Can These Conservative Sites Capture Millennials' Hearts and Minds?

Why you should care

Because there’s Vox for the right. 

It was a homecoming of sorts, Ron Meyer told the assembled at last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference. At 18, he had started his own journalistic career at the annual conservative forum, shaking hands with everyone he could and introducing himself to editors, including one at Human Events who gave him his first real writing opportunity. At Principia College, he found his groove covering his liberal campus. He interned twice with the National Journalism Center, with placements at Radio America and Santa Barbara News-Press. A column he wrote at age 19 broke through to Fox News coverage, and today, at 27, he leads Red Alert Politics, a digital publication founded with the motto “written by young conservatives for young conservatives.” And now, here he was, back at CPAC, leading a panel broadcast on Facebook Live on “How to Become a Conservative Journalist.”

Two days later, Meyer — also an elected county supervisor in Loudoun County, Virginia — and I spoke over the phone about the increasingly dense ecosystem of conservative news sites aimed at millennials. The market is potentially, as they say, “yuge”: There are some 75 million millennials in the U.S., and not all of them share the ethos of Vox, Mic and their explicitly lefty kin. Then there’s President Trump’s unprecedented openness to — and occasional preference for — non-establishment conservative outlets. The timing could be, no pun intended, right. “There’s a market out there,” says Dave D’Alessio, associate professor of communication at University of Connecticut. The idea is that there’s “money in these niches.”

Some outlets are funded by conservative for-profits aiming to branch into the youth market. Meyer’s Red Alert Politics, for instance, grew out of Clarity Media, which owns the Washington Examiner and the Weekly Standard. Others, like Campus Reform and the College Fix, got their dollars from nonprofits such as the Leadership Institute, which aims to cultivate conservative activists. Facebook Lives? Check. YouTube-friendly personalities? Check. Clickbait headlines? Sometimes.

Which, of course, spells more bad news for so-called traditional media — the newspapers, networks and radio stations that Trump and his constituents already deride. According to a September 2016 Gallup poll, just 14 percent of Republicans trusted those sources, down from 32 percent in 2015. “A lot of people my age … won’t even turn on Fox News or CNN,” 19-year-old Josh Gremillion, a student at the University of Houston and co-founder of the Millennial Post, says. “They don’t know what to believe.”

The most millennial of the millennial-focused sites tend to focus on college issues. On Campus Reform, 23-year-old contributor Cabot Phillips makes mincemeat out of liberal college students in his short, quick-cut videos. In one of them, which racked up 2 million views, Phillips shows college students a succession of photos of opulent mansions and asks who they think own them. They choose Republicans. The real answer? Hillary Clinton. In another, he starts a fake petition to ban Christmas at the University of Virginia — the signatures pile up. “My goal is to get someone that is scrolling through their Facebook, who’s not super involved in politics,” says Phillips. “Millennials don’t want boring content.”

Watching Phillips and his (mostly white, mostly male) conservative competitors, even liberals must wonder whether there is any creature more pious than a left-loving college student. That’s part of the point. Young conservatives, like the publications hoping to win them, are “Trumpian, bold, brash,” says Steven Glick, who has written for the College Fix. They’re “not so stiff and stodgy as the establishment.” A quick glance at the outlets suggests the young right media may have a better sense of comedic timing: “50K People Sign Petition Demanding That J.K. Rowling Put Up Muslim Refugees in Her 18 Spare Bedrooms” went one headline in Heat Street. “Public University to Roll Out ‘Bystander Training Program on Microaggressions’” recently ran on the College Fix.

To be sure, Fox still owns a huge segment of the conservative audience. In late August of 2016, Fox News had finished No. 1 in prime time for 10 out of 11 weeks. Plus, like any new media business, millennial-focused sites will have to overcome a black-box behemoth, Facebook’s algorithm, to be seen and heard. Red Alert Politics has a mere 135,000 Facebook likes, while Heat Street has only 199,000. Fox News? 15 million. And what to do about the pressures to produce clickbait and a sustainable revenue model, likely driven by ads, while also staying true to the mission of informing a republic?

The right wing has long funded thought leadership related to its own political goals. Now, the think tank world is bleeding into influencing the millennial masses, packaged with entertaining 140-character tweets and curiosity-gap headlines. It’s not the easiest fit. “We’re trying to play catch-up on the right. We have to push back on some of the narratives on that side; otherwise, we’re going to lose this generation,” says Meyer. Part of pushing back is creating a pipeline for young writers of the conservative persuasion — hence CPAC panels like the one Meyer moderated.

In the 1990s, talk radio and opinionated journalism reached new heights, D’Alessio says, and ushered in a new era of separate news sources. Then came the great digital disruption, which fractured the internet into an atomized “long tail.” Now, two decades after the process started, left and right can safely have their own youth echo chambers without hearing the other side at all.

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