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Alt-news sites face post-election identity crisis

After a US election in which hyper partisan news sites helped propel Donald Trump to the presidency, the future direction and financing of this ardent alternative journalism seems unclear.

In recent days, some brands and ad platforms have blacklisted the right-wing Breitbart News for hate speech, while Facebook and Google — facing accusations of enabling misinformation online — have acted to prevent their advertising from appearing on “fake news” sites

“If they are dependent on digital advertising, [these sites] lives will become harder and there may be some winnowing out,” says Ken Doctor, analyst at Newsonomics, adding that content will also need to adapt. “The readership landscape is a total unknown going into 2017. What are people going to click on now? They can try all kinds of things, whether it’s Kim Kardashian news or Melania Trump news.”

News sites such as those operated by 43-year-old entrepreneur Brandon Vallorani’s — whose comapny Liberty Alliance scooped up $11m in gross revenues last year — have flourished with a simple business model: build an audience on Facebook, and then post links to articles filled with banner ads on an external website.

Mr Vallorani began chasing the conservative voter’s dollar a decade ago, opening an online store selling Tea party T-shirts, knives and bumper stickers emblazoned with taglines such as “pro-life, pro-God, pro-guns”. However it “all changed” in 2009 when he saw a $100 deposit in his chequing account from Google’s Adsense platform, triggering the idea for a news site.

Now his Liberty Alliance company holds a grip on Facebook’s political ecosystem, operating 176 Facebook pages such as “Eagle Rising” and “Fighting for Trump” that reach more than 50m cumulative followers. In comparison, traditional media such as CNN and the New York Times have 25m and 12m Facebook followers respectively. 

“The internet levels the playing field,” says Mr Vallorani. “I don’t have to be a big network news company to reach people. I can sit in my basement.”

While media companies face hefty costs to make original content, paying salaried reporters, editors and ad teams, many of today’s self-proclaimed news sites can publish content with little overhead, pulling stories from other sources and churning out short posts to lure clicks. 

Liberty Alliance, whose partners include the 1990s sitcom actor Kirk Cameron, employs a team of 40 young writers to make content for a handful of its sites, and also shares its ad infrastructure with partner sites such as Joe the Plumber. 

Writers are paid based on traffic and content is “not our biggest cost”, says Mr Vallorani, who describes the stories as “almost like Drudge on steroids” — a reference to the popular Drudge Report news site. Facebook drives about 60 per cent of traffic to the company’s 100-plus external sites. 

Finger-pointing after Mr Trump’s surprising election victory has focused on “fake news” — false reports, mostly in favour of Mr Trump, that infected Facebook, Twitter and Google, leading up to the vote. Facebook outlined measures to tackle the problem, including testing a way for users to flag posts they think contain fake news. However it is unclear how internet companies will judge the reliability of content, with Mark Zuckerberg admitting that distinguishing the truth was “complicated”.

Advertisers have also been caught in the crossfire. In a complex online ad industry in which spots are increasingly bought and sold via ad exchanges, many marketers have lost sight of every place where their ads appear. This week, the glasses retailer Warby Parker, online lender SoFi said they would block their ads from appearing on Breitbart News, while AppNexus, an ad tech company, said it would no longer serve ads to Breitbart. 

“Blindly following audiences can result in your ad ending up in content that you’re not comfortable with,” says Ben Winkler, chief investment officer for media agency OMD. Brands looking to safeguard against this can turn to ad platforms that offer “blacklists” of bad sites and “whitelists” of good ones, but blacklisting “has become a full-time job”, says Mr Winkler. “There are a lot of websites out there.”

“On the buy side, I think you will see advertisers becoming much more attentive about limiting what sites they appear on,” says Brad Holcenberg, vice president at Rubicon Project, a large ad exchange operator. “Political sensitivities are coming more into play now.”

But other observers point to the Wild West nature of internet journalism as evidence that these websites will endure after a divisive US election.

“People have always sought ideological comfort food,” says Gabriel Kahn, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California. “But for a long time we have had a distribution system based on large networks that limited the amount of media people could consume. That’s no longer the case.”

Via FT