Media critic

Last month, Kelly Jane Torrance, deputy managing editor of the Weekly Standard, provided some commentary for i24NEWS, an Israeli outfit. Savvy publications generally use such TV “hits” to promote their logos, the better to boost Web traffic, cachet, brand, etc. Here’s the branding that i24NEWS viewers beheld in the office space behind Torrance:


Washington Examiner branding for a Weekly Standard commentator.

Yes, that’s the Washington Examiner’s logo behind Torrance. Confusion of this sort will not linger. On Friday, the ownership of the Weekly Standard announced the highly expected closing of the magazine. “For more than twenty years The Weekly Standard has provided a valued and important perspective on political, literary and cultural issues of the day,” Ryan McKibben, president and CEO of Clarity Media, said in a news release. “The magazine has been home to some of the industry’s most dedicated and talented staff and I thank them for their hard work and contributions, not just to the publication, but the field of journalism.” Noting that the magazine has been buffeted by the same forces destroying other segments of U.S. media, McKibben added: “Despite investing significant resources into the publication, the financial performance of the publication over the last five years — with double-digit declines in its subscriber base all but one year since 2013 — made it clear that a decision had to be made. After careful consideration of all possible options for its future, it became clear that this was the step we needed to take.”

Prior to the meeting in which the plug received its official pulling, Editor in Chief Stephen F. Hayes told staff in an email: “This is a volatile time in American journalism and politics. Many media outlets have responded to the challenges of the moment by prioritizing affirmation over information, giving into the pull of polarization and the lure of clickbait. I’ll spare you the soapbox and the sanctimony. To put it simply: I’m proud that we’ve remained both conservative and independent, providing substantive reporting and analysis based on facts, logic and reason.”

A little bit of history: The Weekly Standard launched in 1995 with money from mogul Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. under the guidance of founders Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes. In 2009, Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz bought the publication and ran it under Clarity Media Group. McKibben boasted that the Weekly Standard was “one of the most highly respected publications of public policy and political commentary in America.”

There was just one complication: Anschutz’s Clarity Media also owned the Washington Examiner, which was then a strange beast. Launched in 2005, it combined solid local news with conservative opinion columnists focused on national issues. The mix made no sense whatsoever. Nor did the business model, which involved free-of-charge saturation delivery of a conservative-tilted newspaper onto the lawns of some of the country’s most liberal communities. Arlington residents revolted over the delivery scheme.

But the Washington Examiner didn’t have to make sense: It was funded by an oddball mogul. This was the company’s baby, a grand project poised to take root in as many as 60 cities across the country. Instead, losses took root. Local journalism a decade ago wasn’t much more profitable than it is today.

In 2013, the Washington Examiner bagged the local stuff and retooled its shop to cover national politics and policy, along with a continued commitment to conservative opinion. Oh, but there was a problem: The same company had bought the Weekly Standard four years prior. Wasn’t there a problematic overlap going on here? Then-editor Stephen G. Smith (who has since left the company) told the Erik Wemple Blog in March 2013:

There will be a big difference in content. Nearly one-quarter of the Standard is devoted to arts and culture, 28 percent to domestic policy and courts, 18 percent to defense and foreign policy, and 30 percent to politics and elections. We won’t be covering arts and culture, foreign policy (except tangentially, as it figures in politics), or the courts.

As for overlaps in politics and elections, we’ll be doing more news analysis and investigative stuff and less opinion. In any event, conservative opinion is all over the place, and our guys are often interested in very different things. An example is Tim Carney’s work on crony capitalism and the revolving door between government and K Street.

In the years since, the brains around Anschutz have come to see something far different in the Weekly Standard: a subscription list. On Dec. 3, the company announced a relaunch of the Washington Examiner. While the print version has been available only to highflying decision-makers, the new Washington Examiner, noted the release, would seek a “nationwide subscriber footprint" with 44 issues per year. “Over the years, we’ve frequently been asked if individuals outside of the Beltway could subscribe to the publication,” said McKibben. “With this expansion and relaunch, our aim is for the new, national Washington Examiner to build on its position as a leader in providing a conservative perspective on the events of the day.”

How important was it to Anschutz & Co. to clear the playing field for the Washington Examiner? Important enough that the owners declined to sell the Weekly Standard to an outside group. Better to shutter it, cannibalize it. “They’ve pretty much made clear that they will not sell the magazine even though there have been several expressions of serious interest,” said an informed source who, like others interviewed for this post, didn’t want to be named while the fate of the magazine was in limbo. Countered company spokeswoman Hannah Rimar: “Clarity explored a range of different possibilities for the future of the publication over the past year. A number of conversations were held with a variety of different parties about their interest in acquiring the publication but none led to any viable offers.”

