Defying doomsday predictions, Fox News continues to dominate

The Fox News newsroom. Courtesy photo.

Fox News was reeling. By last spring, the conservative media colossus had seen Bill O’Reilly, its biggest star, and Roger Ailes, its polarizing founder, forced out in separate sexual harassment scandals. Megyn Kelly had been poached by NBC, and online, Fox News faced competition from a crop of insurgent right-wing publications, led by an ascendent Breitbart with a direct line to one of the most powerful people in the West Wing. It was also dealing with the fallout from having to retract a false story that peddled a conspiracy theory about the murder of Democratic Party staffer Seth Rich.

Over the course of Fox’s annus horribilis, its backers feared—and its detractors hoped—we were seeing the beginning of the end of Fox’s dominance. Ailes’s departure raised doubts about the network’s direction. Donald Trump’s candidacy, which divided Fox’s opinion hosts, led Nicole Hemmer to pen a piece for Vox arguing Fox “is unlikely to retain its singular place in the conservative media landscape.” When O’Reilly, and then Ailes’s replacement, Bill Shine, were both dismissed, Fox star Sean Hannity called it “the total end of the FNC as we know it.”

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But then something surprising happened: Fox didn’t falter. Though the Trump era has been a boon to cable news in general, Fox News finished 2017 as the most-watched basic cable network in both primetime (with an average of 2.4 million viewers) and total day (1.5 million), according to Nielsen ratings. And Fox’s website, long neglected under Ailes, emerged as a powerful complement to its broadcast partner.

The network’s news division has been the understated key to Fox’s steady success. Jay Wallace, who was elevated to oversee the news side of the business in May of 2017, says his first goal upon taking over following a year of turmoil was simply to “stabilize everything.”

Through fallout from sexual harassment scandals, the departure of top talent, and doubts about where the network was headed, Wallace’s news division has been a steadying force. He credits the work of journalists like Shepard Smith, Bret Baier, Martha MacCallum, and Chris Wallace with grounding the network’s daytime lineup in hard news, and notes that part of Fox’s appeal to a conservative audience is that it has journalists “who are able to ask things slightly differently or be somewhat less conventional, but still cover the news in the way that they were brought up as traditional journalists.”

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Last month, Fox’s 11pm hard news show, hosted by Shannon Bream, overtook Brian Williams’s MSNBC show in the ratings battle. Fox has also generated strong ratings for its live coverage of major news events, such as during Trump’s first State of the Union in February and in early coverage of Hurricane Harvey last August.

Wallace also oversees FoxNews.com, an afterthought in the Ailes era. “I don’t want to say it was a generational thing, but it may have been,” Wallace says regarding Ailes’s lack of interest in promoting and funding the company’s Web presence. Part of Wallace’s goal when he assumed control over news last spring was to change that attitude. “The time had come for us really to make sure that our digital operation matched with linear TV,” he says. “If you turn on Fox News, there is a certain amount of aggressiveness and velocity in the way we present breaking news on the channel. We wanted to match that with digital.”

The revamped Fox News newsroom. Courtesy photo.

To achieve that goal, Fox brought on Noah Kotch as editor in chief of FoxNews.com last June. Kotch, an industry veteran with a peripatetic career that has included stints as Peter Jennings’s head writer, a producer on NBC’s Today, and the editor of News Corp’s right-leaning news site Heat Street, says the message he got from executives upon taking control of the website was clear: “Digital is now front and center of the priorities for the company.”

Fox has made what Kotch describes as “a sizable financial investment” in the Web, beefing up staffing, going to a 24-hour newsroom, moving to a new content management system, and rolling out a redesign. Though the nature of modern newsrooms has blurred the lines between digital and broadcast assignments, Kotch says that by some measures, his staff has doubled over the past year.

