An almanac of conservative media: Fox News, and then the rest

January 29, 2019
Category: Business & Work

Howard Polskin, a corporate communications veteran, woke up the morning of Nov. 9, 2016, with an idea for something new and needed. If Republicans were going to be ascendant with the new president and Congress, how about a vertical that helps liberals track right-wing digital media?

A little more than two years later, Polskin’s site, The Righting, has been largely built out. It includes a listing of 40 leading conservative outlets and aggregates a representative daily sample of their stories. The Righting also tracks ComScore digital audience numbers — who’s big, who’s up and who’s down.

I spoke with Polskin, whose career included high-level stints at Sony and CNN, expecting to find that Foxnews.com is hardly the only game in town, but that didn’t exactly prove the case. His rankings for November 2018 found Fox had 88.9 million uniques, more than 10 times that of runner-up Breitbart.

“They’re not the 800-pound gorilla,” Polskin said of Fox News. “They’re the 8,000-pound gorilla.”

Of course, Foxnews.com offers an abundance of video clips as well as text stories, while others may not. On the other hand, the site’s total does not even count the millions who watch the network’s news and commentary shows in real time.

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Another recent headline finding, Polskin said, was that The Weekly Standard, a site and magazine that was frequently critical of President Trump, recorded year-over-year gains of nearly 100 percent for the two months before it was shuttered in mid-December.

Rounding out the top five in Polskin’s October ranking were The Washington Examiner, The Washington Times and the lesser-known Western Journal.

Year-over-year is a better measure than month-to-month, Polskin has concluded, and tracking many sites is a partial check on making too much of operating or tech factors that affect only one.

Looking forward and backward, he said he tries to make informed analysis of traffic drivers — expecting, for instance, that February may see a dip or at least slowing growth in comparison to February 2018 with the Parkland shooting.

It is not self-evident what qualifies as a right-wing site; Polskin has to make some rulings. For instance, he excludes Drudge on the grounds that the great majority of its content is aggregation rather than original reporting or commentary.

It also is in the eye of the beholder whether The Wall Street Journal, viewed in some circles as a counterweight to the left-leaning New York Times and Washington Post, qualifies as a voice of the right. Despite the long-time conservative bent of its editorial and op-ed pages, Polskin leaves it off the list.

Even so, Polskin said, he has noticed some huge surges in the Journal’s digital traffic: 99 percent for September 2018 compared to September 2017. I also checked the numbers on digital subscriptions. While the widely noted “Trump bump,” together with aggressive marketing, has doubled paid digital at the Times and Post, the Journal has eye-popping numbers of its own: from 967,000 subs worldwide in the third quarter of 2016 to 1,584,000 in the same quarter of 2018.

Coincidentally, the BBC announced recently that its site has an average traffic increase of 41 percent for the six months from June to November of last year. A press release attributed the gains to “a hunger for unbiased just-the-facts journalism we’re known for.”

The stories Polskin aggregates range from the reasonable to the outlandish, but he leaves fact-checking and refutation to others. “I try to do this dispassionately,” he said, “to just report.”

At least as yet, The Righting has no business model.

“My accountant doesn’t return my calls,” Polskin joked.

But even if there is no money in it, I think the modest site serves a function as one way to check the potential I see for committed liberals to live in a media bubble of our own.

I try to watch 15 minutes or so of “Fox & Friends” once a week for a fix on what the Trump 40 percent thinks is happening in the world. Two weeks ago, for instance, while MSNBC and CNN were focused on the shutdown and Mueller probe, “Fox & Friends” led twice with a new “caravan” forming in Honduras, going live to a reporter and film crew on the ground.

Polskin has noticed (and is hardly alone) that right-wing media is not monolithic. Those that make the most noise or get most circulated on social media passalong may or may not be the most influential. Trump splits conservatives to the point that some have complained that the Times and Post are fielding a team of Republican-In-Name-Only, Trump-hating columnists as a nod to conservative viewpoints and need to juggle their lineup.

If the skeptics are gaining, as seemed the case with The Weekly Standard, there is still the chance that an owner/patron will pull the plug and take the money elsewhere.

Hard to say just when the dust will settle on Trump’s domination of the news cycle. But I expect then there will be a reckoning about what has changed for the long term in lightened regulation and pulling back on foreign policy and what’s reversible in the 2020 election.

Polskin provides a resource for that.

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Ethics of Journalism

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