Last summer, shortly after the first Republican presidential debate, the editors of the Daily Signal made a decision. Although its digital-only staff of 25 reporters and editors works less than two miles from the White House, they wouldn’t write about the presidential campaign — not at all.
Nary a mention of Donald Trump’s pronouncements, despite the readership that he produces. No Corey Lewandowski dust-ups; no Hillary Clinton stopping at Chipotle; no horse race.
“We struggled with the decision,” says Robert Bluey, the Signal’s editor in chief. “But we ultimately decided that there was no way our small, ragtag team could do it justice, against the bigger sites, and we were better off doing other things well.”
An odd call, perhaps, but then again, the Daily Signal is not your run-of-the-mill news operation.
First off, it is funded by, and housed within, the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank whose president is former Republican senator (and tea party leader) Jim DeMint.
Bluey’s office boasts a large soft-focus poster of Ronald Reagan, and the newsroom lacks the clutter and clatter — and fast-food wrappers — of most places where journalists toil. Clean, quiet and well-appointed, it feels more like a law office or, well, a foundation — except for an impressive new video studio due to debut this summer.
Is it indeed a news operation, or a way for Heritage to do strategic communication in a new and effective way? The editorial insiders insist that it is very much the former.
To those who might doubt, “I would point to our work,” Bluey says.
Reporter Josh Siegel spent a week in Texas after the Brussels attack to report a two-part piece on how Houston’s Muslim community is trying to combat terrorism. Signal correspondent Nolan Peterson, a former Special Operations pilot, was one of the first Americans to embed with the Ukrainian army. And reporter Kelsey Harkness’s coverage of a Justice Department program called Operation Choke Point, which hurt legitimate businesses as it attempted to limit fraud in others, has kept up pressure on the program.
Former CBS investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson is a regular contributor. And when Facebook executives met with conservative news organizations to soothe fears about charges of anti-conservative bias, Bluey was among them. A few weeks later, Bluey was first to report a story about Facebook’s plans for anti-bias training.
So far, though, the two-year-old site has no credentials to cover Congress, which are granted by the Standing Committee of Correspondents. Bluey thinks the prerequisites for getting them may be pretty challenging for the Signal, at least right now. What’s required includes diverse funding sources and no affiliation with (or location within) an advocacy organization.
So the Signal’s congressional reporter, Philip Wegmann, must catch up with his sources elsewhere — sometimes at a nearby Chinese restaurant.
The Signal is trying to diversify its funding by asking readers to subscribe. With an annual budget of $1.3 million, the site gets about 2 million unique visitors a month.
As for editorial independence, Bluey says that he and other editors make assignments and decide what gets published, although sometimes people at Heritage, including its president, “offer ideas.”
“I don’t tell the Daily Signal what to do, but we do want folks to see the conservative perspective,” DeMint told me.
DeMint was proud of the Signal’s stories about the Oregon bakers who refused to make a lesbian couple’s wedding cake and had to pay a substantial fine.
“Most media would cover this as a case of discrimination,” he said. “But we wrote it as a story of real people who were being run out of business because of their religious convictions.” (A court ruled that because the bakery was not a religious organization, those convictions didn’t translate into lawful behavior.)
The Signal is just one of many start-ups that approach the news with a specific mission, point of view or area of expertise.
The well respected SCOTUSblog has no Supreme Court credential (granted in part as an offshoot of the congressional credential) because it is based at a law firm.
Matthew Daly, the Associated Press reporter who is the chairman of the Standing Committee of Correspondents, said his organization’s decisions “have gotten more complicated now” because of all the new sites.
Daly added: “Editorial independence is number one, and we take that pretty seriously.”
Conservatives would be quick to say that many media organizations have their own underlying (liberal) points of view, although they aren’t acknowledged. The Daily Signal’s affiliation is right there on the surface.
And for those who are weary of relentless campaign coverage, the Signal’s out-of-the-mainstream offerings may provide a respite.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan