How ThinkProgress became ‘real competition for scoops’

One morning in late February, ThinkProgress‘ climate reporting team met in a narrow conference room with the thermostat set to 72 degrees and a selection of Bigelow teas in one corner.

There were eight people around the table and two more on speakerphone, and they were kicking around the idea of writing something about the Democratic primary in the Massachusetts governor’s race. Someone noted that Don Berwick, the most progressive candidate in terms of climate change, was in last place.

“No correlation here!” Ryan Koronowski, the climate pod’s co-editor, said to some laughter.

ThinkProgress’ editor, Judd Legum, suggested waiting, “as much as Don Berwick seems to be catching fire,” he allowed — “at my desk!” reporter Emily Atkin interjected, to more laughs.

The rest of the meeting was a pretty standard editorial confab. Reporter Jeff Spross talked about getting the runaround from a source in the Michigan GOP. “It’s worth waiting to talk to someone there,” said Kiley Kroh, Climate Progress’ other co-editor.

Legum displayed an impressive amount of knowledge about chicken waste and impervious surfaces. “In Maryland, that’s what environmentalism is,” he said. “It isn’t climate change.”

Judd Legum. (AP Photo/HO/American Progress)

Legum has firsthand experience with the finer points of Maryland politics. He founded ThinkProgress two years after he graduated from Georgetown University’s law school in 2003. He left it in 2007 went to work for Hillary Clinton as her campaign’s research director, then practiced law in Annapolis. In 2010 he ran for state delegate. (“I won the Democratic nomination and lost in the general — 2010 was a tough year,” he said.) He returned to Center for American Progress and ThinkProgress to work on social media and became editor again in 2012.

In fact, the Center for American Progress, which hosts ThinkProgress, is tightly integrated with mainstream Democratic Party politics. Its former president, John Podesta, is a White House counselor who oversaw President Obama’s transition to office on a team stocked with CAP personnel. When reporting on the team, Ben Smith and Chris Frates noted that a CAP executive answered questions they’d sent to a spokesperson for president’s transition team.

Smith, who is now the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, said in an email that ThinkProgress breaks “a ton of news” and avoids “the lazy ideological traps that are endemic among partisan news organizations.”

“I certainly view them as real competition for scoops,” Smith continued, saying the publication is “much better at the social web than most legacy organizations.”

Recent events on the guacamole beat back Smith up on that last point.

On March 4, Atkin noticed that Chipotle’s annual report contained a warning that “Increasing weather volatility or other long-term changes in global weather patterns” could lead to the restaurant chain suspending some menu items, including guacamole. Her item, “Chipotle Warns It Might Stop Serving Guacamole If Climate Change Gets Worse” got shared more than 46,000 times on Facebook and was picked up by outlets like Time, CNN and NPR.

Chipotle spokesperson Chris Arnold told outlet after outlet the language was routine, but Atkin followed up the next day with a story that argued the warning was in fact significant: “The fact that Chipotle openly acknowledges climate change, even as a ‘routine risk,’ is news,” she wrote.

Over coffee, Legum said that ThinkProgress stories can create “blockages” — conservatives will see the name of the outlet and not share them. That’s why he tries to avoid the “sugar high” of red meat stories, he said, and likes to publish stories that assert, for instance, that Clarence Thomas is a great legal mind or a weekly roundup of good conservative writing. “If you write for people who already believe what you’re saying, what is the point?” Legum said.

With some exceptions, ThinkProgress’ 32 staffers are young and slightly nerdy — though not especially geeky by the standards of Washington, D.C., where it’s not unusual to see a man at a urinal flip his ID badge over his shoulders, then check his phone with his free hand. (Full disclosure: I saw this happen in the CAP building.)

Some of its staffers have moved onward and upward through the wonkosphere from Think Progress: Alyssa Rosenberg and Andrea Peterson to The Washington Post, Matt Yglesias to Slate and then Vox, Nico Pitney and Amanda Terkel to The Huffington Post. (“I don’t know if this is a feature or a failure of the site but we haven’t created big personal brands,” Legum told me.)

Another former writer, Zaid Jilani, wrote recently that ThinkProgress bloggers were dressed down after he wrote a 2011 post about President Obama’s Afghanistan policy: “all of us ThinkProgress national security bloggers were called into a meeting with CAP senior staff and basically berated for opposing the Afghan war and creating daylight between us and Obama.” Jilani said he “left CAP not too long after that, partly for reasons of other censorship dealing with both corporate sponsors and that institution’s fealty to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).”

“Lots of people complain about stuff you write,” Legum said when I asked him about Jilani’s post. (He wasn’t editor at the time.) “That’s actually a sign you are editorially independent in writing the things you think are important, not the things that you think will make people happy.” The post, he noted, is still up.

ThinkProgress, Legum told The Washington Post, “is editorially independent and we regularly publish critical reporting of Republicans, Independents and Democrats, including the White House.”

David Sirota also complained of pressure to toe a party line when he was at Center for American Progress, linking to a story about an email alert he wrote that got Podesta hauled in front of Democratic legislators in 2005.

The Progress Report, which Sirota worked on, Legum said, “was a collaborative effort of the whole group, including the policies teams. Nobody pretended that that had any editorial independence.”

Even beyond questions of independence, ThinkProgress has shifted the way it operates in recent years, staffers there said. “We’ve been experimenting with publishing outside the window of 9-5:30,” Managing Editor Igor Volsky said. Last year the publication reduced its office hours and established a weekend rotation so its journalists aren’t always on the hamster wheel. “We adhere to our principles,” senior editor Annie-Rose Strasser said. “We encourage people to have a life.” Traffic went up, Volsky told me. “You can’t really work people too far into the ground,” Legum said.

ThinkProgress also removed the timestamp from stories on its homepage, which “really weighed down on us,” Volsky said.

As sharing has become more central to the publication’s success, social media editor Caitlin Frazier helps shape stories “from the beginning,” Volsky said. Longer stories, she said, can “still have people on them days later.”

“It’s more about do you have the right traffic,” Legum said. “Whether we have a successful day is not whether you have 40 posts but one thing that will really catch on.”

Legum cited Travis Waldron’s January story about the Washington Redskins’ messaging attempts as a reflection of that more patient approach.

If someone’s being criticized, Legum says, ThinkProgress waits to get comment. “If you start out from more of an opposition research perspective, you don’t do that.” “We waited a long time” on the Redskins story, he said. “I think there is a lot more rigor in terms of figuring out if we have the right components.”

In March, ThinkProgress had 6 million unique visitors and 14 million page views, Legum said. It covers culture, national security and sports. Advertising on the site is “now supporting a pretty good percentage of the total budget,” he said, and it’s building a sales team — its first ad salesperson started last Monday.

Still, it remains a publication with a point of view. Opinion’s not a big part of the mix, but information — a word Legum uses a lot — is. Lately it’s been covering homelessness more.

“I think that we can find places where we can maybe have a little more of an impact,” he said. “Even though we’re in a progressive think tank, to me the most effective strategy is to go out and report on things that are happening.”

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