Truthdig: Webzine launches excavation into national and international politics

Robert Scheer — a nationally-syndicated liberal columnist, book author, radio show host, and USC journalism professor — has never faced much of a challenge captivating an audience. So, when the Los Angeles Times announced its new Op-Ed lineup in November 2005 — sans Sheer — it was no surprise that his loyal readers launched an unprecedented protest that included many cancelled newspaper subscriptions. Meanwhile, L.A. Observed led the blogosphere in speculation about why the Times discontinued his column.

In a fortunate coincidence of timing, Scheer was just about to launch a new joint venture, It’s a collaborative effort with publisher Zuade Kaufman, who is an entrepreneur and former reporter for Westside Weekly, a now-defunct Los Angeles Times-operated local paper. While Kaufman focuses on business and design elements, Scheer showcases his editorial sensibility across the site, including his “Ear to the Ground” section.

According to the site, Truthdig is “built around major ‘digs,’ led by authorities in their fields, who will drill down into contemporary topics and assemble packages of content — text, links, audio, video — that will grow richer with time and user participation.” Two experts featured on the site now are leading digs on China and on the relationship between religion and homosexuality.

Over a late night supper at a downtown L.A. brasserie, Scheer and Kaufman talked to OJR about the Truthdig launch, magazine-style writing on the Web, and premortem eulogies.

OJR: In Steve Wasserman’s Truthdig piece, “Chicago Agonistes: The Plight of the L.A. Times,” his lead opens with the following: “Why continue to read newspapers? After all, newspapers are losing circulation at precipitous rates, giving rise to fears that they may not survive long enough to write their own obituaries.” How is your site providing readers with coverage that the established media are not?

Scheer: First of all, we’re not competitive with established media. In fact, we’re using them as a basic resource. In my Ear to the Ground, we’re finding things in The Washington Post, the BBC, The New York Times. There’s a great deal of data out there, but the most reliable sources are the established media and we’re certainly not going to turn our back on it. We’re going to use it, or mine it, if you like. Our goal is to use writers who care about the subject, and know something about it.

I put the Truthdig website up on a projection screen in my [USC] class, and I said, here’s an example, Saddam Hussein is on trial. That’s the news. But he’s on trial for events that happened in 1982. After ’82 the U.S. got involved with Saddam Hussein, and supported him and so forth. We have an uncovered file on Saddam Hussein on our site. In a pre-Internet or pre-computer world you would have had to encourage students to visit a major library to find these documents. We also have a ground link to a CDC report on sexual behavior, which I suspect people find interesting. It just didn’t make much news. More than 50 percent of young people seem to engage in oral sex, and it seems to go both ways so that’s a big change in our society that has not really been noted. We can take an otherwise stale government document, make a link to it to get people interested enough to read it for themselves, and then link to another document. That’s the basic idea of the site.

We’re not pitted against old media. What we are pitted against is the model old media is trapped in. We wanted to stand as an alternative model to what’s going on on the Internet. When you get away from the mainstream media, it’s basically hyperventilated opinion. It’s what I call bar room conversation. Wasserman’s piece is 3100 words and I didn’t in any way try to cut it down, and I didn’t try to chop it into sections. I didn’t ruin it by saying it needed to fit on a specific amount of screens. Hopefully some readers will settle in with it; print out stories to read on their couch, or read them on their laptops at Starbucks. Our current issue is closer to Harpers or the New Yorker.

OJR: What do you think is more to blame for the demise of major newspapers: corporate stake holding or the Internet?

Scheer: I don’t think we know yet whether newspapers are going to drop off. First of all, they make money. They don’t seem to make as much money as some people may have expected when they bought the paper, and they don’t always make as much money as they used to make, but the Los Angeles Times is certainly making money. They had a pretty good profit picture last year, but it’s true they lost readership. So I think [the traditional media] are in a transition period but they’re still the best thing on the Internet.

OJR: In a post on Huffington, you wrote: “The [Los Angeles Times’] publisher, Jeff Johnson, who has offered not a word of explanation to me, has privately told people that he hated every word that I wrote. I assume that mostly refers to my exposing the lies used by President Bush to justify the invasion of Iraq. Fortunately sixty percent of Americans now get the point but only after tens of thousand of Americans and Iraqis have been killed and maimed as the carnage spirals out of control. My only regret is that my pen was not sharper and my words tougher.”

Scheer: Truthdig’s opening banner says, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” I’ve had a lot of opportunity, I’ve never had any trouble getting printed. When I went to the Los Angeles Times, I went with idea that I would continue to publish elsewhere so I did. I knew that either way I had Truthdig [which was conceived a year and a half ago.] I also knew that other papers would carry my column and magazines would carry my work. In that statement that you read on Huffington Post, I think there were 370 or 390 comments, you don’t get that response from a newspaper column very often.

OJR: Do you think the Los Angeles Times handled your departure fairly?

