Of Course Conservative Journalism Can Survive Populism

Given that I started the week discussing how righty journalism kills conservatism, it’s fitting that I end it reviewing a related question posed by Conor Friedersdorf: “Can Conservative Journalism Survive Populism?”

The piece rambles quite a bit; I’ll focus on what seems to be Friedersorf’s main thesis:

Donald Trump’s rise to power put National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the sorts of journalists who work there in a distressing bind. Neither the president nor the #MAGA loyalists who staff his White House adhere to conservative principles. Yet many donors, subscribers, and readers who sustain their publications prefer Trump’s blustering, bombastic project, massively shifting the center of gravity on the right.

Tribalist populism is ascendant––and conservative publications no longer thereby benefit, in part because newer magazines and web sites are more closely aligned with it.”

For such a long piece, it’s remarkably long on assertion and short on data.  Let’s work backwards through the thesis.

Do readers who sustain the Old Guard prefer populist bombast?  The article refers to the Alexa rankings for Breitbart (58) vs National Review Online (1,129).  That looks like a chasm, but is it?  In the heat of the 2016 campaign, data from comScore suggested Breitbart had 18.2 million unique visitors in July, while National Review had 5 million.  That’s large, but not as large as those Alexa ratings may have suggested.

More significant to the question at issue, it appears that National Review had record traffic throughout the 2016 campaign.  It’s difficult to argue that Breitbart is killing NRO when the latter was drawing more readers than ever.  (BTW, both sites have seen traffic decline since, though apparently Breitbart’s decline was larger.)

What about subscribers?  An apples-to-apples comparison is impossible, as Breitbart doesn’t run a subscription service.  Friedersdorf quotes an “apparent” NR trustee pegging subscriptions at 121,000.  Assuming for the sake of argument this estimate is accurate, that would mark a significant decline from the audited circulation of approximately 140,000 reported for the first half of 2016.  Some of that decline is almost certainly attributable to unhappy Trump supporters.

OTOH, a couple of years prior, National Review had an audited circulation closer to 160,000.  So it is difficult to estimate how much of the recent decline is Trump-related, how much of it is the continuation of a trend, and how much is NR’s apparent pivot toward digital.

Indeed, NR’s apparent emphasis on digital brings us to donors.  This is really the most important category.  Opinion journals historically are not profit-making ventures.  National Review has been losing money since 1955.

Yet Friedersdorf refers to them only in passing, writing: “Clicks are also appealing to conservative donors who want to buy influence with their patronage, and don’t particularly care about the journalistic integrity of what they support. ”

If this is true, National Review has a good traffic story (noted above) to tell its donors.  Breitbart may have a larger audience, but I’m not sure why it should be assumed that large NR donors would suddenly decide to defund it in favor of Breitbart simply on the basis of traffic (and if they did, why they wouldn’t do so to push Breitbart in a less populist direction).

Circumstantially, NR has embarked on an ambitious and expensive redesign of NRO, which suggests the well isn’t running dry just yet.  And while I haven’t researched the sorts of arguments above as they might apply to The Weekly Standard, it appears that new EIC Stephen F. Hayes convinced owner Philip Anschutz, to increase his staff by a third.

You know what might kill conservative journalism?  Following Friedersdorf’s advice:

To survive, conservatism’s legacy publications need more confident advocates who take greater umbrage at the notion that they are useless avatars of establishment decadence, refute the most unfair attacks of their critics more forcefully, offer more incisive formulations of why what they do is valuable, and counterattack more aggressively against hucksters who are stealing their business with lies and manipulation.

Does anyone (other than Friedersdorf) think that the Old Guard touting themselves as part of the establishment would cause populists who read Breitbart, or people for whom “Deplorable” is a badge of honor, to flock to National Review or The Weekly Standard?  Anyone?  Bueller?

While Friedersdorf quotes TWS’s Mark Hemingway and the Washington Free Beacon’s Matthew Continetti at length in the article, it is almost as if Friedersdorf completely missed their common point that technology (esp. the internet) has largely eliminated the ability of Old Guard institutions to serve as intellectual gatekeepers.  And the people embracing populism were mostly not interested in the Old Guard from the outset.

Also, Friedersdorf seemingly overlooks that there is now an entire genre of populist columnists bashing former NeverTrumpers and the latter responding.  Furthermore, if Friedersdorf fears that donors are buying influence, would going out of one’s way to offend them make sense from the standpoint of ensuring an institution’s survival?

All of that said, I agree with Friedersdorf that traditional conservative media probably should pay more attention to Breitbart, at least those who profess to be media critics.  But even at that, only 11% of Trump voters regularly got election news from Breitbart and that was concentrated more among those who voted for him in the primaries.  In contrast, 40% of Trump voters cited Fox News as their main source for election news (and fewer than 3% cited Breitbart as their main source).  That’s why I’m more interested in Fox.

[Note: This is the last post for this week, so that I can focus a little on some non-blog writing.  I should return Monday. Have a nice weekend.]

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