Columnist Chris Hedges addresses an occupy Wall Street encampment in 2011. Photograph by John Minchillo/AP Photo
“Truthdig shows that people are interested in following critical thinking wherever it takes you,” says Amy Goodman, whose syndicated column appears on the site. As host of the popular public radio news show Democracy Now!, Goodman has built her following on a similar foundation of long-form analysis. “In order to understand how someone like a Robert Scheer or a Chris Hedges arrives at a very different point of view—not the establishment consensus,” Goodman says, “you have to go on a journey to see the various arguments and historical references that have led them in that different direction. And that journey takes time.”
Traffic is heaviest when Scheer and Hedges post their once-a-week columns. Nonetheless what draws readers to Truthdig on a daily basis are blog entries and curated links usually posted by the assistant editors. Which brings us to another practice that sets Truthdig apart: All contributors are paid. Even The Huffington Post, which lures 7 million people on average per day (and which was purchased by AOL for $315 million a few years back), doesn’t pay its bloggers. Truthdig, though constantly short of revenue, has always compensated its columnists, bloggers, and interns. Regular bloggers, called “core Truthdiggers,” work on salary or on an hourly basis. “Ear to the Ground” posts, which are brief and usually link to stories elsewhere on the Web, command $25 to $75.
While no Truthdig writer is getting rich, the costs of paying them all in a medium so voracious for content quickly add up. Throughout its existence Truthdig has hemorrhaged money, and it would have expired long ago if not for major cash infusions from its publisher. Those won’t last forever. “I can’t support the site indefinitely,” says Kaufman, who is 53. “I’m already two or three years beyond what I should have been doing.”
It might help if the site pursued potential revenue streams with a fraction of the urgency it brings to rooting out corporate malfeasance and political corruption. So far, that hasn’t happened. Truthdig lacks a full-time marketing manager. Sponsored events are sporadic. The majority of the site’s revenues come from ads courtesy of Advertising.com, which takes a cut.
“The Internet is the last great chance for having some kind of democracy in the world,” Scheer likes to say. But until Truthdig starts approaching its readers as sources of income as well as engaged citizens, the question looms: How can this digital bulwark of a free and open society hope to survive?
Truthdig traces its beginnings to a New Year’s Eve dinner in 2004 at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. The choice of venue wasn’t a matter of happenstance. Chef-owner Alice Waters’s friendship with Scheer started way before she began transforming California cuisine along organic and locally grown lines. In the spring of 1966, Scheer was the 29-year-old foreign editor of Ramparts—one of the few magazines of the era to carry its message of political dissent beyond a tight circle of lifelong leftists and student radicals. When he decided to run for Congress in the Democratic primary in the Bay Area, Waters, though still an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, signed on to manage his insurgent campaign.
Now, nearly 40 years later, Scheer was presiding over a table with his wife, China expert Orville Schell, then-Ohio congressman and two-time progressive presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, and Scheer’s friend and soon-to-be business partner, Zuade Kaufman.
The guests lamented the degraded state of print media. Not only mainstream newspapers but also progressive magazines and weeklies had been financially weakened and editorially defanged by corporate consolidation and Internet competition. Yet few Web-only news outlets seemed to have taken advantage of the medium’s lack of space constraints and its relatively low start-up costs to foster the kind of hard-hitting journalism the traditional press was abandoning. That night Scheer and Kaufman resolved to seize the opportunity.
Truthdig went online the same month Scheer was fired by the Los Angeles Times, where he’d worked for nearly 30 years. Although he was dismissed without explanation, he believes the newspaper’s upper management had become squeamish about his op-ed pieces excoriating George W. Bush’s conduct of the Iraq War. Hundreds of Scheer’s fans picketed outside the Times building. Barbra Streisand canceled her subscription in protest.
Thruthdig has offered new insight into the death of Pat Tillman, the NFL star turned solider. Photograph by AP Photo/Photography Plus Via Williamson Stealth Solutions
Truthdig’s cofounders began with a clear idea of where they wanted to go editorially. “So much stuff on the Internet you can’t trust,” Scheer says. “There’s a limit to Yelping. So what—20 schmucks didn’t like the restaurant? It still might be a great restaurant. Zuade said at the very beginning—and I supported her—that we wanted to have the same standards the L.A. Times has, period.” Less certain was how they could actually make a profit or break even. “The idea,” Kaufman says, “was, Let’s throw it against the wall and see what sticks.” Although they’ve never ruled out turning Truthdig into a nonprofit, Kaufman initially balked at the idea of begging people for money. At least temporarily, she said, she’d foot the bill.
