MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This story about the 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 working out of a tiny third-floor walkup in New York City. The Web site Talking Points Memo dogged the story, gathered information from around the country, and pushed the issue forward with a little help from their readers. NPR's Robert Smith visited the makeshift newsroom in Manhattan.
ROBERT SMITH: Even though the guys from Talking Points Memo have been working in this room for more than a year, there isn't a single piece of decoration - not a picture, not a post-it note on the white walls. A half-dozen young men look at nothing but their computers, some of them on card tables.
Chief blogger and editor Josh Marshall gives me the very short tour.
Mr. JOSH MARSHALL (Editor, Talking Points Memo): You know, we're in this small office in above a wholesale florist here in Chelsea. But, I mean, we're professional journalists. We report the news. We're a news organization.
SMITH: 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.
When he started to sell ads on the site, though, he decided to put that money into building an investigative news presence. TPMmuckraker, he called it.
Mr. MARSHALL: To do a lot of original reporting - it's a full-time job. And most bloggers can't make a living doing it. So what I wanted to do with TPMmuckraker was to hire a couple of reporters and let them do this, you know, pay them enough so they could make a living at it and they could do it full-time.
SMITH: In December, they posted a short notice from an Arkansas newspaper about the firing of a U.S. attorney there. In January, they noticed the same thing happened in San Diego. Readers from around the country chimed in on the news blog. Marshall says their relationship with their audience gave them an advantage over traditional news organizations.
Mr. MARSHALL: In every town, across the country, at least every city, you got a bunch of readers who will tell us if some story that we need to know about ran in the local paper.
SMITH: Handling this flow of information is editor Paul Kiel. He sits in front of his computer showing me the power of his readership. This week, when the Justice Department released 3,000 pages of information on the U.S. attorney's case, Kiel called out to his readers to start sifting through the pages online. Suddenly they had hundreds of people effectively working for them.
Mr. PAUL KIEL (Editor, Talking Points Memo): Our readers have been following the story for two months and know the players, know the details.
SMITH: I'm looking here, as we're scrolling through hundreds of these comments and people are doing this in the middle of the night. One, two, three in the morning, they're poring through Department of Justice documents for your site.
Mr. KIEL: We have readers on the West coast, we've readers in Europe.
SMITH: It's a 24-hour newsroom.
Mr. KIEL: Very, very true. Yeah.
SMITH: The site and its readers clearly have a political leaning. Marshall is open about the fact that he feels the Bush administration has done a lousy job. But the site has some lines it won't cross - despite pushing forward the U.S. attorneys investigation, they still haven't called for Gonzales to resign. They don't endorse or raise money for candidates, but they have got people's attention.
NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, says that this is the direction some blogs are pushing in, original reporting filled by the talents and efforts of their readership. How do you trust readers to do a reporter's job? Rosen says, you wait and see.
Mr. JAY ROSEN (Journalism Professor, NYU): If it holds up over time. We trust it. So if they do it another time, we may trust that. If other people looking at the same material come up with the same results, well, that suggests we can trust it. If mistakes are made and they're corrected quickly and caught by the same people who are making them, that says, huh, maybe this system can be trusted.
SMITH: In fact, Rosen is starting a new reporting project with Wired Magazine -fueled almost entirely by readers - called Assignment Zero, to see if a major site can use citizens doing journalism in their spare time.
Back at the Talking Points Memo newsroom, Paul Kiel says there are some challenges in deputizing your readers. Sometimes, it's a little hard to keep up.
Mr. ROSEN: By now I have 2,700 unread emails.
SMITH: I'm sorry, 2,700?
Mr. ROSEN: Yeah. I got a little behind.
SMITH: Not that he's complaining, he says. Even more than scooping the mainstream news, having the readers respond show that they're doing their job.
Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.
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