Breitbart News Sees Big Drop In Readership
Breitbart News appears to be fading in terms of readership, but the alt-right politics it represents is not going away.
Breitbart News has seen a significant dropoff in readership over the past several months:
WASHINGTON — Breitbart, the alt-right news site whose executive chairman Steve Bannon was pushed out in January after feuding with President Donald Trump, has lost about half its readership according to comScore, raising questions about its future.
The site dropped from 15 million unique visitors in October, per comScore, to 13.7 million in November, 9.9 million in December, 8.5 million in January and 7.8 million in February.
Its comScore figure for January was down 51 percent from the same month a year earlier, and the February number was down 49 percent from 2017. Last month was the site’s least trafficked since February 2015, four months before Donald Trump declared his candidacy for president.
There are several potential causes for Breitbart’s troubles, including changes to Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm, amped up investment in digital by Fox News, and the shifting status of Bannon. Once Trump’s campaign chairman, White House strategist, and closest ally, Bannon left the administration in August and returned to Breitbart, only to be forced out by the site’s board after he criticized Trump and his family in Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury.” Without its driving force, Breitbart has struggled to find a clear identity. And after a significantly diminished presence at this year’s CPAC conference, there is a growing sense that its influence is on the wane.
“As a talk radio host, I haven’t used a Breitbart story in at least six months,” said conservative commentator Erick Erickson in an email. “They have a lot of readers and lot of people reading by habit, even if not as many. But they seem less able to stimulate a conversation or move an agenda now.”
Neither Breitbart editor-in-chief Alex Marlow nor a spokesperson responded to requests for comment.
Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart editor who is now editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire, said that the site is at a crossroads. “They hitched their wagon to Trump, but more importantly, they hitched their wagon to Bannon,” he said. “And when Bannon left, what was the character of the site going to be? That was always a serious question.”
As Bannon’s star rose along with Trump, Breitbart benefited, said its former spokesman Kurt Bardella. “At one point Breitbart was considered must-read status because it was thought of as one of the only places to get a window into what the president was thinking,” Bardella said.
But with Bannon exiled from both the site and Trump’s orbit, that’s no longer the case. “Fox News has supplanted Breitbart as having that banner,” Bardella said.
Over the last several months, Fox News has increased its investment in digital and saw strong traffic gains as a result. Before Fox News embarked in that direction last summer, its comScore number tended to be in the 70 or low 80 millions. Now, it’s more regularly in the high 80s or low 90s.
Rob Faris, the research director at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, said that Breitbart’s rise was in some ways facilitated by Fox News being slow to embrace Trump.
“A big part of Breitbart’s success was that there was a niche to be filled that Fox News was not able to fill at that point,” said Faris, who co-authored a study on the conservative media ecosystem during the election. But now, with Fox’s primetime hosts having fully embraced the president, he says, “The role, the importance of Breitbart is diminished.”
“Fox News is the gorilla in the room,” he said.
Web traffic numbers are often disputed, but other tracking firms beyond comScore have also reported Breitbart to be in decline. According to Amazon’s Alexa analytics service, the site has fallen to 273rd in world rank, down 33 positions over the last three months. And SimilarWeb has the site’s overall traffic down 22 percent since October.
It’s worth noting, of course, that this dropoff in readership could very well be temporary and may not indicate anything about the long-term future of the site or its ability to influence political action on the right. As the linked report goes on to note, the biggest reason for the change may well be the changes that Facebook has made to its newsfeed algorithm, which has reportedly hit several conservative news and opinion sites quite hard since it has been implemented. As time goes on, of course, those sites will likely find ways to adapt to those changes and much of the traffic that they lost as a result of those changes will come back. Additionally, there has always been something of a fickleness to the loyalty of readers on the right when it comes to news sites. In Breitbart’s case, the controversy that has surrounded the site, especially over the course of the past year, has driven away several of its most prominent writers, which has no doubt played at least some role in the decline in readership.
There’s also reason to believe, though, that this drop off in readership could be permanent to some extent. As noted above, Fox News has invested heavily in revamping its digital platform over the course of the past year, and that appears to be paying off in terms of increased traffic. Additionally, Fox’s digital properties are able to benefit from exposure and referrals from its parent company’s television arm, where viewership remains at the same high levels it has been seeing for years now. If that continues, then it seems likely that Fox could end up drowning other online voices on the right out, especially now that the network has basically become little more than state-run media for the Trump Administration.
It’s also worth noting that the decline in readership for Breitbart News doesn’t mean that the corrosive, and often racist, alt-right ideology that it has come to represent is fading away or slithering back into the shadows. If anything, it has become more energized in the wake of Donald Trump’s election and in things such as his comments in the wake of last summer’s events in Charlottesville. That success has become so marked that Breitbart’s obsequious coverage of the Trump Presidency and the alt-right movement has been mimicked by other sites on the web, and it may be that at least some of the reason for the drop-off in traffic may be that readers are shifting to these other, more radical, sites as they become more and more emboldened. The alt-right will be with us for some time to come, unfortunately, and is likely to outlast the Trump Presidency even if it ends up coming to an end in scandal or outright rejection by the American electorate.
None of this is to say that Breitbart News is dying, of course. There’s nothing to sneeze at in even the 7.8 million readers the site apparently had in February, and as I noted its possible there will be a turnaround over the course of the year. Nonetheless, a 50% dropoff in readership over the course of just a few months is nothing to ignore, and it could mean that the long-term future of Andrew Breitbart’s flagship website will be very short.