Joshua Micah Marshall had no idea what to expect when he posted an item on his blog the afternoon of Oct. 26 soliciting contributions to send him to New Hampshire for the final 10 days of the Granite State's presidential primary. Marshall, who writes the Talking Points Memo, hoped that a few dollars might trickle in while he prepared to take the next step: drafting a budget for the trip and posting a fund-raising "thermometer" tracking progress toward his goal.
But his readers got ahead of him. Within a day, 190 donors had contributed $4,800 -- far more than Marshall thought he'd need for the trip. He quickly pulled his plea for funds to finance the New Hampshire journey, offered refunds, and asked potential contributors to donate to his general fund instead, if they wished.
"I didn't expect it to go so quickly," Marshall told me in an interview. "I figured that as I was raising it, I could figure out how much it would cost."
The success of Marshall's fund-raising drive is a testament to the value of his blog, which attracts 300,000 unique visitors a month to a site that covers Washington politics and government and, by extension, the campaign front. But Marshall's trip to New Hampshire, which began Sunday, also raises new possibilities about the viability of blogging for a living, or at least the concept of bloggers covering their expenses for reporting that adds value to their sites.
Marshall, 34, is a veteran freelance writer and former Washington editor of The American Prospect, and a center-left thinker who recently completed a long-delayed doctorate in history from Brown University. After starting his blog amid the vote counting in Florida in November 2000, Marshall has been on the front lines of several flaps over which the blogosphere has feasted, including Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott's racially insensitive comments in 2002 and the recent controversy over the White House's apparent outing of CIA analyst Valerie Plame.
He is also a veteran observer of the New Hampshire primary. In 1996, while studying at Brown, Marshall decamped to Manchester as a self-described "political tourist" to soak up the atmosphere. And in 2000, he returned to cover it for The American Prospect. He has also filed daily dispatches for Salon on the Clinton impeachment proceedings and has had pieces in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe and many other publications.
Given his credentials, Marshall could have easily pitched a piece on the primary to a major magazine and covered his expenses with his fee. But he decided that taking the freelance route would force him to choose between using material in the blog and saving it for the magazine. He came down in favor of the blog, though he will continue to write his weekly column for The Hill while he is in New Hampshire.
"What drove me crazy when I did this in 2000 was the idea that I would write a piece on primary night, and it would run a couple of weeks later," Marshall said. "It's intensely frustrating, because all the cool stuff you found out is going to be in Time the next day, or it's already been on CNN and Fox. You end up retreading old news and you have to make it of some value and attempt a good pose.
"During the last 10 days, for political junkies, there's a lot of stuff going on which, if you are into this kind of stuff, you really want to know from moment to moment. I expect it to be similar to what I always do with the blog but more concentrated, much more reporting-based, since I'll be there on a constant basis."
Marshall won't be the only blogger riding the campaign bus. The blog-happy Spokane Spokesman-Review sent its Spin Control blogger, Jim Camden, to New Hampshire for the same period. And Washington Post.com's Terry Neal, who files short, blog-like online columns, can be expected to follow the trail east after the Iowa caucuses.
But among them, Marshall is the only full-time, independent blogger. And his fund-raising experiment, following in the footsteps of back-to-iraq.com author Christopher Allbritton, suggests that at least some bloggers have enough intensely loyal readers to generate real revenue in support of the site.
Andrew Sullivan reported signing up 4,000 readers at $20 per year for a paid-subscriber-only column he writes once a week to supplement his blog. But Marshall's approach is different. He compares it to public television, where donors contribute in support of a product that is shared with the world, for free.
Marshall's New Hampshire fund was in addition to ad revenue that can top $2,000 a month and "general fund" donations that while volatile have exceeded $1,000 in some months. The money, he says, has allowed him to focus more and more time on the blog and less looking for other means of support.
"I see this in the broader context of voluntary support for the site," he said of the New Hampshire trip. "Reader support has allowed me to devote a fair amount of time to the site. I think it shows that I and other blogs can have a funding base, and you can get that to work. I don't think everybody could do it. You have to have a threshold-size of an audience. But it shows me that if there is something I think can be worth covering, I can make that pitch to readers and hopefully they'll support it."
Jay Rosen, the New York University journalism professor who tracks online journalism in his Pressthink blog, said Marshall's journey to New Hampshire and Allbritton's trip to Iraq last year remind him of an era when wealthy patrons sent journalists out to report for them because they wanted exclusive information. But there's a crucial difference, Rosen noted.
"This is private people supporting something that becomes public information," he said. "It's a wild development."
And while Rosen, like Marshall, believes the number of bloggers who can pull off such a feat might be fairly limited, he noted accurately the trend in its way redefines what journalism is all about, even returns the craft to its roots. There's no publisher, no editor, no advertisers (or few, anyway) to worry about offending. Just the journalist, his notebook, his computer and his readers.
"There's a freedom for me," Marshall said, "a value to the independence. ... I'll be giving readers a sense of what's happening that they don't get in conventional journalism."
No one can know today how widely this phenomenon will eventually spread. But it does fit into a pattern that is relevant to traditional journalists. It's the ultimate expression of the readers' -- or users' -- increasing level of interactivity with the journalist. Many mainstream reporters cringe at the idea of direct contact with their readers. But as the Internet empowers readers to hunt down their own information, and to fact-check what they get from newspapers and television networks, they will undoubtedly demand a greater level of intimacy with their "information providers" -- just, as Rosen noted, patients now do their own medical research to keep their doctors honest.
Marshall might be out there on the edge, taking assignments -- and money -- directly from his readers. But before long, even his more corporate colleagues might be forced to learn how to develop a more familiar and even-handed relationship with those who until recently were considered passive consumers.