Scheer: No. The publisher took over the editorial page. I worked for the paper as a reporter for 17 years. I’ve been a contributing editor and columnist for the last almost 13 years. I have a lot of friends in the building. I heard from more than one person, including people I was working with in the op-ed section, that this publisher very deliberately said he wanted the paper to be more conservative, and that he particularly didn’t like my column. I kept asking [Op-Ed Editor] Nick Goldberg if the column was over, and Nick finally did say it was going to end. He told me very clearly that the publisher didn’t like the column. I said look, there’s a polite way to do this and an impolite way. I said there’s a difference between being pushed out the window or escorted to the door. I never heard from [Editorial Page Editor] AndrĂ©s Martinez and I never heard from the publisher. And I thought that was unseemly. And so Kevin Roderick from LA Observed. That’s how this whole thing started. He called me and said I hear this [rumor that your column is ending], and I said I hear the same rumors. That’s where it snowballed and [the Los Angeles Times] had to accelerate their timetable.

What offends me, the basic point I’d like to come out of this interview, quite apart from anything about Truthdig: We [in journalism] don’t cover ourselves. And for all the time I was at the Los Angeles Times, the one story there that people knew best and reported least was what was going on in that building. The history of the Los Angeles Times has been very important to this city.

This publisher has wanted to [kill the column] ever since he’s been in that building. And why? Is it pressure from [Tribune Company headquarters in] Chicago? Is it some complaining of the Bush administration which has power over your waiver of the FCC? You would think journalists would ask those questions and they could get answers. But I don’t hear anything.

NOTE: In a note to readers published on Nov. 15, 2005, Martinez defended the paper’s decision to discontinue Sheer’s column by writing, “Some readers have complained that The Times is conspiring to silence liberal voices on the Op-Ed page. Others have gone so far as to suggest that Scheer is being punished for opposing the war in Iraq. But that is hardly a badge of shame around here — the newspaper’s own editorial page opposed the decision to invade Iraq.”

OJR: What is your response to the cancelled subscriptions to protest your leaving the editorial pages?

Scheer: I’m proud of the work I’ve done. Anybody can go and read it on the Internet. And that’s what saved me from the Bill O’Reillys and Rush Limbaughs. They built up a big national audience for me and then people would Google me and find my website. And they can read all my columns, and so my work will stand by itself.

I.F. Stone wasn’t admired much before he died. His column was killed at every major newspaper and he had to publish his own little newspaper. And I see Truthdig as kind of an I.F. Stone weekly on speed. When the paper killed my column, I got to hear the eulogies before I died. It’s quite a gift. The outpouring of support from people was incredible.

OJR: What will differentiate your site from those such as Huffington Post, which also launched with a built-in fan base?

Scheer: I like her site. I made it my homepage. Her stuff is very newsy and very fast changing. We have much more of a point of view. We’re archival, and she’s in the moment. We’re about digging for the truth, digging through the headlines. So we’ll leave things up a lot longer we’ll go deeper. I think we compliment sites like Huffington’s by trying to develop a more profound documented view of these issues.

Kaufman: We’re looking at it as sort of a cross-pollination, not competition.

OJR: Several blogosphere comments note that Truthdig, unlike Huffington Post, does not read like a blog but like a traditional print publication. What do you envision for the site’s writing style?

Scheer: I don’t want to be intimidated by a notion of what the Web writing should be. In a way, when you see it, you’ll know it. We want good writing.

Kaufman: You can compare our pieces with any of the best magazines or publications out there.

Scheer: That’s an important point. I think what we have on the site right now could stand in the newsstands with Harpers and the New Yorker or anyone else. They’re extremely well-written pieces. And we work them the same way a magazine would. I don’t know how this is going to work out in the long run because it’s pretty damn labor intensive. From an online journalism point of view the real test for us will be to see if people want to settle in with us as a magazine that will not change that quickly.

OJR: Truthdig seems focused on in-depth analysis. Does that mean the site won’t compete as a breaking news source?

Scheer: We’re not indifferent to the news. We see these pieces as kind of evergreens in that they can be refreshed, they can be retopped. Also, our dig leaders are going to blog. We could not afford to invest in this inventory if we thought the inventory was going to be dated.

OJR: LA Observed reported “a young writer has already been sent to the Middle East on a ‘dig.'”

Scheer: We have a writer who has been doing a dig for us on Iraq. He works for another publication that is sending him, so they’re paying part of his trip and we’re piggy-backing on it by picking up some of his expenses.

OJR: Will your funding and ambition continue to allow for this kind of reporting? Do you plan to set up bureaus of sorts?

Scheer: There are two ways to raise money for our site. One is through advertising and sales. We’re also not above going to individuals or foundations to maybe raise some money for specific projects.

OJR: What is the Bazaar page?

