How the Washington Examiner became a traffic monster

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At ten thirty on the morning of Thursday, February 13, Hugo Gurdon, editorial director of the Washington Examiner, opened his daily editorial meeting. About half a dozen senior editors were squeezed into his office at the end of a vast newsroom just a few blocks from the White House. Gurdon, tall and slender in a light-blue sweater and pressed tan slacks, looked every bit the DC insider at the top of his game.

In Gurdon’s world, all was well, bordering on perfect. The website he had overseen for the past six years had blossomed into the second-biggest right-wing news site in the country, behind FoxNews.com. His growing editorial empire included a slick new magazine, newsletters, videos, podcasts, and live events. His news operation was producing more than a hundred articles a day. 

But then, at almost the exact moment the meeting was taking place, Mediaite, a media and politics site, published a story exposing some of the Examiner’s inner workings. Within a day, CNN’s Oliver Darcy followed up with a more detailed article. 

Both stories contained embarrassing details surrounding the recent departures of two of Gurdon’s key lieutenants: managing editor Toby Harnden and breaking news editor Jon Nicosia. The articles were based substantially on audio recordings Nicosia had secretly made that captured Harnden making offensive remarks about colleagues. Nicosia himself was fired in an unrelated incident, telling CNN that it was because he wasn’t “going along with Harnden” and that he was “pushing back against his policies.”

CNN’s story in particular dented Gurdon’s public image. The article categorized the Examiner’s newsroom as one of “terror and bullying” and strongly suggested Gurdon knew of the problems. 

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While no one would deny that Gurdon was the person most responsible for shaping the Examiner into a conservative-media juggernaut, another side of him shifted into focus. He was portrayed as a distant and hands-off manager who had ignored the bad behavior of subordinates as long as traffic increased. 

Some Examiner journalists I spoke to characterized Gurdon as a down-to-earth guy whose focus on high-level corporate and editorial duties kept him from associating closely with staff.  But most saw a taciturn editor who preferred the isolation of his glass-enclosed office or frequent meetings with his head of audience development Jennifer de Freyre–Yingling. 

Gurdon quickly announced an internal investigation into the allegations. “The Examiner is home to a dedicated and talented team of professionals,” he wrote in an email to CJR on February 28. “We have zero tolerance for any unacceptable, unsupportive or unprofessional behavior.”

The investigation, led by Denver’s Investigations Law Group (ILG), has now been completed; the company will have the results later this spring. But several former female staffers who had registered complaints to management over the past several years told me they were never contacted by ILG.  

 

MANY MEDIA WEBSITES—conservative, liberal, and mainstream—have succeeded in recent years by doing almost anything to increase traffic. Gurdon is perhaps the most successful exemplar on the right, embracing a model of the newsroom as an editorial factory. Leaving aside its robust opinion section, the rest of the Examiner website is peppered with lots of short, easy-to-digest, fast-to-produce news stories. 

In 2014, when Gurdon took over, an average of about forty stories a day were being published. By 2019, the site was publishing a hundred and twenty. Younger reporters on the breaking news teams produced up to eight pieces daily, often pegged to a newsmaker’s tweet or pundit’s gaffe on a talk show, while beat reporters churned out about three based on more enterprise reporting. 

From January 2019 through March 2020, the Examiner accomplished what no other major conservative website was able to do: generate fifteen consecutive months of year-over-year gains in unique visitors, according to an analysis of Comscore data published on my website TheRighting. Traffic wasn’t just steadily inching upward; it was skyrocketing. That helped push the Examiner in front of other well-known right-wing media outlets, including the Washington Times, Breitbart, the Daily Caller, and National Review.

Gurdon, sixty-three, is British and began his career at the Jersey Evening Post in the early 1980s, then became a stringer in Sudan for the Financial Times. By 1987, he was working at the right-leaning Daily Telegraph, holding a variety of posts, including foreign correspondent. He says he was one of the Telegraph’s most prolific editorial writers, publishing more than a hundred pieces a year. From there he jumped to North America, becoming managing editor of Canada’s National Post. Following a four-month stint at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, he joined The Hill in 2003 as editor in chief and executive vice president. He remained there for the next eleven years.  

The Examiner launched in 2005 as a free metropolitan-DC daily print paper with a focus on local news and sports. In 2013, the newspaper was scrapped and a website created with a right-leaning take on politics and policy. A year later, Gurdon was hired.

The fit was ideal on several levels. Gurdon’s deep-rooted right-wing beliefs were not only aligned with the Examiner’s long-standing philosophies, they were a necessary quality to lead a conservative newsroom with national ambitions. (Gurdon describes his product as “straight news with conservative views,” built to have a broad appeal to right-leaning audiences.) Gurdon had impressive journalism chops and a clear record of accomplishment at major media brands, even if liberal members of New York’s chattering media class had probably never heard of him. He mostly avoided the Georgetown cocktail parties, preferring to paint in his spare time at his home in Bethesda, Maryland.

Soon after Gurdon’s arrival at the Examiner, traffic became an obsession. Journalists were schooled in the finer points of search engine optimization—the art of writing for Google’s algorithms, rather than for readers—to ensure that Examiner stories would appear higher in search results. As part of that effort, Gurdon shifted the site’s focus to breaking news and enterprise reporting and expanded the newsroom staff by a third in his first year. The newsroom now employs one hundred twenty people.

Bob Cusack, editor of The Hill, worked under Gurdon there for more than a decade. He credits the Examiner’s success to Gurdon’s ability to broaden the website’s appeal to an audience beyond the Beltway and to assemble a talented group of journalists.

“He’s a good story generator with a strong news sense,” Cusack says of Gurdon. “He’s not an easy boss. He wants production.” 

 

TWO OF THE KEYS to that production were Harnden and Nicosia, the editors accused of abusive or inappropriate behavior. Harnden, a fellow Brit and Fleet Street veteran, was hired as managing editor at the Examiner in 2018. Nicosia joined the following year as breaking news editor. Editorial output increased—as well as complaints about the workload and the newsroom environment. 

Harnden could be a stern taskmaster. He tended to express himself profanely, without filter, to subordinates. Some insiders say he contributed to a sexist and hostile work environment that existed even before he arrived, in 2018. Harnden, in an email to me, disputed this. He said he had hired and promoted women and men of various backgrounds and had never had a problem with either. “I have never discriminated against anyone,” he wrote. While Gurdon takes pains today to point out that a supportive workplace was the company’s highest priority, ex-staffers contacted for this story believe that he turned a blind eye to grievances as long as traffic grew. Women, in particular, felt the brunt. 

While no one charged Gurdon with misbehavior, they hold him responsible for permitting the atmosphere to continue. And without a dedicated human resources person in Washington to handle complaints—the function was left to chief financial officer Kathy Schaffhauser, who left at the end of April—some employees felt powerless and vulnerable. 

“If concerns are raised, we look into them and take whatever action seems merited,” Gurdon wrote in response to CJR inquiries. 

In the weeks following the publication of the CNN and Mediaite stories, current and former staffers speculated about Gurdon’s future at the Examiner—especially as declining traffic became a subject of conjecture. But the brutal fact is that the numbers are unaffected. In the last two full months for which data is available since Mediaite broke the story—February and March of 2020—traffic had risen 115 percent and 129 percent compared to the same months in 2019, according to Comscore. 

In response to CJR’s questions, Ryan McKibben, president and chief executive of Clarity Media Group, said via email, “Hugo Gurdon continues to have our support and he is doing a tremendous job leading the Washington Examiner.”

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This story has been updated with new details of Nicosia’s departure. 

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Howard Polskin is the president and chief curator of TheRighting, a website that aggregates stories from right-wing media outlets on a daily basis to inform mainstream and liberal audiences. The site, which was launched in 2017, also tracks and analyzes traffic to conservative websites on a monthly basis.