almost 1 percentage point a month. So our first priority in 2011 is to make sure TPM is clean, fast and easy to use on all the key devices — iPhones, iPad, Android, etc. But my general sense is that while every digital publication thinks it has a “mobile strategy,” most actually don’t. They think they do, but they don’t. That’s because mobile devices will significantly change the mode of reporting and presentation, just like the web did a decade ago. If you go back to the mid-late 1990s, all the news organizations had websites. But it was basically print slapped onto the web. It was only in the beginning of this decade that you started to see presentational forms that were really native to the web and worked in the context of its strengths and weaknesses. I think mobile is about where web journalism was in maybe 1996-97. So we’re trying to keep in mind that the medium is still quite primitive and that we want to come up with some genuinely new, innovative uses of it.

I think it’s going to grow quickly, with two segments: one that’s basically tablets, things that look something like the iPad now does and then much smaller devices that people will carry with them/on them at all times. In the former category, I think you’ll have versions that look something like full-function websites, albeit designed very differently and around touch. It’s with the smaller devices that we’ll really be challenged to figure out ways to operate within much smaller screen sizes and interact with readers in fundamentally different ways. But as I said before, I don’t think anyone’s really come up with the break-out ideas for mobile yet.

LKM: A while back, you teased the idea of a membership model, where paid TPM members might get extra content or access. Do you imagine that model coming to fruition in the next year or two?

JMM: We’re hoping to do that in the first half of 2011. But to be clear, we’re never moving to a paywall model.

LKM: TPM’s expansion has been steady in the last few years. How do you balance maintaining quality with growth?

JMM: It’s a constant struggle. I knew something about journalism when I started doing this. And I actually knew a decent amount about the technology that powers a website. But I didn’t know anything about growing a company or an organization. So I’ve learned on the job. There are a lot of particular details about management and stuff like that. But I think the key is keeping in place a critical mass of people whose integrity and judgment I can trust. Building TPM taught me to be a businessman, and I enjoy that part of it. But really that’s what it comes to: a core of people who you trust.

LKM: What do you wish you knew ten years ago when you first started blogging?

JMMIt’s funny. I’m glad I didn’t know any of it. The pleasure for me has been exploring, learning, coming up with ideas or more often finding half-formed ideas and wrestling with them until I find some way to use them to improve what we do. I wouldn’t want to rob myself of that.

LKM: What does TPM look like ten years from now?

JMM: Stay tuned.

July 30 2010

18:00

WikiLeaks and continuity: What if we had a news outlet exclusively focused on follow-up journalism?

In his assessment of the journalistic implications of the WikiLeaked Afghanistan War Logs earlier this week, Jay Rosen made a provocative prediction:

Reaction will be unbearably lighter than we have a right to expect — not because the story isn’t sensational or troubling enough, but because it’s too troubling, a mess we cannot fix and therefore prefer to forget…. The mental model on which most investigative journalism is based states that explosive revelations lead to public outcry; elites get the message and reform the system. But what if elites believe that reform is impossible because the problems are too big, the sacrifices too great, the public too distractible? What if cognitive dissonance has been insufficiently accounted for in our theories of how great journalism works…and often fails to work?

It’s early still, of course, but it’s all too likely that Rosen’s forecast — the leaked documents, having exploded, dissolving into a system ill-equipped to deal with them — will prove accurate. I hope we’ll be wrong. In the meantime, though, it’s worth adding another layer to Rosen’s analysis: the role of journalists themselves in the leaked documents’ framing and filtering. If, indeed, the massive tree that is WikiLeaks has fallen in an empty forest, that will be so not only because of the dynamic between public opinion and political elites who often evade it; it will also be because of the dynamic between public opinion and those who shape it. It will be because of assumptions (sometimes outdated assumptions) journalists make about their stories’ movement through, and life within, the world. The real challenge we face isn’t an empty forest; it’s a forest so full — so blooming with growth, so booming with noise — that we forget what a toppling tree sounds like in the first place.

Publication, publicity

It used to be that print and broadcast culture, in general, offered journalists a contained — which is to say, automatic — audience for their work. When you have subscribers and regular viewers, their loyalty insured by the narrowness of the media marketplace, you have the luxury of ignoring, essentially, the distribution side of journalism. The corollary being that you also have the luxury of assuming that your journalism, once published, will effect change in the world. Automatically.

And investigative journalism, in particular, whether conducted by Bly or Bernstein or Bogdanich, generally operated under the sunshine-as-Lysol theory of distribution: outrageous discoveries lead to outraged publics lead to chastened power brokers lead to social change. (For more on that, give a listen to the most recent Rebooting the News podcast.) Journalism was a lever of democracy; publication was publicity, and thus, as well, the end of an outlet’s commitment to its coverage. The matter of distribution, of a big story’s movement through the culture, wasn’t generally for journalists to address.

Which was a matter of practicality, sure — as a group, reporters are necessarily obsessed with newness, and have always been stalked by The Next Story — but also one of design. There’s a fine line, the thinking went, between amplification of a story and advocacy of it; the don’t-shoot-the-messenger rhetoric of institutional newsgathering holds up only so long as the messengers in question maintain the appropriate distance from the news they’re delivering. And one way to maintain that distance was a structured separation from stories via a framework of narrative containment. Produce, publish, move on.

The web, though, to repeat its ur-observation, is changing all that. Digital platforms — blogs, most explicitly, but also digital journalism vehicles as a collective — have introduced a more iterative form of storytelling that subtly challenges print and broadcast assumptions of conceptual confinement. For journalists like Josh Marshall and Glenn Greenwald and other modern-day muckrakers, to be a journalist is also, implicitly, to be an advocate. And, so, focusing on the follow-up aspect of journalism — not just starting fires, but keeping them alive — has been foundational to their work. Increasingly, in the digital media economy, good journalists find stories. The better ones keep them going. The best keep them burning.

And yet, to return to the WikiLeaks question, that ethos of continuity hasn’t generally caught on in the culture more broadly — among journalists or their audiences. And one reason for that is the matter of momentum, the editorial challenge of maintaining reader interest in a given subject over a long period of time. Political issues caught in congressional inertias, military campaigns that stretch from months to years, social issues that hide in plain sight — their temporality itself becomes a problem to be solved. There’s a reason why, to take the most infamous example, political campaigns are so often indistinguishable from an episode of “Toddlers and Tiaras“: campaigns being year-long affairs (longer now, actually: Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee are probably digging into Maid-Rite loose-meats as I type), journalists often focus on their trivialities/conflicts/etc. not necessarily because they think that focus leads to good journalism, but because they think, probably correctly, that it sustains their audiences’ attention as election season slogs on.

Which is all to say — and not to put too expansive a point on it, but — time itself poses a challenge to the traditional notion of “the story.” Continuity and containment aren’t logical companions; stories end, but the world they cover goes on. The platform is ill-suited to the project.

Followupstories.org?

While addressing that problem head-on is no easy task — it’s both systemic and cultural, and thus extra-difficult to solve — I’d like to end with a thought experiment (albeit a small, tentative, just-thinking-out-loud one). What if we had an outlet dedicated to continuity journalism — a news organization whose sole purpose was to follow up on stories whose sheer magnitude precludes them from ongoing treatment by our existing media outlets? What if we took the PolitiFact model — a niche outfit dedicated not to a particular topic or region, but to a particular practice — and applied it to following up on facts, rather than checking them? What if we had an outlet dedicated to reporting, aggregating, and analyzing stories that deserve our sustained attention — a team of reporters and researchers and analysts and engagement experts whose entire professional existence is focused on keeping those deserving stories alive in the world?

Sure, you could say, bloggers both professional and amateur already do that kind of follow-up work; legacy news outlets themselves do, too. But: they don’t do it often enough, or systematically enough. (That’s a big reason why it’s so easy to forget that war still rages in Iraq, that 12.6 percent of Americans live below the poverty line, etc.) They often lack incentive to, say, localize a story like the War Logs for their readers. Or to contextualize it. Or to, in general, continue its existence. An independent outlet — and, hey, this being a thought experiment, “independent outlet” could also include a dedicated blog on a legacy outlet’s website — wouldn’t prevent other news shops from doing follow-up work on their own stories or anyone else’s, just as PolitiFact’s presence doesn’t preclude other outlets from engaging in fact-checking. A standalone shop would, however, serve as a kind of social safety net — an insurance policy against apathy.

As Lab contributor C.W. Anderson remarked on Monday: “I wonder what it would take for a story like the ‘War Logs’ bombshell to stick around in the public mind long enough for it to mean something.”

I do, too. I’d love to find out.

Photo of U.S. soldiers in Pana, Afghanistan, by the U.S. Army. Photo of Jay Rosen by Joi Ito. Both used under a Creative Commons license.

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