Buried deep within a Pew Research Center study on how people consume news in the digital age is a fascinating insight into what powers certain well-known conservative news sites.
Here's what Pew did. They used a sample of 26 news sites to conduct their research on peoples' digital browsing habits. They used a combination of the most trafficked news sites and the ones that get the most traffic via Facebook. Not surprisingly, there was considerable overlap -- 17 of the most trafficked sites were also the most shared via Facebook.
But, it's a group of outliers that got us thinking. Here's the relevant nugget from the Pew memo:
[There are] five sites that are among the most shared on Facebook, but do not rank among the most visited sites. All five are conservative-oriented news sites: theblaze.com, breitbart.com, washingtontimes.com, mrconservative.com, and wnd.com.
These sites have relatively modest audiences, with mrconservative.com at the bottom of the list at 772,000 monthly unique visitors....Indeed on average, the four, conservative digital political sites (excluding the legacy washingtontimes.com) got 22% of their traffic from Facebook referrals – far more than any other grouping of news sites.
What explains how those five conservative news sites are so actively shared on Facebook but come nowhere close to the raw traffic numbers of some more mainstream media sites?
Here's my theory. Conservatives are a remarkably well-organized and tight-knit group. It's why every book from a conservative author shoots to the top of the best-seller list. It's why Fox News Channel's primetime programming regularly doubles that of its cable competition. It's why Rush Limbaugh has no talk radio equal among liberals. It's not terribly surprising then that organizational closeness extends to the digital space where conservative use Facebook to share stories/links from a handful of conservative websites.
The fact that these sites rank as some of the most shared via Facebook but are not in the conversation when it comes to the most trafficked sites also speaks to a broader problem with the conservative movement. Yes, they are organized and effective. But, no, they are not legion. That's why conservative voices -- and candidates -- can dominate a primary election but occasionally nominate a candidate who lacks an appeal to the broader electorate.