Can The Right Displace The Establishment Media?
Warren Henry
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In the internet era, the Left’s grip on the mediaspace has weakened, but not nearly to the degree needed to move America onto a better cultural or political trajectory.  Moreover, if the Right is not proactive and creative, the Left could regain the upper hand.  What follows is an immodest suggestion for the Right to compete and gain influence at the highest levels of media.

Mike Gonzalez, Vice President of Communications at The Heritage Foundation, recently wrote in these pages about the degree to which the internet — from independent, right leaning punditry to social media — has weakened the grip of traditional, left-leaning Big Media on our national discourse.  Although the piece recalls past themes of blogger triumphalism which may be unwarranted in the current political climate, it is undeniable that Big Media — an artifact of the industrial age — continues to struggle and perhaps wither in the internet age.  Mr. Gonzalez notes that Heritage’s Foundry is transforming from a blog to its own media outlet, a welcome development that likely fueled the optimism of much of his column.

Conversely, Mr. Gonzalez devoted part of his column to the potential threat internet utilities such as Google and Facebook pose to the democratization of the media through their influence over internet traffic.  Such concerns are not unfounded.  For example, Facebook is currently attempting to shift from a pure social network to an arbiter of news.  This can be seen not only in the launch of its Paper app, but also in the most recent changes to its news feed algorithm, which immediately crushed traffic flowing to sites as ideologically disparate as Upworthy and Right Wing News (although BuzzFeed emerged unscathed).  Yet conservatives and libertarians probably should have more serious concerns about the future of media and a broader vision for addressing them.

Republican political strategist and tech guru Partick Ruffini recently took to Twitter to express a more pessimistic view of right-leaning media.  In Mr. Ruffini’s view, the project of creating a conservative counterculture has largely failed to date.  While Mr. Gonzalez celebrates the rise of transparently ideological or partisan media outlets, Mr. Ruffini argues there is value in concealing (or attempting to conceal) ideology as media outlets like the New York Times do.  In particular, overt political branding interferes with the ability to position the underlying political position as the natural, ordinary and consensus position.  What many conservatives and libertarians laud as honesty thus plays into the efforts of the Left to marginalize and Otherize the Right.

Although I suspect a broad segment of the Right is more inclined to agree with Mr. Gonzalez, his views are not mutually exclusive to those of Mr. Ruffini.  In surveying the modern media ecosystem, it is possible to conclude that outlets such as The Blaze, Daily Caller, Washington Examiner, and Washington Free Beacon are at least becoming competitive with outlets such as the Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo in terms of reporting (as opposed to pure punditry),while observing the Right (with the half-exception of the Wall Street Journal) lacks competitors to the New York Times, Washington Post or the network news broadcasts.  The viewership for the latter may be declining, yet they still reach as large an audience nightly as Rush Limbaugh reaches weekly, or Fox News Channel reaches monthly.  Moreover, by positioning themselves as neutral (however disingenuously), these top-tier outlets do not merely preach to the converted.

In an era where the political parties are becoming more polarized, and voters are becoming more clearly sorted into those parties, it could be argued there is less value in appealing to the unaffiliated.  Yet our elections are still decided by relatively narrow popular vote margins.  Many on the Right tend to dismiss or deride low-information or politically-agnostic swing voters, while the Left influences them daily through their legacy media institutions, as well as through the entertainment and academic sectors.  As Quin Hillyer notes, despite Republican successes in Congressional elections, the Right has enacted few major policy initiatives over the past two decades.  Moreover, it is likely fair to suggest libertarians and Tea Party Republicans have little faith that the results would be much better than those during the George W. Bush administration if the GOP recaptured the House, Senate and White House in 2016.  The current statist drift of the country is unlikely to shift substantially absent larger changes in the overall culture and political environment.  Accordingly, the Right should be looking for ways to compete even at the top tier of the mediaspace.

America has reached a moment where the Right could make a credible effort at disrupting the dominance of institutions like the New York Times or the Washington Post.  Unfortunately, one of the most prominent current examples of how this might be done comes from the Left instead.  Based on press accounts, it appears that Ezra Klein’s “Project X” aspires to be not merely a bloated version of the Wonkblog he created for the Washington Post, but a more audacious effort to reinvent the structure of journalism for the internet age.

Consider the article as the dominant unit of traditional journalism.  The article is typically based around the model of the inverted pyramid, presenting the news as layers of information in levels of novelty and import.  Thus, the traditional news article presents the newest information in a lead paragraph, usually followed by a nut paragraph summarizing the importance of the news, usually followed by background information, explanation of controversies providing context to the story and so forth.

What Mr. Klein has realized is that article-based journalism is an artifact of pre-internet media, governed by the scarcity of space (newspapers, magazines) and time (radio, television).  These forms of media are often forced to compromise, offering background or explanation which is insufficient to fully inform anyone new to a story, yet simplistic and not useful to those who have followed a story from its inception.  Internet-based media lacks constraints on space and time and need not incorporate the weaknesses of these older forms.  Rather, internet-based media can deconstruct the article into its component parts — new updates, nut paragraphs, backgrounders, explainers, etc. — to offer the audience as much or as little of a story as a member wants or needs.

Mr. Klein is far from the first to reach this realization; commentators such as Jeff Jarvis have theorized similar approaches for some time.  Mr. Klein’s new partners at Vox Media have been moving in this direction at their already existing sites devoted to sports, technology and videogaming.  Vox’s sites may rely on “storystreams“with updates to continuing stories, or on team live-blogging of events from which themes may be extracted and analyzed.  Nor is Vox Media the only company headed down this path.  Circa is (largely) a mobile app which allows people to follow a story the way one might make a friend on Facebook, keeping one incrementally informed as a story evolves, with links to explainers, backgrounders or related stories to bring new followers up to speed on a story, no matter how complex.

Of course, it may be that “Project X” or Circa will ultimately fail; the execution of the idea is at least as important as the idea itself.  Yet the fact that the Washington Post, even under the new ownership of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, was not willing to underwrite something like “Project X” speaks volumes about the vulnerability of old forms of media to disruption by new entrants, using new structures of journalism, in spaces like phones and tablets, to which the audience is already moving.

Conservatives or libertarians could build their versions of the New York Times or the Washington Post in these new spaces before the Left fills that vacuum.  If the Right established quality institutions of new journalism, there would be much less to fear from the whims of utilities such as Google and Facebook.  Top-tier institutions also would be positioned to shape the political environment in ways that overtly partisan or ideological media cannot hope to achieve.  Whether anyone on the Right will bother is a story yet to be written.

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