ThinkProgress Shuttered

One of the giants of the progressive blogosphere is going away.

In a controversial move, the liberal think tank Center for American Progress has terminated the site that launched the careers of Matt Yglesias, Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Nico Pitney, and others.

Sam Stein and Gideon Resnick report for The Daily Beast:

ThinkProgress, the influential news site that rose to prominence in the shadow of the Bush administration and helped define progressivism during the Obama years, is shutting down.

The outlet, which served as an editorially independent project of the Democratic Party think tank Center for American Progress (CAP), will stop current operations on Friday and be converted into a site where CAP scholars can post.

Top officials at CAP had been searching for a buyer to take over ThinkProgress, which has run deficits for years, and according to sources there were potentially three serious buyers in the mix recently. But in a statement to staff, Navin Nayak, the executive director of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, said the site was ultimately unable to secure a patron.

It’s not surprising that the site was a money loser. Opinion journalism has seldom been profitable and those of us in the online space have been struggling to make ends meet for years. But there’s more to the story than sheer finances.

But the site suffered from editorial frictions during the Obama years, when the visions of some of the staff clashed with the larger political demands of CAP and its donors. At one point, CAP’s then-CEO Jen Palmieri wrote a guest post on Yglesias’ ThinkProgress blog to issue a defense of Third Way after Yglesias had criticized the centrist-Democratic group. Elsewhere, there were rifts and tensions over ThinkProgress posts that were critical of Israel.

In the fall of 2015, staffers at ThinkProgress unionized, in part as a means of formalizing editorial independence from CAP brass. And there was a sense that the election of Donald Trump in 2016 would spark a boomlet in material for staff to investigate and cover. In 2018, the site brought on board Jodi Enda, an alum of CNN, to serve as editor in chief, in what was presented as a movement towards more original reporting. 

But editorial tensions have lingered. In April, the website posted a story and video about Sanders’ personal wealth which had grown over recent years due to book sales. The presidential candidate responded in a lacerating letter targeting CAP for accepting corporate donations and linking the published story to the bidding of said donors. 

In early May, sources told The Daily Beast that the ThinkProgress writers’ union and the author of the story were concerned with the way in which Enda had handled the ordeal, including her making edits without the initial permission of the author. Enda said she publicly and privately apologized for not letting the author know before making the edit, though she felt the edit was warranted. 

Reactions on Twitter have, predictably, been split along partisan lines. Republican-leaners have harkened back to a recent Tweet by the ThinkProgress union touting the editorial independence of its writers, with variants of “How’s that working out for you?” Many liberals are pointing to turmoil between the organization and its funders. There is, of course, substantial overlap between those takes.

Privately, staffers and some alumni argued that, with some budget reductions, CAP could continue funding operations through the reallocation of donor dollars. ThinkProgress’ staff had ballooned to more than 40 before the number began to dwindle this year. And within these quarters, there has been ample suspicion as to why CAP officials have been so alarmed over the current state of financial distress when the site has lived in this limbo for virtually its entire existence. 

But CAP officials said that the long-term outlook for ThinkProgress was dire. A few months ago, they let it be known that they were looking to sell the site off to a prospective buyer.

According to Nayak, CAP had “conversations with more than 20 potential new publishers, including several extended dialogues.” But, he added, “broad trends” in digital news media “proved insurmountable in finding ThinkProgress a new home.”

It’s certainly true that CAP could have reallocated funds to keep their blog going, especially in a smaller form. But they were somehow spending an inordinate amount of money on it:

Internal documents obtained by The Daily Beast showed ThinkProgress facing a $3-million delta between revenues and expenses in 2019, of which $350,000 had come via a shortfall in ad revenue. 

Even assuming zero income, $3 million is a lot to spend to operate a blog with fewer than 40 employees. I haven’t followed TP much in the last few years but their model had always been to use it as a farm system for bright prospects right out of college. An average of $75,000 a year is a pretty handsome salary for burgeoning pundits, even in DC.

