Donald Trump is a media president. He makes policies based on the words of certain journalists, riles his supporters in opposition to others, boosts a few who show their fealty to him, and measures his success in printouts of web stories his aides bring him.
His tenure as President has been marked, perhaps unsurprisingly, by turmoil and change in the conservative news organizations that are most closely linked to him— including closings, mergers, launches, and significant spikes and dips in traffic.
An analysis of these sites, based on web traffic figures available through Comscore, reveals what a certain portion of America is reading as it approaches a pivotal election. The short answer: much more right-wing web tabloidism.
There are currently about 15 to 20 conservative websites which attract at least one million unique visitors per month. Some are venerable right-wing reliables like National Review, The Washington Times, or Newsmax. Others, like Infowars, The Gateway Pundit, Big League Politics, and Breitbart, mine the far fringes of the right.
The most significant change in the conservative media landscape has been the astonishing traffic growth of Foxnews.com, the digital arm of the most-watched cable news network. Its traffic has doubled since 2015 and is now at more than 100 million unique visitors per month, which represents nearly a third of the U.S. population.
The Fox Corporation-owned website also generates ten times the audience of any other conservative news website offering original content. Let that fact sink in for a moment. Imagine all conservative websites are the Great Plains. Now face west and you’ll see the Rocky Mountains rising from the plains and jutting so high into the sky that its peaks are fringed with snow even on a hot summer day. Those mountains are Foxnews.com in this landscape. No right-wing website comes close to rivaling the size of its audience.
The website is distinct from the cable channel. Like other mass appeal sites on both sides of the political spectrum, Foxnews.com will cover literally anything that it considers people might read including politics, sports, business and entertainment. With various eye-catching headlines and stories on its home page — “Perv’s Underground Lair” is just one recent example — at first glance the site feels more like a frisky tabloid than a right wing megaphone. But the site certainly leans to the right and its robust “Opinion” section reverberates each day with a meaty selection of (mostly) conservative voices tackling the issues and controversies of the day.
Every month through July this year, Foxnews.com has posted year-over-year traffic increases from nine to 20 percent. What’s more, its monthly unique visitors have consistently exceeded the traffic coming to the New York Times and the Washington Post. Only CNN, which clocks in at more than 120 million unique visitors a month for much of 2019 (also following the quantity-over-quality tabloid model) routinely surpasses Foxnews.com.
In a statement, Fox News’ digital editor in chief, Porter Berry, credited the traffic growth to a focus on audience and a willingness to cover “whatever is interesting in the world, from breaking news and opinion to human interest stories and trending entertainment coverage.”
Other conservative websites have successfully grown their audiences in the first half of the year, including, most notably, the Washington Times and Redstate, according to the Comscore data. But none matched the performance of the Washington Examiner, which earlier this year became the highest-trafficked conservative website outside of Foxnews.com.
Three times this year — April, May, June — the Examiner at least doubled the number of unique visitors from last year. For instance, in June 2019, it jumped to 10 million unique visitors, up from 5 million in 2018. Like Foxnews.com, the Examiner has posted traffic gains every month this year.
The Examiner’s success broadening its audience can be attributed to more emphasis on breaking news and significantly boosting the volume of stories. Its editor-in-chief, Hugo Gurdon, was previously at The Hill. When he joined in 2014, the Examiner published roughly three dozen stories a day. Today, each of the six journalists on the Examiner’s “high velocity” team is required to churn out six to nine stories a day—roughly one an hour—which helps the site put out more than 110 articles daily including 10-15 opinion pieces. By necessity, these mostly consist of sourcing from social media feeds and other peoples’ reporting.
Fox News and the Examiner may also be benefiting from the demise of several other right-wing digital news outlets. The Weekly Standard, owned by the Clarity Media Group (which also oversees the parent company of the Washington Examiner) shuttered last December after a run of more than two decades. The website Truth Revolt, formerly edited by the conservative writer Ben Shapiro, folded in March 2018. In March of this year, Circa, run by the conservative-slanted Sinclair Broadcast Group, collapsed as well.
Other sites that have closed, stopped publishing, or merged include Allenwest.com, Spero News (a Newt Gingrich opinion piece from April lingers on its homepage), and the Conservative Tribune, which has been turned into a section of the Western Journal. And there are several conservative outlets that would probably like to see 2019 in their rear view mirrors given a long string of audience declines, including Newsmax and The Federalist. But none matches Breitbart’s losses.
At the peak of its popularity from June 2015 through November 2017, Breitbart regularly attracted more than 10 million unique visitors a month. It crested at nearly 23 million in November 2016, when Trump was elected.
“They were the right people at the right time to take advantage of a unique moment in US history,” notes veteran conservative author and National Review senior writer David French. “Their traffic was much more related to the Trump wave.”
From April 2017 through June 2019, for 27 months in a row, Comscore data show declining year-over-year unique visitors. This past May it hit a new low, with 4.6 million unique visitors. (Breitbart disputed the figures, despite the fact that Comscore is an industry standard. The site declined requests for specific information to support its account.)
It’s difficult to define an exact cause for Breitbart’s precipitous drop in audience, although veteran conservative journalist Jim Swift points to the poor quality of the content. “It’s not that Breitbart employs really good thinkers or fantastic writers,” says Swift, who now works at The Bulwark, a conservative website with pronounced anti-Trump sentiments that was launched early this year by several former Weekly Standard staffers. “Why would you want to read a bunch of no-name writers when you can get pro-Trump news from much better writers?”
Breitbart itself is seeking to answer that question. In July it bolstered its editorial staff of 20 by hiring David Ng, a 12-year veteran of the Los Angeles Times, to cover media, entertainment, and corporate America. The company’s website lists job openings for investigative reporters, assistant editors, and an “Instagram rock star.”
Breitbart’s attempt to recapture its glory days–and in July it registered its first traffic increase in more than two years, according to Comscore–is just one of a number of intriguing storylines that will play out in the next 15 months. It will be fascinating to see if The Bulwark can swim against the tide of pro-Trump conservative media to expand its distribution base and bolster its influence. Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly each have their own branded websites with tiny audiences. With more backing and editorial heft, they could become bigger voices in 2020. And if the country keeps turning right, it’s possible that traffic to neo-Nazi sites like the Daily Stormer will become a factor.
It’s clear that if journalists, prognosticators, and politicians are not paying attention to the full spectrum of conservative websites in 2019, they may be missing the mood of a significant portion of the country as we enter the election year. That portion may just be big enough to help elect the next president—or keep the current one in office.