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Penny For Your Thoughts
A new conservative website is attempting to monetize the right wing. Can it succeed?


Now just a little more than 6 months old, Right Wisconsin is an anomaly in the political blogosphere – and perhaps the ultimate test for conservative free-market principles. Unlike The Daily Caller and similar national sites, the local right-wing website run by the Journal Communications broadcast division is mostly behind a pay wall on which the writing is clear: If you want to read the screeds, you gotta pay up.

After 20 years of positioning its radio station, WTMJ-AM 620, as a homing beacon for Wisconsin’s conservatives, Journal Broadcast is using RW to expand the brand of top talker Charlie Sykes and make him a formidable online presence. And it’s an effort that’s rationed out only the most minor content as gratis, including links to commentary on other sites. Some free posts are cross-promoted on both RW and various conservative news and commentary websites (including the MacIver Institute and Media Trackers). But that’s the extent of the freebies.

Everything falls under the banner of “Powered by Charlie Sykes,” though Journal Broadcast has greatly expanded the site’s staff since launching in January. The company snatched longtime GOP operative and blogger Brian Fraley from the MacIver Institute and added two staff contributors, including a writer from Media Trackers.

Steve Wexler, executive vice president at Journal Broadcast, says RW is doing “extremely well” so far and exceeding expectations, though he won’t share hard numbers on traffic. “There’s clearly a real appetite for it, which isn’t surprising, considering the appetite for Charlie’s show over the years.”

The number of unique visitors to the site has risen throughout the year and exceeded 22,000 in May, according to compete.com. By contrast, the radio station’s website brings in around 100,000 a month, and jsonline.com has clocked about 1 million in the same period, the compete.com traffic charts say.

One thing that has yet to appear on the site is an offering of notable new voices. Current contributors include the usual stable of local conservative commentators, with perhaps the newest being Collin Roth, the former Media Trackers writer.

The content itself has also avoided surprises and breaks only occasionally with Republicans in the state. When Sykes and blogger David Blaska posted contrasting views on the legislature’s plan to kick the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism off the University of Wisconsin campus, Blaska approved of the eviction, but Sykes came out against it. The radio host noted that research from the center had been used to bolster the case against a proposed high-speed rail linking Milwaukee and Madison.

Otherwise, RW’s stances are predictable – voter fraud is rampant in Milwaukee’s inner city; climate change remains suspect science; and incidents of vandalism and theft at a Penokee Hills iron mine in Ashland are conflated with “domestic terrorism.” And the site played a key role in Gov. Scott Walker withdrawing a student’s nomination to the UW Board of Regents. The site first reported that the nominee had signed a Walker recall petition (and posted a photo of the student) before even confirming that the signature was his.

Interviewed before that story ran, Wexler showed little zeal for taking scalps and demurred from naming any policy or legislative battles where RW could claim victory. “My job is to figure out where there is an audience and build something for them,” he says. “Our goal is not to win a policy argument. I’ll leave that to the legislators and the political operatives.”

But behaving like an organization with an agenda is exactly the accusation made by fellow Journal Communications employee George Stanley, managing editor of the Journal Sentinel. A RW post called him “small” and “petty” when the newspaper’s coverage of the student nominee story didn’t credit RW’s post. “They take opposition research, post it on a website under a headline, call it news and claim they’re doing the same thing we are,” Stanley says of the Sykes-powered operation. “That’s      why it’s called spin.”

Observers question whether the site will turn a healthy profit with rates of $9.99 a month or $59.88 for a year. But subscribers aren’t the only source of revenue. There’s some advertising and also sponsored posts (“native advertising”) bought by groups such as Americans for Prosperity and the Wisconsin Club for Growth, organizations that develop and promote conservative talking points. These posts, to reach a wider audience, reside on the free side of the pay wall.

In short, one insider cracks, the site has “not only got an ideological bent, but if [they’re] not bending it far enough, you can buy it.”

 

And then bend it as far as you want. 

This article appears in the August 2013 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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