Their collaboration is FrontPageLive.com, a news site where progressives can find stories that feed their sensibilities. A news release calls the site “the go-to liberal antidote” to the Drudge Report, the aggregator that for more than two decades has been amplifying news reports with a conservative spin. Romm sees FrontPageLive.com as a “viralizing engine” for the other side. It will populate frequently with audience-tested headlines, while pairing stories with links to action campaigns working on the issue at hand.
The concept stems from Romm’s love of Internet metrics. Over 13 years of blogging at ThinkProgress, Romm has tracked the Web prints for his thousands of postings, with a particular focus on traffic sources. Over the years, he has watched as referral engines for his stuff have gone poof. Years ago, the Huffington Post drove good numbers; the modern, rebranded HuffPost doesn’t. Years ago, Yahoo provided helpful aggregation; no more, he says. And when Facebook changed its algorithm in 2018, says Romm, ThinkProgress traffic took a “big hit.”
“Facebook was the equivalent of a programmable aggregator, but they got beat up over and over by the right wing, so they can’t be seen as favoring progressive news,” says Romm.
Something was missing, he concluded. “I came to realize that there were just huge gaps in the progressive infrastructure … There is no progressive content aggregator,” says Romm, who lays out his ideology about Internet influencing in his book, “How to Go Viral and Reach Millions.” “There is no progressive equivalent to the Drudge Report.”
To fill the void, Romm appealed to rich Democratic donors. The appeals fell flat — these folks “don’t get it,” he says. With no seed capital, FrontPageLive.com is a minimalist endeavor. There are six half-time workers, says Romm, including an aggregator working out of London to get the site up and running in the morning, plus another on the West Coast to keep it stoked in the evenings. Romm is working on the site while remaining in his post at ThinkProgress. Cameron, with an equity stake in the operation, will be contributing videos, reporting and expertise gained over a career in which he earned the nickname “Campaign Carl.” Laura Dawn, of the social-justice PR firm Art not War, Laura Dawn is FrontPageLive.com’s chief creative officer.
The revenue model is simple: site ads, though it won’t be launching with any paid advertising.
If FrontPageLive.com is a ragtag operation, the forces it opposes are anything but. The right-wing media system that Romm and Cameron are seeking to counterbalance features Fox News, with its $1.5 billion in annual profits, as well as websites with rich funders such as the Daily Caller and Breitbart.
In “Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics,” authors Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris and Hal Roberts document how outlets on the right pump disinformation into a self-reinforcing sphere — part of an asymmetric media that’s tearing the country apart. The authors explain: “One part is the right-wing, dominated by partisan media outlets that are densely interconnected and insular and anchored by Fox News and Breitbart. The other part spans the rest of the spectrum. It includes outlets from the left to historically center-right publications like the Wall Street Journal and is anchored by media organizations on the center and center-left that adhere to professional standards of journalism. There is no distinct left-wing media ecosystem that parallels the right in its internal coherence or insularity from the center.”
The right-wing media cabal last week teamed up on a hit piece against the New York Times. It started with a Washington Examiner article on how Times reporter Michael Schmidt was allegedly tipping the FBI off to some activity by White House aide Jared Kushner. It made the rounds, making a stop on Fox News’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and, ultimately, President Trump’s Twitter account:
Just revealed that the Failing and Desperate New York Times was feeding false stories about me, & those associated with me, to the FBI. This shows the kind of unprecedented hatred I have been putting up with for years with this Crooked newspaper. Is what they have done legal?...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 21, 2019
It was so bogus, however, that the Washington Examiner all but retracted the story.
Of course, Romm and Cameron have no interest in replicating the Breitbart-Fox News model, just countering it. “I do not believe we will have ‘Insularity from the center’ simply because what gets called ‘progressive’ news today — I used the example of climate change — is not at all insular from the center,” he writes in an email. “The right wing — and Trump — have drifted so far out of the center mainstream, that they reject even basic science and factual conclusions.” The very notion of “progressive news,” indeed, appears to irk Romm. “I never viewed writing about climate change for ThinkProgress to be ‘progressive’ 'cause I’m a scientist,” he says. “I actually thought I had more freedom to tell the true story because I didn’t have to put in a quote from a professional denier saying a lie about the science.”
Speaking of journalistic conventions, Cameron adhered to them as well. “I kept my personal beliefs very very to myself while I worked at Fox,” says Cameron, who notes that folks made assumptions about those beliefs based on his employer. “Some of my happiest moments at Trump rallies in 2016 was when the rally audience would be offended because I was hanging out with Katy Tur [of NBC News] or Jim Acosta [of CNN]. I thought that was just hilarious, because they thought that I was somehow cavorting with the enemy. It was like, no, actually, I was cavorting with my colleagues.”
Looking back at his Fox News roots, Cameron says, “I have a lot of respect for the people that try to do journalism there.” In his opening video for FrontPageLive.com, Cameron says, “I was one of Fox’s first hires. The idea of fair and balanced news appealed to me. But over the years, the right-wing hosts drowned out straight journalism with partisan misinformation. I left.”
As for his current pursuits, Cameron, 57, says conservatives have funded news sites to circumvent limits on campaign spending and more oomph is needed on the left. “The right has figured out that you can have unregulated advertising by paying for media entities who do it for you in totality. Democrats haven’t figured it out yet,” says Cameron, who also believes the left is stuck in a sit-in mentality and hasn’t perfected methods of targeting mass audiences. “I want to give people accurate information that helps them strengthen their arguments to make this country work as it was intended to,” says Cameron.
Ryan Grim, D.C. bureau chief for the Intercept and a former editor at the Huffington Post (rebranded as HuffPost), tells the Erik Wemple Blog that Romm’s venture is “worth a shot. … Problem is, user behavior is so geared toward social and away from homepages [that] it’s gonna be hard to crack in.”
The problem is also lefty user behavior. Research has shown that liberals are “less unified in their media loyalty,” according to the Pew Research Center, than are conservatives — one of the reasons that Fox News is Fox News and MSNBC is MSNBC. Accordingly, they may not flock to any particular aggregator that aims to please them — though, presumably, FrontPageLive.com will be drawing from sources they trust.
The absence of a progressive “viralizer” in the current Internet, says Romm, is “quite remarkable. So once we succeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if others launched, too.”