The media conversation tends to revolve around a handful of names: BuzzFeed. Gawker. New York Times. Vice. Business Insider. When an executive at Vice or BuzzFeed has a cup of coffee, we hear about it—whether that’s through a memo-masquerading-as-a-Medium-post or breathless reporting from another media reporter. Meanwhile, there are a handful of quiet sites who despite a lack of hype, are accomplishing everything the others are constantly chattering about.
When I think about quiet, underreported on over-achievers, The Blaze is one of the first that comes to mind. This site, founded in 2010, reaches more than 25 million readers per month and has its own radio, television and publishing arms. This is a site that took less than seven weeks to launch—and one you’ll likely never see in the news raising tens of millions of VC funding. Yet it is a true multi-media conglomerate. Though one of its founders, Glenn Beck, is a controversial celebrity—its other co-founder is rarely mentioned in media circles. That’s a shame.
After bumping into that co-founder, media pioneer and journalist Scott Baker, at a party, I was lucky enough to snag this interview I am excited to share his views on media, political manipulation, and entrepreneurship for one reason: We learn the most from the people who think differently and go against the grain. That’s Scott.
So you’ve been on both sides the divide, working first as a news anchor and then becoming a media entrepreneur. How did that happen?
My lightbulb moment to leave traditional TV for digital happened in 2004. It involved the words, “Shove it!” More on that in sec.
I also had a life before TV news. In politics. When I was 17, I won a speaking contest and had a chance to meet Ronald Reagan at the White House. I later worked on the full-time staff of the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1984. That campaign experience helped cement my interest in journalism. I remember handing out sodas at campaign stops to reporters like Sam Donaldson and Andrea Mitchell. I became fascinated with how events unfolded in real life and how they were then depicted in news reports.
I decided to take an internship at a radio station in Washington, D.C. That led to a full-time position for a year at the Voice of America. I produced over 1,000 stories there and really learned the meaning of story structure. After I finished my undergraduate degree, I went to work on a fellowship at CBS News in New York. I think the little old ladies in my church were fairly concerned that I was working to help Dan Rather.
I did try to find other people in the New York media who shared my background. Politics. Faith. I didn’t find too many! One guy came up to me in a dark hallway speaking in hushed tones asked if it was true that I had really worked for Reagan. He was excited about that but I don’t think he wanted anyone else to know.
Rather than cause me to vilify the “media elite” for their bias, my experience in the DC and NYC media caused me to focus more of the blame on conservatives for failing to esteem day-to-day journalism.
A young conservative in the ’80s might be inspired to be a newspaper columnist or a radio talk show host, but not the guy covering the school board meeting on Tuesday night. As a general rule, I think it’s a good thing to focus on digging up facts for a couple of decades before you start pontificating. I spent almost 20 years as a broadcast journalist, anchoring newscasts in places like Erie, Saginaw and Pittsburgh.
The 2004 “Shove it!” moment happened while I was an anchor in Pittsburgh. I was covering the Democratic National Convention in Boston. My photographer and I got a tip that Teresa Heinz Kerry was going to drop by a Sunday evening gathering of the Pennsylvania delegation.
At the event, she got mad at a reporter I knew and told him to, “Shove it!” On camera. We had the only video. I got a phone call: “This is Andrew Breitbart at the Drudge Report.” The story rolled out on the Drudge over the next few hours. It did a zillion hits. It played on cable news continually the next day. The campaign had to scramble to reframe how people perceived her.
That triggered my understanding of the power of the viral video moment. And this was before YouTube even existed.
I stayed in touch with Breitbart. We would IM about stories and cool headlines throughout the day. I once managed to IM him a live running transcript as Dan Rather announced to the CBS News team that he would be stepping down as anchor. The transcript went went up on Drudge almost instantly. While Rather was still talking. People in the newsroom told me they saw it on their computers while they were sitting there listening to him. Epic.
Andrew would later help his friend Arianna Huffington launch her new blog and news site. I helped pick stories and write headlines starting from day one of The Huffington Post launch. I did that for a couple of months. Watched the magic of those first Greg Gutfeld posts.
