Less Than $200 Million But Also More

I recently spent a couple of hours updating the SimilarWeb traffic metrics of our own webzine and those of nearly eighty others, and the results were reasonably satisfactory, with the complete chart included at the bottom of this column.

Most of the other sites listed were also alternative outlets, but I also included some more mainstream ones for comparison purposes. Among smaller publications, traffic numbers are heavily impacted by the ebbs and flows of the topics that move to the fore of the public debate, especially if the writers choose to surf those particular waves.

For example, websites that had wholeheartedly jumped on board the QAnon controversy sometimes gained a large burst of readership, but this eventually subsided once the hoax became apparent, and publications promoting the burgeoning anti-vaxxing movement have also done very well over the last year or two.

Most recently, the outbreak of Russia’s Ukraine war greatly shifted public attention toward foreign policy issues, especially benefiting those alternative publications providing a contrary perspective to the 100% pro-Ukraine skew offered by virtually every mainstream source. Perhaps the most extreme example of this shift has been with the Saker’s website, whose readership grew nearly ten-fold as a consequence, though some of that enormous rise has recently dissipated.

Similarly, the approaching November elections have given a major boost to the those somewhat more mainstream-tilted publications focused on the Democrat-vs-Republican battle for control of the House and the Senate, a topic of less interest to those who don’t particularly care which of the two competing factions of our political establishment ultimately gains the upper hand.

As a general interest webzine, we are much less affected by such shifts in national focus, and I was quite pleased to see that our readership is significantly greater than the combined total of the Nation and the New Republic, two of the most venerable opinion publications, each over a century old. Moreover, we have achieved this success despite the severe handicap of being banned by Facebook and having all our pages deranked by Google, with those twin gatekeepers of the global Internet thus doing whatever they can to prevent readers from finding our material.

But for me, the sweetest results came when I noticed our performance relative to that of a publication closely associated with a different Tech titan, a webzine launched almost simultaneously with our own but possessing vastly greater financial and professional resources.

Co-founded by renowned investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald and backed by a pledge of enormous financial support by multi-billionaire Pierre Omidyar, the Intercept seemed likely to transform global journalism, but such was not the case.

The inputs were certainly enormous. According to the Form 990 filings, during the years 2013 to 2020, the publication absorbed almost $160 million, and with annual expenses recently running nearly $30 million per year, the aggregate total is now probably north of $200 million, an astonishing amount of money for a webzine.

Yet by the time of Greenwald’s angry resignation in October 2020, I was shocked to discover that the readership of the Intercept was only 50% greater than ours. That advantage had dropped to just 8% by January of this year, and today our traffic is more than 20% greater. Our own publication has always been run on a shoe-string, and it’s heartening to see that offering controversial, interesting content may achieve results better than that produced by an all-star team of journalists backed by an ocean of funding.

The story of the rise and fall of the Intercept is an important and enlightening one, so I think I’ll include an extended portion of what I’d written two years ago following Greenwald’s acrimonious departure:

Several years ago during the height of the Edward Snowden/NSA spying scandal, Glenn Greenwald was sometimes described as the world’s most famous journalist. I think that characterization was probably correct, at least if we exclude Julian Assange from consideration.

The American government has emphatically denied that Assange was ever a journalist, and is now working to prosecute him for espionage and sentence him to life in a maximum security prison. Meanwhile, it did grudgingly concede that protective status to Greenwald. So the fates of the two most famous figures who revealed American crimes to the world sharply diverged, and the year after Assange was forced to desperately seek asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London and begin his long period of miserable confinement to a single room, Greenwald made worldwide headlines as founding editor of a lavishly-funded new journalistic enterprise that captured the imagination of the world.

That venture was First Look Media, established by Tech billionaire Pierre Omidyar, who pledged $250 million in financial support. Its first and only visible project has been The Intercept, an outlet intended to provide a home for fearless investigative journalism, free from the pressures and dishonest compromises so often found in traditional media outlets. Greenwald’s two fellow founding editors were Laura Poitras, an award-winning documentarian who had collaborated on the Snowden project, and Jeremy Scahill, whose best-selling books had lacerated the American crimes committed during our disastrous Iraq War, focusing especially upon the huge growth of international mercenary outfits, now euphemistically styled as “military contractors.”

