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Josh Marshall

When is a website not a website? For Talking Points Memo, the turning point was in 2012

TPM’s Josh Marshall says he now views what was launched as a website as a bundle of knowledge and expertise that “exists inherently on no particular platform” — which is why he’s moving big into mobile and video.

Josh Marshall

About six months ago, Talking Points Memo publisher Josh Marshall had a realization.

It was something that had been bouncing around in his head for a while, but only then was he sure: It was time to formally deconstruct the idea of TPM as a website first — even though it was a website first, some 12 years ago when he started it.

“If someone were to ask me a year ago, I would have said, ‘Well, yeah, we’re not just a website — it’s this, and we have that, and the other.’ But I think it was when I saw mobile growing as fast as it was that it just sort of hit me at a different level,” Marshall told me. “Inevitably, as long as mobile was something like five percent of traffic, it was just something you made available on the side. But you start to see, this is going to be half of our audience. We can’t be approaching it in a way that the website is the thing, and we’re making imitations of it — because this thing is losing its primacy. In a lot of ways, it wasn’t until late last year that it hit me at a different level. It hit me as more than a concept. It was really true.”

“My only question is at what point tablets overtake smartphones.”

As of late March, mobile — smartphones and tablets — accounted for 19 percent of TPM traffic. By early May, when I sat down with Marshall in his New York office, mobile traffic to TPM had passed the 20 percent mark.

“I don’t have much doubt that that number will be 30 or 40 percent in the next year or two,” Marshall said. “My only question is at what point tablets overtake smartphones.”

So what does this realization mean, from a practical standpoint, for TPM?

“More than anything else we had to shift our own thinking, because that was constraining with how you do things on mobile,” Marshall said. “Realizing that TPM is not a website — it’s a bundle of knowledge and expertise and ongoing coverage that exists inherently on no particular platform, and we are consitently trying to find ways to make it adaptable on as many platforms as possible.”

But the rethinking process also means rejecting the idea that TPM content can be one-size-fits-all, which deputy publisher Callie Schweitzer calls “a game-changer for all publishers.”

“We’re giving a lot of thought to three different kinds of consumption: Active consumption being at the desktop, on-the-go consumption being on your mobile phone, and passive consumption being in your bed, on your tablet, something like that,” Schweitzer said. “For me, it’s literally about the physical way you’re doing it. You can certainly actively consume at all of those different places but when you’re reclining, looking at a beautiful visual on an iPad, it’s very different than being on a mobile phone or sitting at a desktop.”

It’s with this kind of thinking that TPM is approaching its election-year coverage, and another expansion planned for next year. In June, TPM is set to launch some new “basic features to make election coverage awesome.” Over the course of the next year, Marshall says they’ll roll out “some mobile-only stuff” (and that’s as specific as he’ll get for the time being). In 2013, you can expect new verticals that will fall broadly into categories like business, technology, and telecommunications. The mobile shift is also a driving factor behind TPM’s decision to return big to video after scaling back in the past.

“There are some places that video can go that text can’t, and there are times of the day that you watch things,” Marshall said in a later conversation. “We’re taking that bundle of ever-evolving knowlege and expertise and putting it into a video format. It’s all part of that same rethink…That’s the core reason we’re making such a push back.”

With the launch this month of weekly mini-shows like The Set-Up (Mondays), Polltracker Crosstabs (Wednesdays), and The Wrap (Fridays), TPM is delivering bite-sized news and analysis with the quality production sheen that some smaller news outfits forgo.

Each show is about three minutes long, which Marshall says is the “logical attention span.” Here’s an example:

“These are supposed to be quick updates on contained questions, so we think that’s sort of the sweet spot,” Marshall said. “We’ll do some longer than that…but we think that’s sort of the normal length. You don’t write a 5,000-word op-ed in The New York Times, and you don’t write a 300-word profile in the New Yorker.”

Political coverage is TPM’s bread and butter, so as the election season progresses, Marshall says there will be more and different kinds of video. That includes live video from conventions and election night, as well as video interviews with newsmakers. Marshall says he’s been wanting to get TPM back into video for years.

“We were heavily involved in original video in 2007 and 2008,” Marshall said in an email after our initial interview. “I did a daily show for almost two years. The reason we ramped back was because it was a strain on our staff capacity — there were many fewer of us back then — and we didn’t feel like the video ad market was mature enough for us to effectively monetize it. Now makes sense basically because both things have now changed. We have a much more robust video production capacity now. So it’s not so deeply reliant on me the way it used to be. The other part of the equation is monetization. Certainly lots of sites have been running pre-roll for a long time. But until relatively recently, the market for pre-roll for us was just spotty.”

In recent months, that’s changed “dramatically,” Marshall says. After growing his staff in recent years, he now has a combined force of 28 full-timers between TPM’s New York and Washington offices, and the ad revenue is available to help foot the bill. (Most videos are preceded by 15-second pre-roll ads.)

“If you look at the third-party studies that ad agencies look at, there’s just a lot of great data about how much more powerful pre-roll advertising is,” Marshall said. “Basically one of the big triggers why we’ve moved ahead [with video] is because — whereas in the past the market for pre-roll video was kind of inconsistent, now it is very different. Even in the last six months, it’s changed.”