By 2006, I was ready to leave traditional media. TV anchors do pretty well in major markets. So it was a bit of a scary jump. But I felt like I had seen the future. I worked on business development at breitbart.com and was a co-owner of Breitbart.tv for its first three years. We did a live long-form webcast for many years there. That led to conversations with Glenn Beck’s business partner. We talked a lot about the future of news and broadcasting and where TV was going to go on the internet. Beck is a true visionary.
In 2010, I joined Beck’s company. We built and launched TheBlaze in about seven weeks. We had a very small team (four people) and a small budget. I predicted we would do 2-4 million page views the first month. We launched unannounced and did almost two million page views the first day. It never stopped. Five years later, we are consistently one of the top 100 sites in the U.S. We reach 20-25 million unique readers each month. Organic readers.I feel like I’ve had a front row seat for some of the biggest moments in media over the last digital decade.
I’m hardly a fan of Andrew Breitbart, whom you worked with extensively over the years, but I was always impressed with his ability to read media patterns and also sense what his audiences might be interested. His quote about training the media like a dog with steak was a lot more honest than anyone else wants to be. What did you learn collaborating with him?
Over the six years that I worked with Andrew, I think I learned a lot about the speed and intensity of the news cycle. This is hard work. But also incredibly fun. In 2006, we once drove from Los Angeles to San Francisco for a business meeting. We drove so that Andrew could stay online on his wireless card on his laptop. He worked like crazy the entire drive. That meeting, by the way, was a client party at Federated Media. I felt it was important to have solid relationship in Silicon Valley. We worked with Federated for years. At that party we got to hang out with a young Kevin Rose. Digg was killing it.
And Drudge of course is a true genius. Working at Breitbart, I felt like I got a Master’s Degree in Drudge just by osmosis.The first time I met Matt in person was on a street corner in Washington, DC around midnight after a White House Correspondents dinner. He could not have been more pleasant and sincere.
I also began to fully understand that the news world really moved at the speed of instant message. It was all IM all day. We should have all seen Slack coming.
Regardless of an individual’s opinion on politics, what you guys have done with The Blaze is undeniably impressive. It’s a TV, online, radio empire and soon to be publishing empire. Nobody else has pulled that off. Huffington Post has struggled with it with HuffPo Live. Vice doesn’t have a radio channel. How have you guys managed to pull this off? More interesting to me is from a media standpoint, why isn’t anyone talking about this?
Mainly just hard work. You have to know why you exist and why your values are distinctive.
From the beginning, we wanted TheBlaze to be credible and friendly. Pete Cashmore had a similar vision at Mashable. That works for me. Part of being credible is being skeptical. We’ve made that a big part of our journalism. Be curious and skeptical.
Obviously, broadcasting was in TheBlaze DNA from the start. Much more so than many other media companies. Glenn could see the multi-media horizon in ways most others could not. He knew that radio was the core part of his relationship with his audience. But the spokes went out from there. TV. Books. Web. Live events. TheBlaze grew up with that oxygen in the atmosphere. Also remember that TheBlaze website and news team existed for two years before we merged the GBTV broadcast arm to create one unified team.
But we could see a lot of that coming. Before we even settled on a name for the site, we knew that we would be more than just a website. And more than just site about politics. We wanted to be place for a very large group of Americans to get news, information and opinion in just about every way possible.
We have gotten some attention from media reporters over the years. But you are right—probably not that much given our size and reach. I’m not too worried about that. I would rather be getting tons of attention from actual readers who like our stories.
It might be easier for “liberal” entities to been by media reporters as cool.
As I’m talking to you, I’m at the Online News Association conference in Los Angeles. I’ve attended for years. There are lots of great speakers. And lots of folks from more liberal sites. But hardly anyone from more conservative sites. I might have missed a name this year—but I couldn’t find one person from a conservative site on this year’s speaker list.