Numerous other veteran journalists also soon eagerly came on board at a time when so many of American’s traditional media outlets were losing their advertising revenue to the Internet, resulting in crippling waves of layoffs and cut-backs. Backed by such enormous and apparently disinterested financial support, The Intercept seemed poised for an extremely bright future.

Unfortunately, the reality has been quite different. Creating a successful media outlet is a far more difficult and complex undertaking than merely hiring experienced journalists and providing them with heavy funding. Late last week Greenwald announced his resignation from The Intercept, explaining that the top editorial staff had repeatedly blocked him from publishing his lengthy article analyzing the huge corruption-scandal now swirling around Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Greenwald was thus forced to abandon the high-profile publication that he himself had co-founded in order to regain his journalistic freedom, and that irony was hardly lost upon many other independent Internet voices, including his former colleague Matt TaibbiYves Smith of the Naked Capitalism blog, and the Moon of Alabama blogger.

Greenwald himself explained the situation in his scathing letter of resignation. According to him, in recent years The Intercept had increasingly abandoned its original stated mission and instead become more and more indistinguishable from all the other left-leaning publications on the Internet, adopting a fiercely partisan party-line and demonstrating Procrustean tendencies to shape its journalistic output in support of its ideological goals and favored candidates. The large crew of New York editors eventually brought on board tended to measure their success by the accolades they attracted from mainstream outlets while they lived in fear of Twitter denunciations. As a result, they soon came to closely resemble the establishmentarian media that their publication had originally been created to challenge. They and most of their mainstream media peers regarded the defeat of Donald Trump as an overriding goal and therefore seem to have somehow persuaded themselves that any temporary sacrifice of honest journalistic standards was a price well worth paying.

Julian Assange may soon be spending the rest of his life in a small prison cell, and compared to that outcome Greenwald’s humiliating treatment is a mere bagatelle, but both figures fell from ideological grace for similar reasons. As an anti-secrecy campaigner, Assange had become the toast of our liberal elite by exposing the crimes of the Bush era American military, but when he evenhandedly released DNC emails deeply embarrassing to Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, he was reviled as a traitor and a Russian stooge. Although Greenwald remains left-liberal in his personal views, his staunch refusal to avert his eyes from the flagrant political and media corruption on his side of the aisle has provoked deep resentments among his one-time ideological admirers.

Many details of Greenwald’s resignation can be found in the following articles, and he also explained the circumstances in an interview on Tucker Carlson Tonight:

Although I’d mostly lost track of both Greenwald and The Intercept over the last few years, the story of his sudden resignation didn’t particularly surprise me.

Donald Trump had always struck me as an ignorant buffoon and most of his proposed policies were ridiculous, but I felt that his establishmentarian political critics had almost been driven insane by their loathing for him. Since I regarded both Trump and Biden as such exceptionally awful candidates, I’d paid relatively little attention to the many months of heated presidential campaigning. However, the recent charges of massive financial corruption against the Biden family seemed pretty credible to me, and the unified media efforts to drag the Democratic ticket across the finish line by hiding the scandal from the American voters was utterly outrageous.

The New York Post is America’s oldest newspaper and after it broke the Biden corruption story a couple of weeks ago, both Facebook and Twitter took the unprecedented step of banning all links to the published account of that potentially massive political scandal. Compared to such absurd censorship, the unwillingness of The Intercept‘s Trump-hating editors to publish Greenwald’s article was shameful but hardly surprising. However once I looked into the background, other surprises did appear.

Every now and then I had read a story mentioning The Intercept in my morning newspapers, but few of the details stuck in my mind, so I browsed around a little, and found a Columbia Journalism Review article from last year describing some of the difficulties at that publication. Apparently, Omidyar had been fulfilling his financial commitments, donating nearly $90 million to First Look Media between 2013 and 2017, and apparently almost all of that massive funding had gone to The Intercept, whose annual staff compensation alone reached $9.3 million by 2017. The CJR article noted that the salaries paid “dwarf those at other center-left, nonprofit outlets.” My casual browsing didn’t uncover any detailed financial information for the last three years, but the webzine must surely have absorbed well over $100 million by now, perhaps even closer to $150 million.