Yet video ad revenue remains a relatively small piece of the pie, and Marshall says he expects it will stay that way because “so much of endemic advertising is non-video, the things on pages.” He views the growth of mobile and video as simultaneous more than causal, but both drive home the same point for him: News organizations need to embrace the idea that “disruption is the norm now,” and explore content distribution through multiple channels.

“Hypothetically, if you have, say, six basic platforms and maybe one of them accounts for 75 percent of your revenue — as a publisher, you don’t know how that mix is going to evolve as things go forward,” Marshall said. “In the same way that mobile has gone from low single-digits up to almost a quarter of our audience, it’s very important to have good profit margins and a good model across a bunch of platforms because you wouldn’t want the platform that you have not invested in to be the one that people go crazy for. That would be perilous.”

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  • gregorylent

    preroll ads are an instant click out bye bye .. can’t believe ad agencies say they are good

  • David Kellogg

    I want my TPM iPad app! 

  • jheartney

    If I’m interested in what’s to follow, I’ll hit the mute button during the pre-roll ad. I’d guess they are more effective than sidebar or banner ads, which are easy to just block, but none of them are more than an annoyance.

  • Moses Wolfenstein

    So unless I’m missing something here, TPM is still technically a website. I mean, there isn’t even an app for it yet which means its content lives on the web, and is accessed via the web. To quote Wikipedia:

    A website, also written as Web site,[1] web site, or simply site,[2] is a set of related web pages containing content (media) such as text, image]s, video, audio, etc.

    You see, whether or not something is a website isn’t determined by the type of content that it hosts or what devices people use to access it. Realizing that TPM gets lots of mobile traffic obviously has strong implications for the design of the site, but it is technically still a website.

    I recognize that saying, “TPM isn’t actually a website” is more concise and draws more attention than saying, “TPM gets a lot of mobile traffic and the types of content and interactions it hosts are changing”, but it isn’t technically true at current.

  • EddyKilowatt

    I seldom click on video links, especially to political commentary and other talking-head fare… pre-roll or no.  It just doesn’t feel like a good use of my time, when I can read the same words twice as fast and with better comprehension and involvement (i.e. googling words or phrases I don’t understand).  

    Conveying ideas by video is too passive, too slow… and too resource intensive on top of it all (ref Josh’s comment about video production overhead, not to mention mobile bandwidth).  The net and the web have seen a great renaissance of the written word… I hope we don’t slide back into an era of slack-jawed, vacant-stare video ‘consumption’.

  • Ulla-riitta Atwood

    I have been a TPM reader ever since the article in New York Magazine told about this new thing ‘blogging’ and been reader ever since. The most amazing thing is how TPM has evolved and developed during these 10 plus years  I  have been reading TPM the first thing in the morning with  my morning coffee and then a few times during the day  ever since.. What a wonderful , well written and fact checked articles.
    I can remember when there was a little gossip about Josh Marshall  seen blogging from Starbucks in    Washington. Josh Marshall deserves a medal for his work . He started alone and look now at the staff working with him. All the jobs he has created. 
    Their sense of humor is priceless and their serious stories always make me think and of course  share  with people who do not read TPM.
    Thank you and congratulations for all you do.

  • Phil Simon

    In The Age of the Platform, things are getting blurrier all of the time. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google are all building cross-platform approaches, as are many smaller companies. 

    I find this time absolutely fascinating! 

    Phil Simon 

  • thefold-Chris

    me too

  • thefold-Chris

    Isn’t mobile traffic still the web?  If I’m reading TPM on my iPhone aren’t I technically still reading a website?  Actually the only time I’m not on the site is when I occasionally read it on Newsify or Fipboard, which is way less than I go to the physical site.

  • thefold-Chris

    I didn’t start reading until 2005 and have been hooked ever since.  In fact, his site is the whole basis of my site, The Fold Blog

    I’m sure I’m not the only one to feel empowered and want to change things the way Josh did.  I’m sure there are thousands of Fold Blogs everywhere.  

  • Ron

    I am an original reader of TPM and a big fan. And I love the iPad format, but the iPhone TPM format is amazingly bad. Does not include everything and, frustratingly, somehow prevents expanding text size, even there’s plenty of room to expand to a more readable size. I keep thinking it will be fixed any day now but apparently it’s not a mistake but the way they want it. Have no,idea why they’d do that.

    All in all, the phone version just isn’t worth bothering with anymore.

  • blm

    This is exactly right. TPM is a news organization. The web site is just a channel/media they use to communicate to it’s audience.  Once TPM was a blog.  Then a web site, then a cluster of web sites using different technologies. The media serves the organization and the audience, and if the audience prefers a different media, then TPM will — I hope — shift to it.

  • Bobby M. Kelly III

    Ding Ding!

  • Don

    I have never once watched a pre-roll ad. Either I hit the mute button and do something else for the 30 irritating seconds that it takes for it to finish, or I simply leave the site and go elsewhere. I can’t think of anybody who does anything different. Ad agencies are lying if they assert that pre-rolls are any more effective than banners and sidebars, and clients are naive to believe them.