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Can you Dig it? Yes You Can.
Zuade Kaufman and Robert Scheer launched Truthdig in 2005 to report the news that too rarely makes headlines. Now they have another goal: figuring out how to survive
On a clear winter morning the Brentwood headquarters of Truthdig.com is a refuge of serene natural beauty. Floor-to-ceiling glass affords panoramic views of the oaks and sycamores of Mandeville Canyon, with the occasional hawk circling high above the treetops. As seven staffers take their seats around an oblong table laden with wide-screen iMacs, the only visual reminder of the political and environmental turmoil so relentlessly covered on the prizewinning, left-leaning news site is a signed, limited-edition print by Robert Rauschenberg hanging on a far wall—with its images of raw sewage, attack helicopters, and bludgeoned Filipino protesters.
Perched against a contemporary desk, Truthdig cofounder and publisher Zuade Kaufman calls the meeting to order. Since launching the Web site eight years ago with her friend and mentor, the journalist Robert Scheer, she has turned over the lower level of her midcentury-modern home (not to mention a chunk of her family’s real estate fortune) to the venture. “So,” she says, her long, carelessly parted brown hair framing her alert face. “Can we start with the agenda?”
Apparently not. “There are certain perks when you’re over 75,” says Scheer in his singsong Bronx rasp. Lean and wiry at 77, Truthdig’s editor-in-chief sports a white beard and mustache and a full head of shaggy silver hair. “One is that you don’t have to take off your shoes at the airport anymore. And another is that you get to forget to bring the agenda.”
Then he’s off, decrying other Web sites’ plundering of Truthdig stories, warning about the encroachment of advertiser-sponsored content into Web news, and venting his frustration with the Truthdig app on his iPad Mini. He even offers a critique of the branded items being sold on Truthdig Bazaar, the site’s online store. “The messenger bag sucks,” Scheer says. “The cups are very good. The hats are terrific. But the T-shirts suck—the logos are in the wrong place.”
“Maybe you should do a video review of them,” jokes Truthdig’s 32-year-old managing editor, Peter Scheer, who’s spent a lifetime listening to his father’s rants.
The elder Scheer shows a more tender side as he turns his attention to Truthdig’s young writers and assistant editors, delighting in their work as if they too were his children. He welcomes back Natasha Hakimi, a 25-year-old poet, who since completing her 2011 Truthdig internship has spent two years of fellowship study abroad, all the while filing hundreds of posts on topics ranging from forced child marriage in Yemen to a recent Berkeley research paper exploring the nexus between wealth and narcissism. “A real star—an international star!” Scheer says as Hakimi grins.
As for editorial priorities, Scheer tells his staff that Truthdig must keep up its coverage of the surveillance state and if possible expand its reporting. “Not just the National Security Agency but what the private companies do—the pushback from Google and Yahoo and what happens to their information. It’s an issue we should be front and center on.”
Don’t get him started about Obamacare, which Scheer considers a victory for the insurance industry. He’s also concerned by how ceaseless Republican attacks and the administration’s incompetent rollout have made such a morass of the health care debate. “I think anything we could do to help clarify what’s really at stake here would be great,” Scheer says. He pauses for a moment as he selects the ideal lens to bring the matter into focus. “We need to show,” he says, “who’s getting screwed—and who’s doing the screwing.”
Ramparts magazine staffers in 1967. Photograph by RHH/AP Photo
The tag line “drilling beneath the headlines” has appeared on Truthdig’s home page since the site’s debut in November 2005. But “who’s getting screwed—and who’s doing the screwing” would be just as apt a slogan.
To visit the site is to read about a planet betrayed. The columnists and bloggers chart an ecosystem in irreversible decline, follow human rights crises and repression overseas, and probe the erosion of American democracy by perpetual war, the disappearance of privacy rights, the abandonment of the poor, and a political system in thrall to corporate titans, gross polluters, and Wall Street crooks. By pursuing these subjects with an intellectual rigor and relentlessness seldom found on the Web, Truthdig has become one of the most critically acclaimed Internet-based news sites in the world.
Scheer and Kaufman’s enterprise has also distinguished itself by what it doesn’t do. Most news Web sites, even those aiming to play a major civic role, serve up generous helpings of fluff. Scheer, by contrast, has placed Truthdig readers on a starvation diet of celebrity schadenfreude. Visitors can expect to be updated every time former NSA contractor and fugitive whistle-blower Edward Snowden sneezes, but Lindsay Lohan could steal Rupert Murdoch’s yacht and crash it into the Queen Mary and readers would be none the wiser. “Tits and ass, poisoned food,” Scheer says, ticking off the kinds of guilty pleasures he tends to shun. “Put them on a site and you can drive traffic to it. But that doesn’t translate to credibility.”
Neither, it seems, does slick presentation. First-time readers are often struck by Truthdig’s dearth of visual enticement. The color scheme ranges from rust to tan to taupe, the possibilities for user customization are minimal, and the navigation capabilities are about as agile as a rowboat’s.
What Truthdig does offer is something in sadly short supply online: long-form analysis. No concessions have been made to accommodate the supposed shrinkage of attention spans. More than 400,000 visitors a month follow Truthdig, proving that there is a digital appetite, after all, for strong medicine in large doses.
Among the site’s most influential stories was an atheist manifesto by neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris. At more than 4,500 words, the post worked in references to Rwandan genocide, the early-20th-century smallpox epidemic, and such religio-philosophical principles as Blaise Pascal’s “Wager” and Søren Kierkegaard’s “Leap of Faith.” The most popular columnist, meanwhile, is best-selling author and former New York Times foreign correspondent Chris Hedges. His weekly columns typically require three screen jumps and on occasion have run long enough to fill the Times’s entire op-ed page.
Scheer often continues Truthdig’s coverage of stories long after other media outlets have moved on. Though Truthdig’s initial story or even its updates may be relatively brief, their accretion over months or years has a cumulative impact. In 2006, the site ran a searing birthday tribute to slain U.S. Army Ranger and former NFL star Pat Tillman, written by his brother, Kevin. The Pentagon had concealed the cause of Tillman’s death—friendly fire—putting out a false report that he had died at the hands of the enemy in Afghanistan. Kevin’s Truthdig essay garnered so much traffic, it crashed the site. In a Truthdig post five years later, Narda Zacchino, a former Los Angeles Times associate editor and Scheer’s wife, criticized President Barack Obama’s decision to put former General Stanley McChrystal in charge of a federal outreach initiative for military families in light of the central role he had played in the Tillman cover-up while he headed U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
This feature originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine