Not many political reporters have scored exclusives with both Sens. Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid. Scottie Nell Hughes, of the Tea Party News Network, has. She’s part of an emerging class of conservative news sites that mesh clickbait headlines and social media–friendly content with stories that bash President Obama, laud Sen. Ted Cruz, and rack up remarkable traffic.
The dirty secret of new conservative news sites is that the ones that get the most readers are practically ignored by their fellow media outlets. Sites like the Washington Free Beacon and the Federalist have quickly won fans among conservative D.C. insiders, and their work has drawn friendly coverage—and deservedly so—from outlets like Bloomberg and Politico Magazine. (Disclosure: I wrote a freelance piece for the Federalist last year, and I think it’s a smart, important publication.) But a bunch of sites you’ve probably never heard of outpace those sites when it comes to actual readership. These new-media operations generally have tiny staffs, low national profiles, and #TCOT-friendly sensibilities. What they lack in plaudits from their peers, they compensate for in eyeballs.
What this means for the future of conservative media is an open question. What it means for conservative media at the moment, though, is that there’s a voracious demand for viral-friendly, often-trashy news stories that reify right-wing ideas. Expect to see more of those stories in the future.
If there’s one conservative news site that’s been sorely overlooked by media reporters, it’s Twitchy. Twitchy is an enigma: sometimes baffling, sometimes amusing, and—and this is really saying a lot—unlike anything else on the Internet.
The site, which political commentator Michelle Malkin founded in 2012, aggregates tweets, basically Storifying them into short posts. Its tagline is “Who said what,” and it has verticals for U.S. Politics, Entertainment, Media, and (as of now) Ferguson. You might think this is a bad concept for a website. You would be wrong.
According to analytics website Alexa.com, Twitchy has more readers than the Weekly Standard, the Federalist, and the Free Beacon. It also trounces Roll Call, Reason, Commentary, and the left-wing feminist site Feministing in these rankings. Quantcast, an imperfect measure but one of the better publicly available traffic counters, estimates that Twitchy gets more than 2 million unique visitors a month. Free Beacon’s Quantcast audience is less than half that size.
And Twitchy generates that traffic with a teensy staff. Lori Ziganto, the site’s managing editor, said it has seven full-time employees and two part-time writers. The staff lives across the country, and they don’t have their own office. Ziganto, who lives in South Carolina, ran a blog called Snark & Boobs before Malkin tapped her to run the site, and still tweets from the same handle @snarkandboobs.
“I keep that name because feminists hate it and it makes me laugh,” she said.
According to Ziganto, the site can produce 40 to 45 stories on a busy day. The first writers get started at 6 a.m., and members of the team are hunting for news on Twitter until late into the night. Celebrity meltdown stories always do well, she said, as well as stories based on tweets from Fox News hosts and conservative stars like Adam Baldwin.
“Also Jake Tapper,” she added. “Everybody seems to love Jake Tapper. He’s excellent at Twitter.”
Twitchy stories come in a host of iterations. A number of their headlines use the term gigglesnort, which Ziganto says she coined (i.e. “Gigglesnort: Gov. Jerry Brown says fart”). Highbrow it is not. But the site boasts a few scoops, including chronicling Twitter death threats against Gov. Scott Walker that earned it a Drudge link and led to a police investigation.
The site has also brought a new word into reporters’ lexicons: Twitchied, which refers to the often days-long onslaught of Twitter attention (and, sometimes, abuse) that journalists get after being featured on the site. One D.C.-based politics reporter, who didn’t want to go on the record, said one uncharitable Twitchy story about him came up on a date. His date had Googled him before they went out, and the Twitchy story bashing him was close to the top of his results.
Igor Bobic, Huffington Post’s associate politics editor, has also faced Twitchy’s wrath. “It's become somewhat of an inside joke among reporters, and even prompts a round of congratulations,” he emailed. “What’s not fun is the avalanche of hate it immediately brings to your Twitter page, often forcing you to sign off for the next 24-48 hours.”
For some left-leaning reporters, getting Twitchied is a rite of passage. “It’s one of my great professional failures that I’ve never been Twitchied,” emailed Salon’s Jim Newell. “I mean I’ve tried, I talk a lot of shit!”
Newell’s Salon colleague Simon Maloy also rues that he’s never been Twitchied. “There’s nothing substantive to it; it’s rage just for the sake of it, fueled by ideological tribalism,” he emailed. “Were I to be Twitchy’d at some point, it would make me happy knowing that something I tweeted helped so many people fulfill that raw emotional need.”
