Breitbart News Seeks to Change Its Stripes After Yiannopoulos, Bannon Ties

Published February 22, 2017
FOXBusiness

Breitbart News, the conservative news outlet that gained a reputation for being associated with fringe, right-wing politics also known as the alt right, may be changing at least some of its stripes, the FOX Business Network has learned.

People at the news outlet say that an effort is underway to make Breitbart more mainstream, by hiring reporters to cover news and devote less space to political commentary that has been its forte, particularly during the course of the long and contentious 2016 political year where Breitbart openly sided with President Donald Trump.

The people, who spoke to FOX Business on the condition of anonymity, say the changes won’t be overly dramatic and concede that editors for the publication are walking a fine line: Breitbart’s brand of conservative commentary, particularly on controversial cultural issues such as immigration, as well as its almost manic support of Trump, has brought it a huge following among aspects of the conservative movement.

But the stridency of the website’s politics, as well as the controversy created by its former Tech Editor Milo Yiannopoulos, has come at a price. People inside Breitbart say while the website may in fact be profitable, it is also suffering from a business standpoint with advertising dollars shrinking significantly.

Because of that, Breitbart is in the middle of a modest transformation: it has recently hired journalists from mainstream publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, and elsewhere and is seeking to cover more straight political news, which editors believe will be more appeasing to advertisers.

“(Breitbart) is leaving so much money on the table given how much traffic we generate,” said a person close to the website who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “That’s why they have to change to cover more mainstream news and appeal to a broader audience to attract the ad dollars that should be coming in but aren’t.”

A spokesman for Breitbart, Chad Wilkinson, didn’t respond to an email request for comment.

Breitbart is privately held and doesn’t release financial statements so little information is available on its financials. However people inside the publication say the divergence between its web traffic and its ad revenues is fairly significant.

In November of 2016, the website generated about 20 million unique viewers, representing a significant increase in website viewership over the past year, according ComScore, which tracks industry website performance. Since November, after the election, website traffic has tapered off but according to other metrics it remains strong. Breitbart is touting statistics from the tracking service Alexa that make it “the 29th most trafficked site in the United States, surpassing PornHub and ESPN” which is owned by Disney (NYSE:DIS).

But advertising money hasn’t followed. According to a report in USA Today, several advertisers including Kellogg (NYSE:K) decided to pull ads from the website in recent months over concerns about Breitbart’s right-wing content.

Breitbart’s Editor-in-Chief Alex Marlow recently told The Hill that the website will be focusing on more intense news coverage of the Trump White House, and has been staffing up for that coverage. One reason for that is obviously access to Steve Bannon, who resigned as Breitbart’s executive chairman to join the Trump campaign and is now a senior adviser to the president.

Still, it is unclear how much of a change Breitbart can make given its ingrained culture and whether it will matter to advertisers. Breitbart was launched in 2007 by conservative firebrand Andrew Breitbart, as a web aggregator, and a few years later he remade it as a news outlet, that would counter what he believed was a left-wing bias in the traditional media. Breitbart mainly reflected mainstream conservative views; it was staunchly pro-Israel and anti-big government. It attracted talented writers who also reflected Breitbart’s world view.

In 2012, Breitbart died unexpectedly of a heart attack turning over the leadership to Bannon, and it was then that critics say the website took a more nationalistic turn particularly with its stance against unfettered immigration, and later support for Trump who made immigration reform a key campaign theme.

The Trump candidacy and Breitbart’s advocacy of it produced an upside and a downside. Web traffic grew but some writers left the publication over its unabashed support of Trump, who made controversial comments about Mexican immigrants. Then came corporate America’s pushback of the site after Breitbart became associated with a political movement known as the alt-right, according to people at the website.

It was Bannon who famously called the website “the platform for the alt-right,” which is considered a fringe hyper-nationalistic political movement that some critics believe is both racist and anti-Semitic.  Bannon has since sought to clarify his remarks, and stated in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that he has “zero tolerance” for racism or anti-Semitism.

But people inside Breitbart say the label has stuck with many advertisers. Complicating matters the recent the controversy surrounding Yiannopoulos and his comments on pedophilia.

Known by many of his followers as “Milo,” Yiannopoulos was Breitbart’s Tech Editor but he is best known as a provocative cultural commentator. He was ousted from Breitbart earlier in the week when a tape emerged that appeared to show him supporting inter-generational sex.

Yiannopoulos says his comments were taken out of context and he doesn’t endorse under aged sex. Still, people at Breitbart told FOX Business that they believed the remarks and the controversy it sparked (Yiannopoulos lost a lucrative book deal and a high-profile speaking engagement at the upcoming Conservative Political Action Committee conference) would make it even more difficult to generate ad revenue, which is why they pushed for his resignation.

“(Breitbart) was already in trouble with advertisers over Bannon’s alt-right remarks, but Milo made the battle much more difficult,” said a person close to the company.