Kaufman: We’re going to sell items, including books and videos (DVDs), that we endorse. Also, when writers reference a certain item on our site, then readers will be able to buy those items in our Bazaar they’ll be able to go to our site to get it.

Scheer: We also have a line of Truthdig books coming out with Akashic Books and the first one is one I’ve done on the presidency. And we think these archives will lead themselves to book collections. If you develop a really good archive on something you’re half way to a book.

OJR: How will A/V booth showcase multimedia? What about user participation aside from comments?

Kaufman: We’re going to podcast all the digs. We have text enlargers for people who have a difficult time seeing. And we want to provide audio of the longer digs.

Scheer: Zuade’s feeling is there are a lot of good documentaries out there that no one ever gets to see.

Kaufman: I’ve already commissioned a short one for the site that is an extension of “Off to
War,” which is a 13-part series currently airing on the Discovery Channel. I’ve also been approached to collaborate on a feature length documentary that would have a theatrical release. It would be partially produced by Truthdig. If that goes through, then we’ll show clips on our site and it will have dig elements, such as court documents since it is about a pending legal case. Some of the key participants, including one that is in prison, said they would blog on our site. So you see, the possibilities are endless here. Also, I did a photo essay on Ron Kovic who wrote “Born on the Fourth of July” about living with the wounds [from the Vietnam war].

Scheer: She took pictures of him asking what it means to be in a wheelchair for 35 years, and we got Kovic to do an audio reading the new introduction to his book. Our whole point is here’s a guy wounded in Vietnam in 1969, and the wounds don’t go away.

OJR: How and when was the idea for Truthdig conceived?

Scheer: Zuade was working with me on a local column that I was doing for Our Times [a defunct series of community papers owned and distributed by the Los Angeles Times]. We enjoyed it, and we had a big impact. We probably could have made money with a small paper, or probably still could.

Kaufman: When they closed Our Times, we talked about maybe doing a Westside paper. We did the numbers on that and found that it would have taken seven years to get a return, and it was risky.

Scheer: Local papers can do well but it’s really labor intensive.

OJR: Who is the Truthdig reader? Is your audience national or local? In what ways are you attempting to court the diverse, multicultural audience that critics argue is lost to the LAT?

Scheer: Zuade and I are equally as interested in international and national events.
Of the first 20 or 30 responses we received when we launched, three were from Americans living in Paris. We’re assuming if we can show the reader that something is interesting and important, they will follow our links. We’re not looking to have a million unique visitors. If I can end up with 50,000 or 70,000 people who really find this a useful site then I’m a happy camper. This is not a food fight in a cafeteria. This is an attempt to put out a good solid magazine of substance that has a progressive point of view. I pick people who I think have decent values. They don’t have to agree with me.

OJR: Describe your ad-driven business plan. Why did you launch without ads? Who are your current financial backers?

Scheer: It’s a joint partnership [between Kaufman and Scheer].

Kaufman: We’re not opposed to advertising. We will have ads. We first really want to get across the merit of our content and our page. We’re promoting ourselves right now. [In terms of ads], what you’re talking about are nickels and dimes before you have a readership.

Scheer: We’re not quite sure about this, but we think people have over-promised on the Web. We made a vow to each other not to over-expect for this site. At the end of two years, if we’ve put a good quality product that we’re proud of, and if we’ve sustained x amount of losses and it doesn’t work, we’ll pull the plug on it. Yet, [given the big shift of advertising on the Web], we figure if we develop 75,000 loyal readers we can then legitimately go to people and say this a good way to reach them.

Kaufman: We’re just wanting to produce something worth — with merit that we’re proud of.

Scheer: We don’t see it as a get rich scheme either. We’re pretty realistic about it.

OJR: Considering your other commitments–teaching, a radio show, books, a syndicated column — where does Truthdig fall on your list of priorities? What will your followers find on Truthdig that they won’t get on the other platforms?

Scheer: Truthdig is my mistress. Call it my decadence, whatever you want. It’s what I enjoy. Writing is painful for me. Teaching is the hardest dollar I’ve ever earned. I like getting back to editing, and I like working with writers. It’s a labor of love.

OJR: What will your followers find on Truthdig that they won’t get on the other platforms?

Scheer: Clearly, I have certain social orientations that hopefully some people care about or respect. Hopefully I bring some intelligence a sense of history because that’s what an editor does. I’m not the editor of the other publications. And, now, I have a publisher who meets me for a late night dinner, as opposed to the one at the L.A. Times, who wouldn’t even meet me for a cup of coffee.

About Sarah Colombo

Sarah is a recent graduate of USC's Annenberg School for Communication, where she obtained a Master of Arts in journalism. She served as the managing editor of OJR's news blog during the 2004-2005 academic year. She has also been published in a variety of online and print publications, including the Daily Breeze and Premiere magazine. Her professional interests include cultural affairs reporting, arts and entertainment and anything multimedia related.