The Huffington Post and Slate generate considerable buzz but the Webby Award for best political site in 2010 went to Truthdig (www.truthdig.com).
Though lower in profile than its better financed competitors, Truthdig offers investigative articles, op-ed columns, financial news, the arts, and cultural analysis. Most articles, but not all, have a decidedly left wing slant.
Truthdig, which is based in Santa Monica, Calif., was launched in November 2005 by publisher Zuade Kaufman and editor Robert Scheer, formerly with Ramparts and the Los Angeles Times. Scheer is a well-respected journalist, nominated 11 times for a Pulitzer Prize (though he never won one), and was advisor on Oliver Stone's film Nixon. His book The Great American Stick-Up, about how the big banks exploited America, is coming out this summer.
The Webby Awards (the Oscar's for online sites) described Truthdig as a "refreshing way of searching for the truth, featuring original reporting and commentary by some of the most influential editors and authors of our time. It challenges conventional wisdom by digging beneath the headlines."
Contributors include investigative ace Joe Conason, former New York Times correspondent, Chris Hedges, sociologist, Todd Gitlin, political writer, Ruth Marcus, book editor, Steve Wasserman (formerly with the Los Angeles Times), and other well-respected reporters.
Truthdig is organized into Top News Stories, Ear to the Ground, Reports, Arts & Culture, and A/V Booth. It also contains satirical cartoons, Q&A's, and podcasts. It attracts 1.3 million individual readers monthly.
Scheer launched the site because he was teaching at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism and couldn't convince his students to read his weekly column in the Los Angeles Times. When he told them it also appeared online, his students started to read it. "Old style print wasn't their habit," Scheer said. Scheer saw the future and launched an Internet site to attract the under-40 set and baby boomers. At Truthdig, he said, "We're trying to cut through the noise of the Internet."
Furthermore, Scheer knew starting an Internet site could be done on a shoestring budget. "You didn't need Teamsters (to deliver the paper) or trees. It doesn't cost an extra penny if 100,000 people come to read it," he said.
Though limited in resources, Truthdig has sent two reporters to Iraq and one to Afghanistan. It played a contributing role in uncovering the true story behind Pat Tillman, the Arizona Cardinals safety who enlisted in the army and was killed in Afghanistan in 2002 by friendly fire, which was covered up by the military. Truthdig also investigated the role that major banks played in contributing to the economic malaise.
Scheer isn't known for pulling punches or equivocating. In one column on the BP oil spill, Scheer wrote, "The mammoth corporations, through their lobbyists and campaign contributions, end up controlling the government agencies. Why be surprised that the oil conglomerates are also in bed with their pretend Washington regulators?"
Yet Scheer contends that Truthdig isn't always progressive. For example, his columns have slammed liberals Bill Clinton, Roger Rubin, and Lawrence Summers for passing the deregulation bill that led to the financial meltdown. It also published an E.J. Dionne interview with Summers that praised him, despite Scheer's own reservations about Summers, Clinton's Treasury Secretary. "If it's a good article, we publish it. I don't care if the writer is Republican or Democrat," Scheer asserted.
Not just op-ed columns, but news stories take a strong point of view. A news article described the recent Iraqi elections as "fraudulent," eschewing the usual balance exhibited by the New York Times and other major newspapers. Truthdig did not need to show how one expert called the elections a sham while others said it wasn't.
"We don't have a party line at Truthdig," he said. He compared reporters to people who buy a condo. Once they buy the condo, they decorate it anyway they want. "I don't tell Chris Hedges what to write," he added.
Its arts coverage is more New York Review of Books intellectual than timely and hip. Recent articles included Richard Schickel's review of a Felix Moeller documentary, a historical take on Palestinian author Mahmoud Darwish, and a review of the latest Bob Marley biography.
Many websites provide free rein to reader comments. But Truthdig screens comments and won't publish personal attacks on its writers or readers, and won't print profanity, racist, or discriminatory comments--and even "irrelevant" comments. It describes itself as an online news magazine, not a blog, where people can vent.
Asked why the Huffington Post and Slate receive more press, Scheer replied, "We're a mom ‘n pop operation that started on my kitchen table." Huffington Post secured millions in venture capital funding and Slate had the financial backing of Microsoft and the Washington Post. Ironically, Scheer's column is sometimes republished on Huffington Post.
Though it has drawn advertisers and readers also make donations, Truthdig, nearing its fifth anniversary, has yet to show a profit. Nonetheless, Truthdig pays modest three digit sums for articles and photographs, something not always done on other websites.
In the future, Scheer predicts a "shakedown" of Internet news sites and expects Truthdig to survive. "We expect to grow. Newsweek is finished. Print is over," he said.
People will see Truthdig as offering quality journalism and that will keep it alive in the future, says irreverent Scheer. Just winning Webbie's won't be enough unless Truthdig finds a way to bring in more money than it pays out.
Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.