The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Whatever happened to Breitbart? The insurgent star of the right is in a long, slow fade

Former Breitbart executive chairman and Trump chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon at the White House in 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In January 2017, was flying high. Donald Trump, the candidate it had backed during the 2016 campaign, was sworn in as president. Its former executive chairman, Stephen K. Bannon, was named chief White House strategist, seemingly auguring an era of unparalleled access and influence for the far-right, anti-establishment news and commentary site.

In hindsight, it looks like it was Breitbart’s high-water mark.

The site Bannon once described as “the platform for the alt-right” has steadily tumbled from the commanding heights it occupied just 30 months ago.

Since Trump became president, monthly traffic has virtually collapsed, plummeting nearly 75 percent. Aggressive conservative competitors have zoomed past it. At the same time, it faces a double financial whammy: the loss of its biggest donor and an ad boycott launched by a liberal group that continues to erode its revenue.

And Bannon, once the driving force behind its insurgent editorial focus, is long gone, forced out early last year, a few months after Trump forced him out of the White House.

As the 2020 campaign begins to heat up, Breitbart is still a reliable Trump ally, with a familiar set of enemies (freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is a popular target) and themes (anti-immigration, pro-economic nationalism, skepticism of multiculturalism).

Breitbart’s monthly traffic bottomed out at 4.6 million unique visitors in May, down from 17.3 million at the start of 2017, according to Comscore, a digital tracking firm.

The decline coincides with the departure of Bannon, who left in early 2018. Bannon, who took over Breitbart’s operation in 2012 upon the death of its founder, Andrew Breitbart, was forced out after alienating one of the site’s key funders, conservative donor Rebekah Mercer, over comments Bannon made to author Michael Wolff in his bestseller, “Fire and Fury.

But the site’s declining fortunes may be a result of multiple factors, said Howard Polskin, who aggregates news from the conservative media and tracks traffic to the sector via his website, “I can’t point to one thing that explains it,” he said. A key factor, he said, may be the intensified competition for Breitbart’s audience: “There are many choices on the Internet for conservative news,” he said. “My guess is that they’re stealing Breitbart’s audience.”

Breitbart’s representatives, including editor Alex Marlow, did not respond to requests for comment. Bannon also declined to comment.

In fact, Breitbart has fallen from among the top rank of conservative media outlets, according to Polskin’s tracking of Comscore data.

The leading conservative site, Fox News, has grown steadily, and reaches almost 100 million visitors per month. Breitbart ranks a distant seventh, behind such surging competitors as the Washington Examiner, the Washington Times and Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze. The Daily Wire — a site founded and run by former Breitbart commentator Ben Shapiro — attracts nearly as many readers each month as Breitbart.

In the meantime, Breitbart has been largely unable to stem the outflow of advertisers. Sponsors began to desert in 2016 amid a campaign by a group called Sleeping Giants, which urged an army of social-media supporters to alert unwitting advertisers that their ads were appearing on Breitbart, placed there automatically by ad-network algorithms (among the few major advertisers that have not pulled out is Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post).

Bannon himself noted the effectiveness of the campaign — and the existential threat it posed — in “The Brink,” a documentary about his post-Breitbart political activities. He said in one clip that Breitbart had lost “90 percent” of its $8 million annual ad revenue and that Breitbart was “in tough financial shape.” There’s is “no economic model” to support sites like it, he said.

Breitbart columnist Ann Coulter is more optimistic and says the site is succeeding despite tech companies that “aggressively suppress Breitbart stories. Breitbart has continued to do important original reporting, so there’s a multiplier effect with more and more people getting their news from Breitbart,” she said.

“Breitbart is in a terrible spot,” said Matt Rivitz, the advertising executive who started the Sleeping Giants campaign. He added, “They can either continue down the path of printing highly inflammatory content and continue to hemorrhage advertisers, or moderate their content to try to win advertisers back, but risk a backlash from their readership, many of whom who go to the site precisely for that content. They can’t win.”

That view is largely shared by Kurt Bardella, who served as a spokesman for Breitbart until 2016, when he left in dissatisfaction over its handling of an incident involving Trump’s then-campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski.

Breitbart, he suggests, has nowhere to go. “It’s never going to be more popular than the day Trump was sworn into office,” he said, with its popularity was driven by media attention and curiosity over how Trump would govern.

Bardella thinks the site will make it through another election cycle. But he’s not sure after that. “I think the future for them is very bleak,” he said.