Right-Wing Media Are in Trouble


As you may have heard, mainstream news organizations are facing a financial crisis. Many liberal publications have taken an even more severe beating. But the most dramatic declines over the past few years belong to conservative and right-wing sites. The flow of traffic to Donald Trump’s most loyal digital-media boosters isn’t just slowing, as in the rest of the industry; it’s utterly collapsing.

This past February, readership of the 10 largest conservative websites was down 40 percent compared with the same month in 2020, according to The Righting, a newsletter that uses monthly data from Comscore—essentially the Nielsen ratings of the internet—to track right-wing media. (February is the most recent month with available Comscore data.) Some of the bigger names in the field have been pummeled the hardest: The Daily Caller lost 57 percent of its audience; Drudge Report, the granddaddy of conservative aggregation, was down 81 percent; and The Federalist, founded just over a decade ago, lost a staggering 91 percent. (The site’s CEO and co-founder, Sean Davis, called that figure “laughably inaccurate” in an email but offered no further explanation.) FoxNews.com, by far the most popular conservative-news site, has fared better, losing “only” 22 percent of traffic, which translates to 23 million fewer monthly site visitors compared with four years ago.

Some amount of the decline over that period was probably inevitable, given that 2020 was one of the most intense and newsiest years in decades, propping up publications across the political spectrum. But that doesn’t explain why the falloff has been especially steep on the right side of the media aisle.

What’s going on? The obvious culprit is Facebook. For years, Facebook’s mysterious algorithms served up links to news and commentary articles, sending droves of traffic to their publishers. But those days are gone. Amid criticism from elected officials and academics who said the social-media giant was spreading hate speech and harmful misinformation, including Russian propaganda, before the 2016 election, Facebook apparently came to question the value of featuring news on its platform. In early 2018, it began deemphasizing news content, giving greater priority to content posted by friends and family members. In 2021, it tightened the tap a little further. This past February, it announced that it would do the same on Instagram and Threads. All of this monkeying with the internet’s plumbing drastically reduced the referral traffic flowing to news and commentary sites. The changes have affected everyone involved in digital media, including some liberal-leaning sites—such as Slate (which saw a 42 percent traffic drop), the Daily Beast (41 percent), and Vox (62 percent, after losing its two most prominent writers)—but the impact appears to have been the worst, on average, for conservative media. (Referral traffic from Google has also declined over the past few years, but far less sharply.)

Unsurprisingly, the people who run conservative outlets see this as straightforward proof that Big Tech is trying to silence them. Neil Patel, a co-founder (with Tucker Carlson) of the Daily Caller, told me that the tech giants want “to crush any independent media that was perceived to have been helpful to Trump’s rise.” Patel calls this a form of “Big Tech–driven viewpoint discrimination” that “should scare any fair-minded individual.”

A simpler explanation is that conservative digital media are disproportionately dependent on social-media referrals in the first place. Many mainstream publications have long-established brand names, large newsrooms to churn out copy, and, in a few cases, large numbers of loyal subscribers. Sites like Breitbart and Ben Shapiro’s The Daily Wire, however, were essentially Facebook-virality machines, adept at injecting irresistibly outrageous, clickable nuggets into people’s feeds. So the drying-up of referrals hit these publications much harder.

And so far, unlike some publications that have pivoted away from relying on traffic and programmatic advertising, they’ve struggled to adapt. Rather than stabilizing amid Facebook’s new world order, traffic on the right has mostly continued south. Among the big losers over the past year are The Washington Free Beacon, whose traffic was down 58 percent, and Gateway Pundit, down 62 percent. Compare that with prominent mainstream and liberal sites, which, although still well below their 2020 heights, have at least stanched the bleeding. Traffic to The Washington Post and The New York Times from February 2023 to February 2024 was essentially flat. Slate’s was up 14 percent.

For conservative media publishers, the financial consequences of such a steep decline in readership are hard to know for certain. None of the best-known names publicly reports revenue figures, and many are supported by rich patrons who may not be in it for the money. But the situation can’t be good. Digital media still rely on advertising, and advertising still goes to places with more, not fewer, people paying attention. Traffic also drives subscriptions.

More broadly, the loss of readership can’t be helpful to the ideological cause. Top-drawing sites like the conspiratorial Gateway Pundit and Infowars help keep the MAGA faithful faithful by recirculating, amplifying, and sometimes creating the culture-war memes and talking points that dominate right and far-right opinion. Less traffic means less influence.

The Daily Caller’s Patel insisted that faltering traffic alone isn’t a death sentence for the onetime lords of the conservative web. With the addition of a subscription service and tighter financial management, the Daily Caller’s financial health is solid and improving, he said. Outlets like his own can still succeed with people who “have lost trust in the corporate media and are actively seeking alternatives.”

The trouble is that there are now alternatives to the alternatives. The Righting’s proprietor, Howard Polskin, pointed out to me that the websites that dominated the field in 2016—Fox News, Breitbart, The Washington Times, and so on—are no longer the only players in MAGA world. The marketplace has expanded and fragmented since then, splintering the audience seeking conservative or even extremist perspectives among podcasts, YouTube videos, Substack newsletters, and boutique platforms like Rumble. “There’s a lot of choice,” Polskin said. “Even if [the big] sites went out of business tomorrow, there are a lot of voices still out there.”

The DIY ethic is embodied by the likes of Megyn Kelly, Bill O’Reilly, Steve Bannon, and Carlson, who became conservative celebrities while working for established media organizations but have maintained their profiles after leaving them in disgrace. Since being fired by Fox News last year, Carlson has moved his contentious commentaries and interviews (including one with Vladimir Putin) to X. Kelly has come back from a messy divorce with NBC in 2019 (which followed an unhappy exit from Fox News in 2017) to host a massively popular podcast. O’Reilly, likewise forced out of Fox in 2017, has kept talking via newsletters, video streams, and weekly appearances on the NewsNation cable channel. And Bannon, the former Trump consigliere who left Breitbart, which he founded, after publicly criticizing the Trump family, has gone the podcaster route himself; his War Room podcast was ranked as the leading source of false and misleading information in a broad study of the medium by the Brookings Institution last year.

The precipitous decline in traffic to conservative publications raises a larger and possibly unanswerable question: Did these operations ever really hold the political and cultural clout that critics ascribed to them at their peak? Recall the liberal anger in 2020 when Ben Shapiro was routinely dominating Facebook’s most-engaged content list, generating accusations that Facebook’s algorithm was favoring right-wing posts and pushing voters toward Trump. Yet Joe Biden went on to win the election easily, and Democrats overperformed in the 2022 midterms. Now, as conservatives cry that Big Tech has crushed their traffic, Trump is running neck and neck with Biden in the polls, even with a legal cloud hanging over him and shortfalls of campaign cash. Maybe who wins the traffic contest doesn’t matter as much as it once appeared.

[colabot5]

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