With such enormous financial inputs, I wondered why I had heard so little about the publication in recent years, just an occasional story here and there in my newspapers, so I decided to take a look. Their website seemed no different in design or content than that found on dozens of other left-liberal webzines. The names of almost none of the writers were familiar to me while the topics they presented were all too familiar. So it wasn’t clear to me why anyone would read their publication.

I soon discovered that most of the world apparently had the same reaction. I had naturally assumed that such a lavishly-funded publication captained by highly-paid all-stars and having a large writing staff would possess a readership vastly larger than that of our own website, with traffic perhaps twenty or thirty times greater. Instead, I found to my utter astonishment that their Alexa Traffic Rank of 11,542 was less than 50% larger than that of our own small opinion webzine. Indeed, if not for our having been banned by Facebook and Google earlier this year, we might have even caught up with them by now. And according to SimilarWeb, although their website does get almost three times as many monthly visits as ours, the total time spent on our website is actually slightly higher, with most of their visitors quickly departing. This brought to mind the old story about the dog-food that dogs just won’t eat.

Although a few natural Internet monopolies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon seem impervious to easy challenge, the web has become a great leveler for opinion journalism, with the interest and quality of content material far outweighing many millions of dollars in bloated expenditures. The dilemma encountered by the decision-makers at The Intercept is that if you mostly publish articles that are exactly the same as those found everywhere else on the Internet, you provide people few reasons to favor your website over so many others.

Moreover, it’s quite possible that very heavy staff funding can itself become counter-productive. For example, an outraged Max Blumenthal revealed in a Tweet that The Intercept‘s top editor Betsy Reed is paid well over $400,000 per year, an extremely sizable sum in the world of non-profit journalism:

Any self-respecting individual drawing such a salary must justify her existence and earn her keep. While it would have been the easiest thing in the world to quickly approve Greenwald’s important article and then publish it on the website, any unpaid intern could have done as much, while someone whose annual salary is approaching the half-million dollar range must necessarily devote time and thought to all the deeper political implications, conferring at length with her staff and other top advisors before rendering her Solomonic judgment. Hence Greenwald’s angry departure.

Indeed, some of these existing problems seem to have appeared at the very beginning of the project, as recounted by Ken Silverstein, a left-liberal journalist with a long career at prestigious publications. As an early hire who soon resigned. he explained his reasons in a stinging 2015 Politico Magazine article entitled “Where Journalism Goes to Die,” describing the mixture of extreme editorial bureaucracy and severe ideological-correctness that led him to depart in disgust after just one year.

The contrast with our own webzine could not be greater. Although my title is Editor-in-Chief, I have neither salary nor staff, and since I’m so heavily preoccupied with my own reading and research, I doubt I spend more than a couple of hours a day on the publication, instead relying upon the highly-automated software I had built to do almost all the work.

Since I have made it very clear that I do not personally stand behind the articles I publish, I allow my writers to write whatever they want, even if much of their output might seem like nonsense to me. By providing such a large array of often-conflicting alternative perspectives, we therefore fulfill our alternative-media mission statement. And as far as I know, there are few if any other websites that regularly publish such a wide and varied array of highly-controversial material, thereby drawing readership roughly comparable to that produced by Omidyar’s $100 million-plus expenditure.

With comments on our website being very lightly moderated, we usually accrue a million additional words each week, thereby providing a public forum for regular discussion of all sorts of controversial topics banned almost everywhere else. Much of this material may be ignorant or insane, but those willing to mine the low-grade ore will discover a considerable sprinkling of gems. This process is facilitated by the commenting-software I have designed, which I think is far superior in many respects to what I have seen elsewhere.

The combination of Greenwald’s necessary departure from his own publication and the near-total censorship of the New York Post articles on the Biden corruption scandal may together mark a watershed in mainstream American journalism, as suggested by former New York Times journalist Chris Hedges and Matt Taibbi in a half-hour discussion on RT America.

Finally, here’s the comparison chart showing our current traffic metrics against those of other, mostly alternative websites.

Reprinted with permission from The Unz Review.