Eric Kleefeld ’04: Pioneering Journalism’s New Frontier

Eric Kleefeld says the TV cable news is always on at TPM’s office in Manhattan. Photo: Jason Reif

The blog called Talking Points Memo (TPM) is forging new pathways in online journalism, and Eric Kleefeld ’04 is part of the revolution. Most mornings, the staff reporter is at his desk in a room full of computers in midtown Manhattan in time to post a roundup of top political stories by 9 a.m. He devotes the rest of the day to tracking and commenting on the interplay between events and how the media are covering them. At the same time, Kleefeld does original reporting: cultivating sources, following up on leads, and bringing fresh information to bear on news that may not be news until TPM breaks it.

Until recently, the blogosphere was little more than an echo chamber for stories generated by established media outlets and then endlessly recycled by people with axes to grind. Now, TPM is at the forefront of breaking that mold, according to Charles Franklin, a professor of political science at UW-Madison and a founder of pollster.com. “[TPM] represents a major move in new media with an actual staff, and Eric is one of the earliest staff members there,” says Franklin. “It is really taking on the role of the traditional investigative newspaper.” Created by Josh Marshall in November 2000, TPM has become a “must-read for news junkies,” as Franklin describes himself. He visits the site several times a day.

Kleefeld admits to being “obsessive” when he gets his teeth into a story — something that the Internet, with its low overhead, makes possible. He’s always looking for details that other journalists have either overlooked or minimized. “If I find something that should be enlarged,” he says, “I’m going to post on that; I’m going to make some calls; I’m going to get a comment.”

On any given day, Kleefeld may solicit perspectives on a politician’s outlandish statements, bore into the inner pages of a legislative bill, monitor a hearing on C-SPAN, and observe how a breaking story is being spun. When he has something to add to the national conversation, he does it with lightning speed. Within minutes, thousands of people will read his words.

Kleefeld chose the UW in part because his father, Kenneth Kleefeld ’65, MS’67, PhD’72, has a great affection for the school. The younger Kleefeld’s time in Madison prepared him well for a vocation in political intrigue. “The UW was a great place to learn about politics,” he says. “I could have an apartment that was three blocks from the [Wisconsin state] capitol and three blocks from campus. I was in the middle of a lot of action.”

It also helps that, as Franklin says of his former student, Kleefeld “has an amazing memory for every political name and event he’s ever heard of — he’s like a human database.”

Kleefeld combines that talent with what he calls his “eye for the weird.” Part of his niche in the blogosphere, he says, is “a matter of finding what you can do within this landscape.”

Published in the Spring 2010 issue

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