The result of that investment has been more original content and a significant increase in traffic. In January, Fox claimed victory over CNN, celebrating its 1.43 billion multiplatform total views, touching off a war of words with its competitor. CNN VP of Communications Matt Dornic mocked Fox’s use of total views, and argued that Fox had included only a subset of CNN’s traffic in its numbers. “For Internet nostalgia enthusiasts, CNN also beat Fox News in pageviews,” CNN stated in a follow-up press release, taking a jab at its rival. “Reports to the contrary are bananas.” While CNN is correct in noting that the standard measurement for reach is unique visitors, not pageviews, Fox’s growth is undeniable. In the nine months since Kotch has taken over, Fox’s average monthly visitors are up nearly 10 percent from the nine months before his arrival, peaking with 93 million monthly uniques in October 2017, according to comScore. Meanwhile, traffic to Breitbart, once billed as a threat to Fox’s dominance of the conservative media space—though Fox never viewed it as a true competitor—has plummeted.

Touting a focus on original content, Kotch praised recent pieces on an American photographer who escaped Al Qaeda captivity and reporting from Syria by Hollie McKay as examples of the sort of work the website now produces. He also dismissed criticism, some from within his own newsroom, that the site has adopted the tone of some of the network’s more ideological opinion hosts. “I don’t look at it ideologically,” Kotch says. “I think if you look at what have been the big stories out there in the last six months or eight months, those are the stories people have been focusing on, and that’s why we’ve been covering them.” He says the site’s focus on Hillary Clinton, for example, is a reaction to her continued presence on the national stage. “She chose to maintain her presence in the news with a huge book tour,” Kotch argues.

He pushed back against the description of the site’s overall mix as “tabloid” content, saying he views the word as pejorative. “I would describe it as lively, engaging, compelling, and fundamentally interesting,” Kotch says. “We’re also not going to talk down to our users; we’re interested in the stories they’re interested in. We’re going to cover them responsibly and fairly, and we’re also not going to bore them.”

Kotch took over the site just after it was forced to retract the Seth Rich story, and says he can’t comment on what went on before he arrived. Nor could he provide an update as to the status of Malia Zimmerman, the author of the piece, due to ongoing lawsuits. In the site’s retraction, it stated Zimmerman’s story “was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting,” but Fox has yet to offer a full explanation for what went wrong.

In terms of what he wants the site to look like under his leadership, Kotch cites his experience as both Jennings’s writer and Today’s producer (“where we could go from interviewing the president to, half an hour later…playing with baby tigers”), and says he wants to achieve the right balance between “what’s important and what’s interesting.”

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Finding that balance has long been a battle on the television side of Fox News. The full-throated embrace of Trump’s agenda and the dabbling in conspiracy theories by primetime opinion hosts has caused the rift between news and opinion, always present in Fox’s DNA, to spill into public view. (Laura Ingraham’s recent taunting-of-then-apology-to a teenage mass shooting survivor likely won’t help matters.) In a recent Time magazine profile, Shepard Smith criticized the actions of his primetime colleagues, saying, “We serve different masters. We work for different reporting chains, we have different rules. They don’t really have rules on the opinion side. They can say whatever they want.” Hannity responded by calling Smith “clueless” about what the opinion side of the network does.

While acknowledging that Trump presents unique challenges because of his prior relationships with some of Fox’s hosts, Wallace denies that the gap between news and opinion has expanded. “Lots of people, when they have to talk about Fox, it’s a rich storyline to make it seem like there’s infighting,” he says.  He argues that broad-brush criticisms of Fox News as a whole ignore the distinction that the network tries to draw. “We paint journalists who have come up as traditional journalists as journalists, and we paint our opinion people as opinion people,” Wallace says. “There are times where you do get a little bit of tension or friction, but we’ve always been honest about it. This network has always been an opinion and news shop. It was built with both pillars.” Referring to the environment as “a family atmosphere,” he notes that at Fox’s Christmas party, the two toasts of the evening were given by Hannity and Smith.

The purchase of 21st Century Fox by Disney, expected to close late this year or early 2019, means Fox News will become an even more important part of Rupert Murdoch’s media holdings. Though Wallace declines to speculate on what the deal might mean for the network, beyond acknowledging that the network will likely be live 24 hours a day “in the near future,” he seems optimistic. “Going into our third decade, Fox News and the success of digital have proven that there is a marketplace that wanted a choice in news,” Wallace says. And, he adds, “it does go to show that the brand was bigger than any one person.”

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.