So Twitchy is the rare site that has both broad-based and cult appeal (though “appeal” may be a strong word in the latter sense). Regardless, it’s quickly carved out its own odd niche in the D.C. media world.
Tea Party News Network doesn’t get that kind of inside-the-Beltway attention, but its traffic is higher. TPNN gets more traffic than the Washington Examiner, Hot Air, and Town Hall, according to TopConservativeSites, which aggregates Alexa data. Most of the site’s content is clickbait-y news aggregation (“What This MSNBC Host Said About Ferguson Rioting and Looting Will Cause You to Shout, ‘Shame on You!’,” “No Wonder People Think He’s A Weakling: Wait Until You See Why Obama Was Hospitalized”) that’s free of original reporting.
It’s also one of the few news-oriented sites willing to give a platform to birther conspiracy theories; one October headline asked, “Could Barack Obama Be Deported Over Using a Fraudulent Birth Certificate? Yes, Says Former DOJ Attorney.” And on Dec. 8, it ran a story arguing that the president “benefits from ‘black skin privilege.’ ”
More surprising, the site also has remarkable access to Republican lawmakers and activists, which sometimes garners buzzy tidbits (for instance, Wayne Allyn Root told TPNN he was thinking about running against Sen. Harry Reid in 2016). Talking with TPNN gives Republican politicians and candidates a chance to talk to the base; one assumes the Wall Street Journal editorial page’s overlap in readership with TPNN is not particularly large. Scottie Nell Hughes, the site’s news director, conducts most of the interviews. She said the site has a good working relationship with soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office. But Kentucky’s other senator hasn’t spoken to her yet.
“I have yet to sit down with Sen. Rand Paul, and it’s not for the lack of trying,” she said. “And you’d think that would be very odd, that Mitch McConnell would have his doors open to us and Rand Paul wouldn’t.”
House Speaker John Boehner won’t talk to them either, she added, but Sen. Marco Rubio talks to them “all the time.” Sen. Ted Cruz, not surprisingly, is another favorite.
Then there’s Independent Journal Review. It doesn’t seem to have TPNN’s access or Twitchy’s cult following, but it still tops all of them in traffic. (According to Quantcast, the IJReview brought in more than 25 million readers last month.) It also wins out over Breitbart News, Real Clear Politics, the Daily Caller, and the Washington Times. Per one of its founders, Alex Skatell, its aims are lofty.
“We’re presenting stories for every American to see in a way they’re more likely to click and share,” Skatell told BuzzFeed last year. “This helps because people who don’t care as much about politics can still stay informed through engaged friends.”
Readers also stay up to speed on stories that, um, have little discernible connection to conservative politics, like “Bikini-Clad Model Annoys ‘Tough Guy’ on Live TV & Finds Out in Russia You Can Get You Walloped for That” and “A Trashy Mom Runs Her Mouth a Little Too Much. Then a Security Guard Shows Her How a Taser Works” and “UK Man Thinks Guys Should Rule Barbershop Roost, No ‘Hens’ Allowed.”
Those stories intermingle with stories about how much it cost for the president to attend the G-20 summit and the latest from the Louisiana Senate race. The site doesn’t seem to have any anti-establishment animus, instead highlighting the president’s perceived foibles and missteps while touting the Republican lawmakers who needle him.
The site’s owners use a huge email list and the Conservative Daily Facebook page (more than 6 million likes) to promote their stories. Bubba Atkinson, the site’s editor-in-chief, is a Facebook savant. He always keeps an eye on the site’s analytics—“I never let that leave my sight for very long,” he says—and sometimes tweaks stories if he thinks they’re underperforming.
The most interesting thing about these sites might be their ability to rake in traffic without relying on links from the Drudge Report. They’ve scored a few links, but not nearly enough to explain their collective traffic bonanza. The best explanation for their success might be that there’s a huge, underserved population of would-be news consumers who care about national politics but aren’t interested in the inside-baseball coverage that dominates many conservative sites.
But will these new entrants reshape the conservative media landscape? I’m not so sure. I don’t have any empirical evidence for this claim, but it seems likely that the speediness of a site’s ascent could be inversely proportionate to its staying power. In other words, my suspicion would be that in the case of many viral news sites, clicks are easy come, easy go. And, in the case of sites like the Federalist and the Washington Free Beacon, slower growth could spell greater longevity. It may take a few years to see whether this hypothesis bears out, but I’d bet on it.