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.