Beyond that, my instincts tell me that the funders weren’t happy about losing that kind of money on a site with editorial independence from the think tank.

When I launched the Atlantic Council’s New Atlanticist blog a dozen years ago, I had carte blanche. The CEO had made his reputation as an ace journalist and wouldn’t have had it any other way. But, as the organization blossomed under his leadership into a major player, there were subtle pressures to self-censor to avoid alienating certain funders and political heavy-hitters who we might want to invite to headline events. There came a point where there were a lot of potential land mines.

As Dan Drezner demonstrated in his excellent book, The Ideas Industry, those pressures have grown much more fierce in the intervening years. Think tanks and similar organizations have to constantly grub for money to do their work. Pissing off the rich and powerful is, shall we say, not the best way to go about getting funded. And employing 40-odd smart, idealistic 20-somethings to spout their ideas is a surefire way to piss off the rich and powerful.

FILED UNDER: Academia, Blogosphere
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    Another example of the difficulty of running a news/opinion site with only sidebar ad revenue. That reveals a greater problem, if a site needs to rely on the support of well healed angels to survive it will inevitably come under pressure to conform to the donors concept of proper editorial focus.

    Personally I never spent much time there, followed the occasional link to specific articles was about all. That said, the loss of another voice should be mourned.

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  2. I didn’t spend much time there either other than the following, and sometimes linking to, reporting by the Supreme Court reported Ian Millheiser, but what I found notable last night was the absolute glee with which this news was greeted by conservatives.

    Taking joy in people losing their jobs because you disagree with their politics is pretty sick, IMO.

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  3. Teve says:

    @Sleeping Dog: everybody is going to metered paywall.

  4. James Joyner says:

    @Teve:

    everybody is going to metered paywall.

    The problem is that, aside from a relative handful of well-established or competition-proof outlets, who’s going to pay? ThinkProgress wouldn’t have been able to raise anything like $3 million annually in subscription revenue.

  5. Teve says:

    @James Joyner: only the heavy hitters like WaPo, New York Times, FT, WSJ etc will be able to go it alone. Conde Nast will probably bundle, and there will be other bundles.

  6. DrDaveT says:

    Pissing off the rich and powerful is, shall we say, not the best way to go about getting funded.

    That may be the most concise summary I have ever seen of why there really aren’t any actually liberal (much less progressive, socialist, or communist) major media outlets.

    (Most of the public at large has never even heard of Mother Jones, either the person or the organization…)

    Just another reason why Citizens United is the worst Supreme Court decision of all time.

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  7. gVOR08 says:

    @DrDaveT: Exactly. Do we think an equivalent RWNJ site would have had any trouble finding a sugar daddy from the Billionaire Boys Club?

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  8. gVOR08 says:

    @Teve: NYT keeps smelling to me like they’re spiffing up the books hoping to sell it. If somebody like Adelson buys it we’re a long way toward the death of democracy.

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  9. James Joyner says:

    @gVOR08:

    Do we think an equivalent RWNJ site would have had any trouble finding a sugar daddy from the Billionaire Boys Club?

    It cuts both ways. The Weekly Standard went from being quite influential to out of business almost overnight. I don’t think National Review has every had deep funding. Libertarian and business-oriented sites have more luck but, even there, I don’t know that there are deep pockets, much less editorial autonomy.

  10. 95 South says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    That said, the loss of another voice should be mourned.

    But were they any good? A lot of opinion sites don’t add anything to the conversation, or make it worse.

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  11. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner: IIRC The Weekly Standards problems largely came from being anti-Trump.

  12. Mister Bluster says:

    …don’t add anything to the conversation, or make it worse.

  13. @Teve:

    Going to metered paywalls will be the demise of most of these independent sites. People just arent going to pay these onzies and twozies for news and opinion. I think they’lll just wander off and go watch advertising based TV. Most of em just rehash other sites’ opinions anyway.

    Maybe blame Facebook for throttling down the spread of these sites on FB readers’ timelines. If they don’t improve content, people will wander off from facebook as well. The political marketplace is sooo saturated!