Independent publishers serve readers desperate to read that Donald Trump is ahead in the polls, that Hillary Clinton is ill, or that the media is not telling them the truth. The size of this audience is enormous, and points to a challenge to many traditional publishers who want to grow their digital audiences.
If The New York Times and The Washington Post truly wants to double their web traffic and compete with the likes of Google and Facebook, it might be good to know what some of the other web traffic really looks like.
A good way to see it would be to enter the world of the extreme Donald Trump supporter, a place where the published polls are obviously wrong, and Hillary Clinton has no chance of winning in November because her brain tumor will likely mean she has only weeks to live.
One could dismiss this alternate reality, as much of the media world does, were it not for the high web traffic such content generates for its publishers.
Take this video, which has been viewed over 1.6 million times on YouTube. It is so obviously edited to be kind of funny. But the views and the comments – over 7,600 of them – show that those who have watched are seemingly convinced it is a legitimate video.
(I once had a brother-in-law who was convinced that there was no such thing as special effects or stunt doubles. All movies were essentially documentaries, even 2001: A Space Odyssey. No amount of arguing could convince him, and so none was tried.)
This appears to be the world inhabited by readers of The Gateway Pundit, where the central theme appears to be Hillary Clinton’s health. A typical story makes a big deal over any time Clinton pauses in a speech – possibly lost in her transcript – as a sign that the health of the Democratic candidate is deteriorating. Unlike some sites that have cropped up more recently, this one has been around a while.
In 2012, the site was proclaiming an easy victory for Mitt Romney, citing his 270,000 lead in Ohio. On election day a typical headline read:
Update: Wisconsin Goes to Obama
Some newer sites, like Long Room, are taking up where previous websites first tried to “unbias” the polls. At the Long Room, polls are changed to show Trump ahead without much explanation as to the reasons for the change.
Little effort is made to hide what is going on, as the graphic at right shows. Polls are taken, and the numbers “unbiased” to show the desired result.
What is odd about this effort is that it follows a similar effort in 2012 that ended quite badly. Unskewed Polls, now shuttered, predicted an easy Romney victory simply by taking the published polls and changing the numbers. It may have influenced pollsters like Gallup that was one pollster that consistently showed Romney ahead, but after the election decided to get out of the horse race game. Rasmussen Reports, another polling firm that is seen to lean right, takes a different tack and often reacts to other polling results and moves in their direction. Their latest poll, for example, shows Clinton up by 4 points, less than other polls, but a huge swing to their previous polling results.
The current line of thinking on some alternate universe websites is to admit that in 2012 the polls were right, but somehow they are not right now.
“Consequently, polls were largely unbiased in the last stages of the 2012 election, and they yielded accurate results, particularly when any slight biases are corrected for. Polls today are overwhelmingly biased against Trump, and when that bias is corrected, Trump is tied with Clinton, or may hold a modest lead,” wrote the American Thinker in mid-June.
It is easy to dismiss many of the websites linked to from Long Room and others as simply of the tin hat variety. But the number of web visitors and comments are less easy to dismiss, and are a sign that there is an appetite for this kind of content, wild, unsubstantiated, and reinforcing conspiracy theories and ingrained political positions.
The question a media executive may want to contemplate is whether there is a need to create new brands that might be attractive to some of these readers, without completely dropping the pretense of being a journalistically sound website.
The publishers of these websites understand what they are doing, They are serving an audience that will never see The New York Times as a legitimate news source, despite being seen by the vast majority of journalists as the gold standard.
“The pattern at this point is clear — every election, voters grow frustrated with the blatantly biased and misinformed mainstream media, and venture out in search of a new news source,” wrote Bryan Stascavage on REGATED.
“For independent news outlets like REGATED, the failure of the mainstream media has created a market to capitalize on.”