Saturday, November 22, 2014

How the American Prospect changed policy journalism

American Prospect

The American Prospect is laying off or losing most of its staff, pulling back its web operations and returning to its roots as a quarterly policy journal. This is deeply sad for those of us who love TAP. But respect must be paid. The American Prospect won. It's now a victim of its own success.

The Prospect didn't begin as a web magazine. It began as a policy journal co-founded by Bob Kuttner, Paul Starr, and Robert Reich. The first issue, in 1990, included articles from William Julius Wilson on race-neutral policymaking inside the Democratic coalition, Deborah Stone on the challenges predictive diagnoses posed for the health-insurance industry, and Christopher Jencks on welfare reform. It's a wonderful read, even today.

But there had been policy journals before TAP and there would be policy journals after TAP. What changed journalism  — and, honestly, my life  —  was Tapped.

Tapped was the group blog of the American Prospect. It was started by Nick Confessore (now of the New York Times) and Chris Mooney (now of Mother Jones). And it was awesome. It married the Prospect's policy writing to the early blogosphere's experiments with voice and form.

The result was something truly new: policy writing that was smart, short, accessible, and constant.

Daily journalism used to mean print newspaper journalism. But newsprint was a rough format for policy writing. The ruthless competition for space and the relentless focus on newness made it hard to give tricky issues the length or the repetition they required. It made it hard, as a reporter, to go deep enough, often enough, to really understand the issue yourself. The studiously neutral voice made it impossible for readers to pick apart competing claims. The crowded pages had little room for graphs and maps. The lack of hyperlinks meant everything needed to be explained and reexplained.

That isn't to shortchange the great policy journalism that was done in newspapers, or the many reporters and editors who labored mightily to produce it. But for these reasons and others, the deepest policy journalism was found in magazines and journals like the New Republic, the American Prospect, the Weekly Standard, the Washington Monthly, the Public Interest, the National Review, and Dissent. They could give issues the space they needed. They tended to have at least a bit more voice, which made it easier to make policy accessible to readers.

But they had one huge flaw: they were slow.

The journals were typically quarterly, with articles that needed to be finished months before they came out. The magazines were typically monthly (though some, like the New Republic, were weekly), and they also tended to close their pieces months or weeks before publication. The production cycle meant that these publications could propose big ideas, and analyze relatively static ideas, but they couldn't explain what Washington was doing in real-time.

But Tapped could. And it did. I was a freshman in college when I stumbled across it. I don't remember how I got there. But I was addicted almost instantly. It was like nothing I had ever read before. It was fun, and it was urgent, and it made me feel like I actually understood what was going on. It took issues seriously without taking itself seriously. And it was rare. Most editors still pronounced the word "blog" as if they were swallowing something sour. There were individuals doing this kind of work (notably Kevin Drum, who is still killing it at Mother Jones), but alongside the National Review, the American Prospect was years ahead of its competitors in building a vibrant, popular institutional blog.

Over the years that followed, Tapped would be home to many of the policy blogosphere's innovators  —  in part because the Prospect used its fellows program to begin hiring young bloggers and training them as journalists.

Vox's Matt Yglesias was there, as was Yahoo News' Garance Franke-Ruta. Slate's Jamelle Bouie put in his years, and so did MSNBC's Adam Serwer. The Huffington Post's Kate Sheppard, education reporter Dana Goldstein, UN Dispatch's Mark Goldberg , Talking Point Memo's Kay Steiger, Ann Friedman —  all Tapped alumni. And it's a mark of the Prospect's internal culture that many of the pre-Tapped employees, like the New Republic's Jonathan Cohn, New York's Jonathan Chait, and Talking Point Memo's Josh Marshall later became pillars of the policy blogosphere.

I was hired as a writing fellow at the American Prospect in 2005. I remember the first meeting I ever had with my then-editor, Mike Tomasky.

"Go find out what's hot in poverty," he said. That's how TAP was. It was a place where no one thought you were joking when you non-ironically applied the descriptor "hot" to poverty policy. And so I went out and found out what was hot in poverty policy. I called experts and I pored over white papers and I talked to social workers. Before coming to TAP I did some policy commentary. But the Prospect taught me, as it taught many others, to do actual policy reporting. Tomasky said "pick up the damn phone" so often that it got its own acronym: PUTDP. That's part of what made Tapped special: it was one of the first places to really merge the style of writing being developed on the web with the more traditional tools of journalism.

The combination of TAP's culture and Tapped's medium created a place where young journalists could go and experiment with policy journalism on the web. And some of those experiments worked. It turned out health-care policy could really appeal to readers. It turned out the internet loved charts. It turned out that policy writing could be short, or even just a link. It turned out that a conversational tone didn't destroy the writer's authority. It turned out that blogs benefitted at least as much from diligent reporting as magazine articles. Those experiments now inform journalism in places ranging from the Washington Post and the New York Times to Buzzfeed and Business Insider. Tapped's style of policy journalism is everywhere now.

As for Vox, well, two of the three founders are Tapped alumnus. Without Tapped, there would certainly be no Vox.

The Prospect was held back by some of the problems that have traditionally bedeviled small, nonprofit publishers. It could groom young writers, but it could never pay enough to keep them. It had the money to put out the magazine but rarely enough to invest in it. It was quick to adopt the web but slow to update its publishing software. It was an early innovator but it wasn't as adaptable as digitally native organizations like the Huffington Post and TPM. Ultimately, many of the bets the American Prospect made paid off for other institutions. Tapped won, but TAP didn't reap the rewards. The Prospect shut Tapped down in 2011.

Even so, the American Prospect's future might be brighter than some of the commentary suggests. Tapped was, in its time, exactly what was needed. But there's plenty of fast-breaking policy news and commentary today. Perhaps even a bit too much of it. There aren't enough truly great homes for the big ideas and deep analysis TAP originally provided. There aren't enough places that are developing the policies that will dominate the news cycle five years from now. The Prospect might yet win again.

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