This month, after it announced the Washington Examiner re-relaunch, the company responded this way to inquiries about the impact on the Weekly Standard: "It is no secret that news organizations across the U.S. are dealing with an evolving business landscape. The Weekly Standard is dealing with these same issues. Clarity Media has been exploring a number of possibilities regarding the future of The Weekly Standard. At this time, Clarity does not have any news to share about its evaluation process.”

Thus began the death watch of another vital news organ. Publications such as the Weekly Standard exist at the pleasure of donors, or someone rich. That’s just the reality of political journals and magazines, whether they’re on the right — like National Review and the American Spectator — or whether they’re on the left — like the New Republic. Publishers can send out mailers, launch cruises, pitch ads to prominent lobbies, but the reality always comes back colored in red. Conventional wisdom holds that a conservative journal does better under a Democratic president and vice versa, but former Weekly Standard publisher Terry Eastland tells the Erik Wemple Blog: “The conventional wisdom is not wrong, but when they do better, they’re doing bad.” Eastland declined to comment specifically on the Weekly Standard.

So Clarity Media is bailing on a money-losing proposition. According to sources, the Weekly Standard’s annual losses fall in the seven-figure range — generally between $2 million and $5 million per year. The goal of the business side has always been to keep that number as low as possible, so as to avoid becoming a problem for the owner. During the Murdoch years — 1995 to 2009 — staffers report a smooth ride. Though Murdoch was famous for keeping an eye on the computer screens of his tabloid editors, the Weekly Standard operated with a glorious autonomy. The founders secured provisions in their contracts for editorial independence. “Rupert was great. He never interfered,” says a knowledgeable source.

“I had a very good time there and the working conditions were, I don’t know, hospitable, supportive, whatever word you want to use,” recalls Matthew Rees, a former staff writer. That environment allowed the founders to carve out a distinct weekly journal. There was editorializing — neocon editorializing that cheered on the overseas projection of U.S. power and the disastrous Iraq War in particular; there were features; there was cultural commentary and book reviews; and there was spectacular writing and the occasional stinker. It was kind of an alt-weekly for conservative politics.

According to informed sources, the new owner never really got that dimension of the Weekly Standard — that is, the magazine’s whimsical side and the longform work of Weekly Standard eminences such as Matt Labash and Andrew Ferguson.

It did, however, subsidize the title for nearly a decade. With meddling, of course. Weekly Standard insiders say that Clarity was forever cramming the latest Internet trend down the throats of managers at the magazine, in an effort to goose the publication’s Web traffic. The directives met with opposition from editors. Thus the unflattering reference in Hayes’s memo to “clickbait.”

Left intact was the Weekly Standard’s editorial independence, which it used famously to state the empirical — that President Trump was and is corrupt and incapable of executive assertion. In the remarkable splintering of conservative media over the past three years, the magazine has distinguished itself on this front with editorials and features that savage the Republican president. For instance, here’s the conclusion to a recent editorial on Trump’s worsening legal straits:

It is a commonplace, in the Trump era, to say that the old criteria of decency and honor no longer appear to apply. The president’s mendacity is so aggressive, his malfeasance so common, that his everyday behavior no longer surprises and these days rarely elicits condemnation from other Republicans. But it’s worth remembering that high-ranking public officials have resigned from office for doing far less than what Donald Trump is credibly accused of doing in these legal documents. For all of the Trump-Russia story’s confusion and complication, that much, at least, is simple.

Sounds a lot like the sort of material you might find on the editorial page of The Post or the New York Times. The workings of integrity are marvelous.

Early coverage of Weekly Standard’s end explored the possibility that its end is related to its stance on Trump. Rimar responded to such talk this way: “This was a business decision. Any attempt to politicize it ignores the realities about The Weekly Standard’s unresolved financial struggles that began well before the current administration took office.” But subscriptions have gone down in recent years, including a 10 percent drop between 2016 and 2017. According to a magazine insider, the cancellations started raining down in the spring of 2016, as Trump was closing in on the Republican nomination. “There was probably the sense that our readership, the Weekly Standard readership, was more in line with the editors, but it turned out to be more mainstream Republicans watching Fox,” says the insider.

Now the folks at the Washington Examiner will be getting more attention from ownership. They, too, are running a money-losing organization, according to informed sources. This is the third incarnation of the Washington Examiner, and let’s hope that it’s more durable than the first two.

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