A Few Notes from Your Emails About ‘Why TPM?’

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I want to thank all the members (new and old) who’ve written in in response to my request for answers to “Why TPM?” I’m going to re-ask the question below. So if you didn’t get a chance to send in a note you still can and I’d appreciate it if you could. I’ve been a bit more hesitant than I’d anticipated in publishing too many of them because they tend to be pretty praiseful and it seems like we’re bragging. But a key reason we’re doing this is audience research. We’re in the midst of TPM. We have things we’re trying to do. But in a way it’s hard for us to know what’s getting through. I’m also very interested in news as service — a particular news organization helps you navigate the news, keep you up to date on the news in a certain way.

So with all that I wanted to mention a few things that came up repeatedly in your emails.

Ahead of the Curve: Many of you say that TPM gives you heads ups about what’s going to be important before it breaks into the headlines. TPM Reader KH says, “I learn about things I need to know about that don’t show up as quickly in mainstream news media or simply aren’t emphasized by them.” TPM Reader MK says, “When something is going to be important, I read about it on TPM long before the other news outlets have figured out that it is significant.” This may just be being in the know or just being deep in the news so our staff has a jump on other places. But I see it more as a sort of concierge service. It’s a product of our going deep into topics, even when they’re not at the center of the news. But it’s also because we’re not just reporting the news. We’re trying to help you navigate the news — to know what’s important, what’s not, what sources are reliable, what’s going to become an issue. These aren’t the same things. And we try to do both.

Trust: In a way this is just the ultimate sample bias. You’re readers. You’re dedicated enough in being readers that you actually write in at my request. So it makes sense that you have a lot of trust in the publication because that’s why you’re here. It’s a sample of those who like us the most. But I don’t think it’s just that. What many of you seem to be talking about is something more particular to us. We try to speak to you directly, something like what they call breaking down the fourth wall in theater or TV. So we try to explain things in our own voice, outside of the various formats of journalistic writing. Hopefully, we’re also just trustworthy and you’ve learned that we don’t make stuff up and we care a great deal about getting things right.

So TPM Reader CP says that “there’s a kind of trust with TPM writers that I don’t see with reporting from big news organizations like NYT or WaPo (which I subscribe to). Not because I have any reason to see you all as more trustworthy. But because I see enough candid writing from the TPM team that I feel that I know where you’re coming from, I know the voices, I know that if something seems important but you’re not sure why, you’ll say that. It feels like a more open narrative than I find in other places that I regularly read. And I think that is what makes me trust it more. Again, not in the sense that I think it’s more true. But in the sense that I feel better able to interpret what I’m reading.”

One thing I’ve told TPM staffers many times over the years is that ideally we should talk to TPM readers in the way we talk to our editors: providing the key information, pointing out the key questions, what we can’t figure out yet, what seems to be the next thing. What you don’t know is as important as what you do know. Talking to your editor — or just conversations among editors — should be to the point, without a lot of throat clearing or set up. Obviously you can’t have it be identical. You need to maintain source confidentiality and you have to make sure readers have context. But that model of communicating to readers as close as possible to how members of the editorial staff communicate new information to each other is the ideal.

Pulling Information Together: Humans are a story-telling species. And one thing we’re trying to do is tell the story of major news events over time, creating a “narrative” of the news. “Narrative” has come in for a beating in recent years. It’s often used today as a kind of straitjacket that news is forced into to achieve a particular end. That is certainly something that can happen. But I really recoil from that way of understanding the term. Again, humans are a story-telling species. It’s fundamentally how we understand the world around us: characters, plot, significance. Storytelling in this way is a way of explaining connection and meaning. TPM Reader EA says, “There is a lot of information, and stories out there, but what TPM does for me is create that narrative thread that pulls many of the events and issues I care about together into the bigger picture. Sure getting into the weeds or seeing breaking stories, but  it is really that historian’s craft of creating that narrative that is infused into TPM that I value.”

Please keep your notes coming. Here’s the question …

For now, I have an ask of members too. Why do you read TPM? And more specifically, what do you get from TPM that you don’t get from other news sources? This might sound like we’re fishing for compliments. And in a way we are. I’m asking Readers and Members to write in with their answer to these questions and I hope to publish some of them as part of our pitch for others to join. But it’s not only that. It’s also audience research. This drive is also combined with a number of projects and efforts this year to improve and evolve the site. (There’s no standing still in digital news. You’re either busy being born or busy dying.) And to do that we need to be in constant dialogue with our Readers. We do that in a lot of ways every day. But here I want to do it in a focused and concentrated way.

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