Building progressive media online
Everyone agrees liberals need to build their own media ecosystem to compete with the Right. These efforts are making steady progress.
Last week, one of POLITICO’s newsletters led with an item about discrepancies between how the Left and Right treat partisan media. Readers of this newsletter are well aware that for the past several years, we’ve bemoaned the built-in electoral advantages that right-wing digital media provides to Republican candidates. From the Daily Wire to Breitbart, Western Journal to Daily Caller, FOX to NewsMax, Americans are flooded every day with far-right culture war content that has the potential to radicalize passive news consumers and influence elections. With a few notable exceptions, that robust ecosystem just doesn’t exist on the Left.
In this week’s FWIW, we’ll highlight several emerging attempts to build a progressive media ecosystem - at least online. But first…
By The Numbers
FWIW, here were the top political ad spenders on Meta platforms (Facebook + Instagram) last week:
The top spender on Meta advertising last week was the liberal group Workmoney. On Facebook, we’ve seen them running loads of survey ads collecting data on users, while subtly pushing narratives favorable to Democrats in Congress and the White House:
Last week, we wrote about the tech industry’s lobbying efforts to kill anti-trust legislation, particularly using anti-China advertising on Facebook. The Taxpayers Protection Alliance continued to deploy that playbook this week, launching a new China-focused ad campaign on the platform.
Meanwhile, here were the top-spending political advertisers on Google platforms last week, including YouTube:
Despite Build Back Better being “dead,” the conservative Common Sense Leadership Fund isn’t taking any chances. They’re spending big on YouTube to remind West Virginians of Sen. Joe Manchin’s commitment to killing the bill.
… and here were the top political ad spenders on Snapchat so far in 2022:
Midterm spending takeaways
The midterms are upon us, and we’re keeping a close eye on digital ad spending in key Senate, House, and Gubernatorial contests. For full access to the most comprehensive dataset of midterm digital spending, become a paying subscriber here. >>
Mark Kelly was the top-spending battleground Senate candidate on FB + Google ads last week (view Senate data)
Stacey Abrams was the top spending battleground Gubernatorial candidate on digital ads last week (view Gov data)
AZ-01 was the most expensive swing U.S. House district race online last week (view House data)
A new issue of Campaigner is out!
Political campaigns are all about choices - who to reach, where & how to spend every dollar efficiently. Sometimes, campaigners rely on qualitative insights and feedback to make those decisions, and other times, campaigns build large-scale data & analytics operations to help inform their team’s next move. For this week’s Campaigner newsletter, Arena’s Debra Cohen spoke with James Booth, who was Director of Paid Media Analytics on the Biden campaign. Read + subscribe here >>
Inside an emerging progressive media ecosystem
Research shows that at least half of Americans get their news from social media “at least sometimes,” while a full third of the country regularly gets their news from Facebook. As we’ve seen time and time again, Facebook engagement is often dominated by far-right media personalities like Ben Shapiro and Candace Owens, or viral misleading posts from opaque meme pages and celebrities.
There have been several recent attempts to begin to counter the Right’s media dominance, and each focuses on filling different gaps online. Some serve red meat anti-Republican content geared towards a national audience, while others focus on building cultural or local audiences. FWIW, here are several emerging efforts that we’ve been keeping an eye on, alongside their social media followings:
Filling the state and local news gap
One effort that we’ve been big advocates of since its inception (and have a shared financial/institutional backing with) is Courier Newsroom, a public benefit company that owns newsrooms in eight states. Its outlets like UpNorthNews in Wisconsin, Iowa Starting Line in Iowa, and The ‘Gander in Michigan employ local journalists who regularly interview prominent elected officials and break down national political issues from a local, left-of-center lens.
Several of Courier’s outlets have grown rapidly over the past year, particularly on Facebook - for example, UpNorthNews has a larger Facebook following than the Wisconsin Democratic Party and several mainstream outlets in the state. That’s due at least in part to a heavy investment in Facebook ads and other targeted advertising to quickly scale the company’s ability to distribute content organically to what they consider “less politically engaged and under-reached audiences,” or people who are left behind by mainstream outlets. Courier recently announced its owned audience consists of over 500,000 people via email newsletters and social media, and it has a goal of doubling that number by year's end.
Another separate local effort that we’re big fans of is the Tennessee Holler, a bootstrapped operation that has used viral videos of the state’s radical Republican legislature to educate Tennesseans and combat corruption. We’ve watched closely as the Holler has grown to an audience of nearly 50,000 followers on Facebook and 85,000 on Twitter, and their stories regularly jump into mainstream news. Just last week, the Holler’s reporting of a local school board’s book ban was cited in the New York Times, Washington Post, and countless other outlets. The Holler has created a solid model for Republican accountability journalism in states where Democrats are deep in the political wilderness.
The newest entry into the progressive local media game is the Heartland Signal - a sort of relaunch of the midwest Lefty talk radio station WCPT 820 with a renewed focus on digital distribution. At least at first, that outlet’s focus will be on covering the 2022 midterms from a progressive lens in key midwestern states.
National partisan video producers
Another corner of the internet where progressives have big gaps to fill is in the long-form video space - particularly on sites like YouTube and Facebook. Right-wing media operations like PragerU and shows from the likes of Candace Owens and Glenn Beck regularly rack up hundreds of thousands of views spreading fringe and contrarian culture war content. We’ve seen two major efforts spring up over the past year or two to begin to fill this gap: More Perfect Union and the Gravel Institute.
More Perfect Union was started after the 2020 election by former Bernie Campaign Manager Faiz Shakir, and its longish-form video content mostly features storytelling about workers’ rights and corporate greed. They’ve pumped out nearly 300 videos that have racked up over 2.5m YouTube views in their first year.
A similar effort is from the Gravel Institute, which in fundraising appeals and on their website, explicitly state their aim to compete with PragerU. Run by the Gen Z’ers who made Mike Gravel’s quixotic 2020 presidential campaign a thing, they’ve grown an enormous audience in a short amount of time. They also sell merch, and it’s amazing.
Two other digital-first efforts on the left aim to fill a cultural content space and deserve mention - one targeting Black voters and another focused on reaching Latino audiences.
PushBlack describes itself as “the nation's largest non-profit media organization for Black Americans, currently serving 9 million people across all platforms.” They package and ship content around criminal justice reform, voting, and black history on platforms like Instagram, where they have almost 500,000 followers. Particularly at a time when far-right media is attempting to push narratives around critical race theory and school boards are re-writing the history of the Civil War, PushBlack’s content is critical to well, pushing back.
Also focused primarily on Instagram is Project Pulso, whose goal is to increase the political power of Hispanic voters by delivering relevant content and later engaging their audience around voting and civic engagement.
The legacy operators
There have obviously been other staples in the Lefty digital media ecosystem over the past decade. While some legacy outlets peaked in the mid-2000’s, others - like Daily Kos and the Young Turks - continue to have a huge presence online. Many continue preaching to the same choir of netroots activists. On the other hand, some of the earliest online progressive media outlets were so successful that they essentially went mainstream and today focus on reaching elite, educated liberal audiences - we’re thinking Mother Jones, Huffington Post, Vox, and Salon.
There are many others, but we hope by highlighting a few of these emerging efforts, donors and staffers alike will rethink how they partner with and invest in building out this critical media ecosystem.