The story about eight fired U.S. attorneys is all over the front pages of the papers and on the nightly TV news now. But back in January, only a few journalists were paying attention, including a group of bloggers at the Talking Points Memo Web site.
Working out of a tiny third-floor walkup in New York City, the site's employees followed every detail in the story, gathering information from readers all around the country. Collectively, the bloggers and their readers steadily pushed the story forward. Their work has thrust a new-media outlet into the old-media spotlight.
The guys from Talking Points Memo have been working out of their Chelsea office for more than year, but there isn't a single piece of decoration in the room — not a picture, not a Post-it note on the walls. A half-dozen young men look at nothing but their computer screens — some of which are set up on card tables.
"We don't have the formality of a big newsroom," says the chief blogger and editor, Josh Marshall. "But we're professional journalists. We're a news organization."
Marshall says this over and over again, aware that many don't include him in the journalist club. For many years, he was a lone liberal blogger, albeit one with a reporter's background. Marshall had been a contributing writer for Washington Monthly and has freelanced for plenty of mainstream media outlets: The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The New Yorker among them.
When his blog became successful enough by its ad sales, Marshall decided to put that money into building an investigative news presence. TPM Muckraker was the name he chose.
"To do a lot of original reporting is a full-time job, and most bloggers can't make a living doing it," Marshall says. "So what I wanted to do with TPM Muckraker was hire a couple of reporters, and pay them enough that they could make a living at it, and they do it full time."
In December, Marshall and crew put up a short post from an Arkansas newspaper about the firing of a prosecutor there. In January, they noticed the same thing had happened in San Diego; they added the news for comment.
Readers from around the country quickly chimed in on the news blog and drove the story forward. Marshall says the closeness to their audience gave his site an advantage over traditional news organizations.
"In every town across the country, in every city," says Marshall, "we've got a bunch of readers who will tell us if something ran in the local paper."
Handling this flow of information is editor Paul Kiel. He sits in front of his computer demonstrating the power of his readership. This week, when the Justice Department released 3,000 pages of information on the dismissal of the U.S. attorneys, Kiel called out to his readers to start sifting though the documents on the Internet.
"Our readers have been following this story for two months," Kiel says. "They know the players, they know the details."
Overnight, hundreds of people contributed to a growing online index of the documents, with some posting at 3 a.m.
The site and its readers are clearly driven by their political leanings. Marshall is open about the fact that he feels the Bush administration has done a lousy job. But there are some lines the site won't cross. Despite pushing forward the U.S. attorneys investigation, the site hasn't called for Gonzales to resign. Neither does it endorse or raise money for candidates.
But the site has gotten people's attention. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen says that this is the direction some blogs are pushing in: original reporting fueled by the talents and efforts of their readership. How do you trust readers to do a reporters job? Rosen says you wait and see.
"If it holds up over time, we trust it. If other people looking at the same material get the same results, well, that suggests we can trust it," Rosen says. "If mistakes are made and are caught quickly and corrected by the same people who are making them, that says maybe this system can be trusted."
Rosen is starting a new reporting project with Wired magazine fueled almost entirely by readers. It's called Assignment Zero, and Rosen wants to see if large groups of people working together in their spare time can crank out quality journalism.
Of course, there are some challenges to deputizing your readers. Paul Kiel from TPM Muckraker says sometimes it's hard to keep up.
"Right now I have 2,700 unread e-mails," Kiel says. "I've gotten a little behind."
But he's not complaining. Even more than scooping the mainstream news, having the readers respond shows that Kiel and his colleagues are doing their job.