My sense of the narrative of media history over the years has been that conservatives pioneered talk radio, whereas liberals own cable news for at least most of its early years. Then conservatives began to dominate cable news. In terms of the internet, the liberal blogosphere was dominant in many ways in reaction to places like Fox News. Where do you think things stand now? Do you see what you’re doing with The Blaze as part of a conservative or right wing resurgence online?
I like to think that TheBlaze stands for good journalism first and foremost. I think we went two years before we even added a commentary section. Obviously, we have great radio and television programs now that are focused on opinion and commentary. And we have hundreds of contributors who write with passionate perspectives. But it all began with a good news team.
And then it is all about story selection. And the equation was simple: Would we read our own stories? It is a big country with lots of folks from the center to the right who just want to get the straight story. I really pay attention to what our readers are saying. I still read through our tip box each day.
You do start to understand that not everything that seems super interesting in NYC, SF, LA or DC is all that important in vast corners of America. That’s part of why I still love living in Pittsburgh. Though I sometimes joke that I live at LaGuardia. When we hired our first “beat” reporter, it was not to be a political correspondent. I decided our first “beat” would be Faith. We would cover faith news vigorously. Like it was actually interesting and important. We are no doubt one of the most read sites for faith news. Not sure that would work at Vice.
When I looked the other day we were the 82nd largest website in the U.S. And I think most of our potential audience probably doesn’t even know we exist yet. We could double the size of our audience and still have room to grow. We’ve done about 100,000 stories and six billion page views in five years with a relatively small team. The fact that some corners of the media haven’t noticed that is actually kind of exciting to me.
As a journalist and entrepreneur, what do you wish the average reader knew about media? I feel like there are so many open secrets in the industry that media folks assume the public knows but doesn’t. What would you urge people to think about or try to think about?
I think this is harder than many people believe. Creating things is hard. Writing stories. Producing shows. Making videos. We have a wildly talented and dedicated team. The old joke about bleeding into your keyboard is close to true. I haven’t slept a lot in the last five years. Or 10 years really. We do it because it matters. Every turn in the digital news evolution is thrilling. My belief is that each technological step we have taken makes the truth easier to tell and lies harder to hide.
At least Ryan Holiday is honest about when he is lying, right? I seem to have read that someplace.
I think the under-discussed matter in modern media is about how much traffic is NOT organic. There are so many ways to jack the numbers and buy clicks. Some legit ways. Some not. People tout numbers and ranking all the time. But so much of the time there isn’t much under the hood. Now—there is nothing necessarily immoral about this. Advertising is a great thing. For the history of journalism, you had to let people know that your story existed.
The town crier would ring a bell.
The newsies would stand on street corners and shout, “Extra!”
Even the guy who painted the mastodon on the cave wall probably dragged somebody in by the hair to stare at it.
The large media companies and the sites that have huge piles of VC money are able to throw tons of cash at getting clicks. I think the question is: what happens when the money runs out? Do you have an actual audience that really likes you? TheBlaze runs on actual cash flow. I’m not against boosting traffic here or there. But in our first five years that has not been our practice. We haven’t had that luxury. And that’s been a blessing. Our traffic and our social media followers are all organic. There is a great strength in that. We don’t see wild swings in traffic. Just steady growth.We also still have a huge amount of front page traffic. Mobile has exploded. But from day one our front page traffic has been huge. During the work day it is often above 65 percent, according to ChartBeat. That’s fantastic. But I see deals being done and sites being sold that just don’t make sense to me because I know that so much of the traffic is just bought and paid for.
What’s next for The Blaze, what will you guys conquer next?
Restaurants. TheBlaze Bar & Grill. Barbecue. Hm. That actually sounds pretty good. I doubt I can sell it to our CEO.
We have a lot of cool stuff coming. I think our readers and viewers and listeners will find it easier and easier to get to great content on TheBlaze in really elegant ways. And obviously presidential election years are defining moments for any news organization. I think we are more focused and better prepared than we have ever been.
2016 will be very exciting at TheBlaze.
Ryan Holiday is the best-selling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and two other books. He is an editor-at-large for the New York Observer and his monthly reading recommendations are found here. He currently lives in Austin, Texas.