Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Smoking Gun: Bill Bastone

The electric guitar, bass guitar and drums comprise what in rocker terms is called a traditional “power trio,” the complementary instruments used in popular music.

Bill Bastone, editor of The Smoking Gun, said his organization’s trio operates in much of the same vein, and has used the “power of the internet” to propel itself into a news site grounded in reporting based upon documentation.

The online investigative news site, produced in a corner of the TruTv offices, has the same standards as other mainstream journalism but the edge of being one of the only sites to do original reporting online independent of traditional media, says editor Bill Bastone who spoke with students Friday.

The site, which features a breadth topics and focuses mostly on what can be obtained through public documents, gets an average of 5 million hits a month, and most of its work gets picked up by other outlets.

The Smoking Gun is one of the “gray beards” of the Internet, celebrating its 12th birthday. The organization began as a “Mom and Pop shop” at Bastone’s home and is now part of TruTv, owned by Time-Warner.

Bastone says he still tries to keep the same feeling. The “power trio” is the smallest unit of the Time-Warner corporation, Bastone said, and the group tries to keep it that way in expenses, staffing and responding to every e-mail that comes to the site.

For Bastone, the art of their process is being the first to obtain documents and records of interest and then making the story viral.

“There’s no point in being third or eighth or even second,” Bastone said.

The Smoking Gun uses connections with other outlets and sites such as Drudge Report, Gawker, Deadspin and to spread its work. After a story goes up, Bastone then immediately sends out links to other outlets he think will be interested, relying on their citing to drive traffic back to the Smoking Gun site.

As the trio is reliant on public records, the biggest concerns they have is what’s public and if it is, how fast they can get it. Bastone said he lives off court documents because they tend to be available in real time. The trio reports on everything from serious news on Al Qaeda to kooky mugshots.

“If we think it’s of interest, it probably has a home on the site,” Bastone said. “It isn’t always the most earth-shattering stuff, but it’s interesting and newsworthy.”

For future journalists, Bastone says it’s never too early to be writing. It’s also essential to read as much as possible. Baston says reading a newspaper is like having a free tutorial in reporting.

“Students have got to have the skill set. If I was in college today, I’d be writing for the college newspaper and writing everywhere I could,” Bastone said.
-Derek Casanovas and Jasmine Linabary

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