In the book and then movie Money Ball, a contrarian baseball general manager defies the sport’s orthodoxy to build a winning team, if not a champion team.
Welcome to the journalistic equivalent: the Daily Caller.
Founded by the orthodoxy-dismissing journalist Tucker Carlson, of the old CNN Crossfire, MSNBC and later Dancing with the Stars fame, and his college roommate Neil Patel, the two-year old online publication delights in its sharp elbows and its unconventional style.
Certainly the legacy media reaction – that the Daily Caller is more up-start than Start-Up – couldn’t please its founding figurehead any more. He relishes in discomforting the comfortable, as he did with his hiring six months ago with David Martosko, a man with a blunt style, no formal journalism experience and a track record as a PR hit man for conservative causes. And yet, they both exclaim, look at the numbers. “Somebody out there likes us,” referring to the online unique viewership that has exceeded 3.5 million a month – beating the New Yorker and Vanity Fair.
But what is most interesting about the Caller today is not the is-it-or-is-it-not a right-wing political rag as common consensus proclaims; what is interesting is that it has staked its place on the edge of journalism. From the kinds of stories and the willingness to call out names (the publication is a politically equal-opportunity burner), it has the feeling of a place in a hurry to get some sharper elbows back in the journalism fight.
Its offices in at L and 17 certainly feel like they are in a hurry. The Caller’s home is more bullpen than newsroom, and looks like it was furnished from a used office furniture warehouse, encircled by a few offices and a ping pong room complete with a working keg. It’s the journalistic equivalent of an Internet start-up, which it is – a journalistic Internet-start-up. And just two years in it’s very close to profitability, according to Carlson.
And despite a few regrettable journalistic faux pas, they are pushing themselves onto the dance floor, breaking stories and relishing in doing anything journalistic that will make the old school wince. But in an adamantly journalistic fashion. The focus, editor Martosko says, is to cover politics in a way that non-political junkies will find “compelling.” But the non-journalist Martosko loses that mischievous smile of someone about the pull a prank when he starts to talk about how they do that. While, he says, they are intent on throwing out the old tactics, the Caller is more committed than ever to accuracy and objectivity. Carlson adds “truth and fearless. All, I hope, with a sense of humor.”
Many are not buying it and question the Caller’s term, “objectivity,” (they milked the Congressman Weiner story in a way some called unseemly) and some complain their headlines tend towards the National Enquirer. Tucker dismisses the criticism with “the beauty of journalism is everyone gets to judge and vote with a cursor. And our traffic keeps going up.”
But perhaps the biggest mark they may be arriving at is a recent long, critical article that appeared in the new Beltway bible – the Politico. Better to be attacked than ignored.
There have been mistakes, and Carlson says there will likely be more but they try to correct them as quickly as possible. But so far there have been none of the cataclysmic journalistic disasters of the type that have befallen the Post and the Times over the years and which many in the traditionalist ranks hope befall the Caller.
Some pointed out the staff turnover when Martosko arrived as a sign of real journalists fleeing the sinking ship, but in many ways the former PR-maven seems to embody exactly what Carlson is trying to do. Martosko brings that “make sure it grabs attention” ethos from PR and a guerrilla mentality that the Caller needs to produce more, more quickly. He proudly points at the near empty bullpen as evidence that he reporters and editors are out reporting. (An author’s note – The Daily Caller is a client of the Medill Graduate School of Journalism’s DC News Service where ATM is a professor.)
And Carlson is just getting started. His self-professed grandiose goal is to replace the media that is dying – the average daily newspaper that is “crap.” And this fall, the Caller staffed up a video team that it hopes will add videos as pugilistic as its words.
There are no checked swings from this ball team, and it’s not clear whether Carlson or Martosko would mind if some furniture got broken in the process.
Author’s note: The Daily Caller is a client of the Medill Graduate School of Journalism’s DC News Service where Amos Gelb is a professor.