Founded in 2007, Breitbart News today is closely associated with Stephen Bannon, its former chairman and the current White House chief strategist. Bannon has added Breitbart writers Seb Gorka and Julia Hahn as deputy assistant and special assistant to the president, respectively.
“Like it or not, at this point it’s clear Breitbart has a lot of influence,” said Liz Mair, a longtime Republican operative who strongly opposed Trump’s campaign.
Many don’t like it.
But Google's ad network has stuck by the publisher, which also monetizes via Taboola content recommendation widgets and an online store, and the site carries tags from companies like BidSwitch, PubMatic, Rocket Fuel, Lotame and MediaMath, according to the Ghostery browser plugin.
Breitbart’s boom last year was driven in part by Facebook and Twitter, with the highest engagement metrics of any political news site on either platform, according to the social media analytics firm NewsWhip.
Breitbart did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
“We don’t have the kind of agency or brand contacts that you’d find with media companies from New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles or Washington, DC,” said Patrick Brown, CEO of Liftable Media.
A Phoenix-based right-wing publisher with two political sites, Western Journalism and Conservative Tribune, that it brought together in 2015, Liftable is a rising force in conservative media. Both sites became top-100 trafficked news properties last year, according to Alexa, far surpassing GOP stalwarts like National Review and The Weekly Standard.
“Programmatic has been our lifeblood,” Brown said. Liftable has a team of yield optimization associates pulling programmatic levers and a header-bidding implementation installed last year.
That said, “Facebook is where we see the strongest revenue and audience growth, and where we feel most comfortable with our audience,” Brown said.
Like many right-wing publishers, Liftable Media also receives considerable revenue from a link recommendation vendor – in its case, Revcontent.
The Conservative Review, founded in 2014, took off in 2015 with support from a handful of Fox News personalities, including Michelle Malkin, Steven Crowder and Mark Levin, a popular radio talk show host who made waves this week as the source of Trump's inflammatory wiretapping accusation against former President Obama.
In 2016, the media company rebranded itself as CRTV with a focus on subscription video distributed via its site and OTT apps.
For conservative media brands, “historically there’s been a problem getting your traditional blue-chip advertisers to spend money,” said Gaston Mooney, an editor and spokesman for CRTV.
Despite market research touting the Conservative Review’s audience as solid earners and valuable product consumers, advertisers don’t want right-wing media inventory, Mooney said. “That’s why conservative media ends up with so much gold investment and survival food sponsors, even though those audiences are actually more well-rounded than that stereotype.”
Mooney declined to provide subscriber numbers or say whether the company is profitable, but said the shift to subscriptions is a long-term decision that sets the brand apart in a conservative media ecosystem that’s often referred to as a “fever swamp.”
For instance, instead of on-boarding a link recommendation vendor or adding survivalist food and weapon sponsors, he said, the Conservative Review site has used real estate to funnel readers to CRTV subscription offers.
Like other emerging conservative media companies, CRTV depends on Facebook for distribution. Facebook Live isn’t a major revenue source, but it is a crucial audience hub and has mobile click-to-call products the company uses to drive users to its subscription call center.
The far-right publisher InfoWars has long been relegated to the fringes of conservative media – promoting theories that the Sandy Hook shooting was fake and that Hillary Clinton supporters ran a child sex ring out of a DC pizza shop – but rose to greater prominence with the 2016 election. It also appears to have the ear of the president.
InfoWars was dropped by the ad tech firm AdRoll for hate speech policy violations last month, and since then the only tags on its site related to ad serving come from Revcontent, Google and Facebook’s custom audience tracking, according to Ghostery.
Unlike Breitbart, which counters advertiser backlash with sheer volume, and CRTV, which turned to subscriptions, InfoWars has supplemented lost ad revenue by pushing its own product lines for “male vitality” and vitamin supplements, survivalist gear and right-wing paraphernalia.
InfoWars declined to comment.
The Traffic Jammers
A common theme of many publishers on the right is sourced traffic via content recommendation engines.
Revcontent works across the spectrum of political media; its publisher partners on the left include the likes of Newsweek and The Atlantic. But conservative audiences drive more activity.
The company reports 2.5 million readers from right-wing media sites clicked on immigration-related stories last year, while the top liberal news topic, gun control, funneled 350,000 total visitors to stories on the issue. The ninth most-trafficked issue for right-wing news, LGBTQ stories, generated 900,000 clicks in the same period.
Newsmax, a 19-year-old conservative news site that now has a cable TV network and radio programming, operates its own native recommendation service, the Newsmax Feed Network, which links out to Newsmax stories and subscription deals, gold investment offers and rebilling scams. Other than Newsmax’s own site, the DC-focused news publisher The Hill is the only site listed by the Feed Network as hosting the link recommendation product.
Newsmax declined to comment.
Shifting Power Structure
The 2014 election of David Brat, a conservative economist who beat incumbent House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, was an early indicator that new media players were winning the battle for conservative hearts and eyeballs. Brat was nicknamed “Bratbart” by congressional Republicans due to his tight relationship with the news site.
Then, Trump's victory proved the power of some new digital-first Republican news sources.
“Practically every Republican editorial board in the country endorsed Clinton and the National Review emptied its entire arsenal against Trump,” said a Republican strategist who asked not to be identified. “We’ve been pretending for a long time that those voices mattered more in the party because mainstream media networks preferred to have them on Sunday shows, but savvy campaigners are going straight to voters now.”
But Liz Mair stood up for conservative media like RedState and National Review that publicly opposed Trump throughout the primary. “I don’t think you can extrapolate much about political clout of these entities based on the general election outcome,” she said.
Still, ascendant digital media companies with big social followings and low-hanging programmatic fruit have, for the time being, upended the balance that’s defined Republican politics and discourse.
Drudge and Breitbart were both supportive of Trump starting early in the primary, and Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, a longtime Trump acquaintance and member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago golf club, has reportedly earned “a seat at the table” with White House policymakers and the president.
Perhaps the best example of the shifting power is LifeZette, a small publisher founded in 2015 by Laura Ingraham, a conservative media personality who helped propel Brat’s primary campaign. LifeZette made headlines last month when Trump press secretary Sean Spicer gave its reporter the first question during a presidential briefing, which has traditionally gone to the Associated Press.