She certainly had the means. In 1957, her father, Donald Kaufman, already a successful contractor, had founded a home-building company with the husband of his wife’s cousin, an ambitious 23-year-old accountant named Eli Broad. Kaufman & Broad, which is now called KB Home, became one of the biggest tract home development corporations in the world.
You might think the Brentwood-raised heiress and the leftist lion from the Bronx an unlikely pairing, but in fact Scheer had been an influential presence in Kaufman’s childhood. Her father read Ramparts during Scheer’s tenure there as editor and as a correspondent reporting from Cambodia and Vietnam. What’s more, Donald “read Playboy for the articles,” his daughter recalls, which means he couldn’t have missed Scheer’s interview with Jimmy Carter on the eve of the 1976 presidential election. In it the devout Baptist candidate confessed that he had “looked on a lot of women with lust” and had committed adultery many times in his heart. That same year Scheer began writing for the L.A. Times, the Kaufmans’ hometown paper.
Despite her father’s business success, Kaufman says, “he understood poverty” and instilled in her a concern for the plight of poor people. The son of Russian immigrants who settled in Detroit, he was sent to live with relatives after his mother contracted tuberculosis. “My dad was a bit of a street urchin,” Kaufman says. “At age ten he sold newspapers on the streets, giving his earnings over to his struggling family.”
From her father Kaufman seems to have inherited a rebellious streak and a love of risk. “As kids,” Kaufman says, “we never felt we had to abide by authority.” Donald Kaufman took his children skydiving and hang gliding. They went rafting down the Amazon. Through the years Kaufman has remained something of a daredevil. She has kept riding even after being thrown from a horse and breaking her back, and on another occasion suffered a concussion that gave her a headache for eight months straight. She stopped skydiving only after injuring her knee in a dirt bike race.
Kaufman speaks of her father as “a huge inspiration for me and a magnificent force in this world.” Bereft after he died in 1983 in an experimental-biplane crash, she was still years away from receiving her inheritance. She also lacked a clear career path at that point, though she’d studied film at UC Santa Cruz and worked at nonprofit organizations in L.A. So Kaufman moved to France, where her son, Donald, was born in 1990 (she and Donald’s father are divorced).
That same year she returned to L.A. and soon met Scheer at a dinner party. “Right away we connected,” she says. He eventually hired her as his research assistant at the L.A. Times. He encouraged her to earn her master’s degree in journalism at USC, where he’s still a professor. Later Kaufman became a writer and contributed to the Westside Weekly section of the Times, remaining there until it was shuttered in 2001.
For Kaufman’s son, Scheer filled the void of father and grandfather. His mother abhorred soft drinks, so when young Donald would visit Scheer’s downtown apartment, the journalist would make sure to give him a soda. Donald won acceptance to Crossroads School after Scheer arranged an interview with the headmaster of the exclusive Santa Monica academy. “Bob,” Donald says, “has been my biggest idol since I was a kid.”
While Donald always remembers his mother having an unwavering sense of right and wrong, he says, Truthdig “has made her grow in terms of her politics. I think that’s why it’s working so well. She’s the hardest worker I know, and she’s trying to prove something.”
The 2013 awards season brought yet another year of critical validation for Truthdig. At the Los Angeles Press Club Awards, Scheer and Kaufman took home the trophy for best Internet-only news site for the third time in four years. And at the 17th annual Webby Awards—the online equivalent of the Oscars—Truthdig won for the fifth time, for best political site. It prevailed over Politico and FactCheck.org, though it surely lagged behind the competition in every area but substance. “With Truthdig,” says Webby Awards executive director David-Michel Davies, “structure, navigation, personalization, and all the other usual factors get out of the way in favor of the main thing it offers, which is very compelling content.”
Truthdig’s five Webby wins in the political category put it well ahead of The Huffington Post, which has three. Recognizing that the Internet is above all a popularity contest, the Webby organizers also distribute People’s Voice trophies during the yearly gala to the sites that have won the most online votes. Here The Huffington Post has trounced Truthdig. HuffPost is the 20th-most-popular site in America, according to the Web analysis company Alexa, and second in the news field only to Yahoo. Truthdig’s Alexa rating stands at 10,315.
None of this will come as a surprise to devoted fans of Left, Right & Center, the political talk show launched by KCRW (89.9-FM) in 1996 with Scheer as its most vehement voice. He represented the left, of course. Arianna Huffington, chosen as the standard-bearer for the Republican revolution, would soon shed her conservative orthodoxy and fall into such harmony with Scheer that the producers hired a more partisan commentator to occupy the seat on the right.
This feature originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine