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Nov. 15, 2010, 10 a.m.

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?

JMM: It’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.

POSTED     Nov. 15, 2010, 10 a.m.
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