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HOWE: The Truth About RedState’s Layoffs, From A Non-Liar

I really didn’t feel like defending RedState this week, all things considered, but I’ve been put in that position by flatly inaccurate information that was spread through a conservative email newsletter.

In that newsletter, The Transom, Ben Domenech called me a liar.

But I’m not.

Traffic is a complicated and precious thing in web publishing, and a lot of websites guard their actual traffic numbers jealously. You may think that’s not so, that people brag about their traffic all the time, but do they? Do you see actual day-to-day traffic reports? Do you really know how many visitors a site gets? How many page views? How many unique page views? How many unique visitors?

You probably don’t. The actual analytics reports are internal. They are used to calculate ad rates and in some cases, like at RedState, used to calculate the pay for the writers of content generating the traffic.

The transom blurb was in response to an article at The Atlantic, also not my favorite thing to be defending this week. But again, this wasn’t my decision.

Here is the portion on traffic from The Atlantic article that Ben Domenech objected to.

“The site has been doing well. I don’t think there’s any reason to panic or that they would need a sudden and instantaneous change to how things are done,” Howe said. The site had drawn roughly 7 or 8 million page views each month, according to Howe, down from 10 or 12 million a month during the election. Dips in audience after elections are common throughout the digital media. Howe said that even the impact of Facebook’s algorithm change, which conservative publishers have blamed for a decline in traffic, was relatively moderate: “We took a relatively small traffic hit from the new Facebook guidelines,” he said.

Here is what was said in response, incorrectly, in Domenech’s The Transom:

Yeah, so I don’t normally call people liars, but that’s a straight up lie. Quantcast indicates how terrible RedState’s traffic is today – it’s down 90 percent from where it was before longtime editor Erick Erickson left the site and doesn’t even get a million pageviews a month. What’s more, the partisan breakdown indicates how much the site had lost its status among conservatives: Only 19% of RedState readers are Republicans, while 41% are Democrats.

For this, Domenech relied on Quantcast, he says, which is essentially a traffic guessing algorithm. If you are not participating in Quantcast, and therefore don’t have their code embedded on your site, they cannot track your actual data. Instead, they estimate it. They use information from cookies found on the computers of a pool of users who they track, as well as cookie data they pull via other websites who do have the code embedded.

Meaning if you visit RedState, and get a cookie, and then visit a Quantcast enabled site, that site reads your cookie. That is not traffic tracking, and certainly not a reliable way to get page view data for a given month, as Domenech attempted to do here.

It definitely provides bad data on RedState. As someone who actually worked at RedState through last Friday, tracking our numbers hourly, and who has been privy to our traffic for over a decade, which co-founder of the site Domenech has not, I know the actual numbers and I talked about them to The Atlantic.

I would have been happy to talk about them with Ben, too. Or anyone else who asked. But The Atlantic called rather than sending me an email, which was the best way to get hold of me on Friday since I was in the car most of the day and am a responsible adult who doesn’t read messages while driving. A pretty simple reason. They used the phone.

Anyway, I have the correct data.

I tweeted a screenshot from April (through Sunday) via Analytics as evidence that the statement RedState “doesn’t even get a million pageviews a month” is absurd.

There is of course much more data. Here is a great point from my predecessor, Leon Wolf, on Twitter:

[[{“fid”:”32852″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:false,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:false},”type”:”media”,”field_deltas”:{“1”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:false,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:false}},”attributes”:{“class”:”media-element file-default”,”data-delta”:”1″}}]]

And there is still more. Let’s continue looking at VIEWS, since that is the disputed data.

In 2015, RedState did 44,993,038 page views. In October of that year, Leon Wolf took over as the Editor and Erick Erickson moved on to new and big things. The election was looming, Drake’s “Hotline Bling” was near the top of the charts, and RedState was getting ready for big things, too.

In March of 2016, I took over as Leon’s assistant editor. Our plan for the site was very different from earlier iterations of RedState in that we would not only increase the size of the roster, but do a lot more news and breaking news rather than just long-form editorial content. One can debate the value of the decision if one pleases, but it is the decision that was made. Leon and I worked hard on making that new vision a reality.

In 2016, RedState did 126,678,899. In other words, over THREE TIMES the traffic of the previous year. It was an election year, so of course that was dramatically helpful, but I would be remiss if I did not point out that the articles posted that year were almost uniformly against Trump, including from authors who are with the site to this day like streiff, who I admired then and do now. (Here and here for examples.)

I personally had a month in 2016 where my own articles alone generated two million page views. In his newsletter, Ben said “if people don’t want to read you, they won’t come to your site, and you can’t afford to pay writers no one wants to read.” This is wrong on several points, and I’ll get to that, but briefly let me just say that two million reads in a month seems like someone wants to read me.

Continuing, let’s look again at page views, this time for 2017: 94,648,467. Still well over double 2015, and a decrease of only 32 million on the year.

Now, let me add that this was meant to be a direct attack on the idea of myself and Leon as the editors of the site, post-Erick. My contract was from October to October, the fiscal year. I took over in October of 2016.

Here are the three fiscal years.

  • October 2014-2015: 43,351,917
  • October 2015-2016: 108,944,008
  • October 2016-2017: 103,316,645 (My Tenure)

As you can see, in my first year as Editor, a year that was also Trump’s first year in office, a year in which RedState ran many negative stories about Trump from a center-right perspective, we lost a mere 5 million page views over the previous year.

I would also note that from the first of October until yesterday, April 30th, 2018, RedState had 50,985,138 page views. Already more this year than in 2015 calendar or fiscal. In other words, an increase over Erick’s final year with the site, not “down 90%” as stated in The Transom.

Our content has remained diverse throughout these time periods. We had people who rather like Trump, and those who rather hate him.

In the last few months, many conservative websites have experienced major downturns in traffic. Some, like TruthRevolt, had to close up shop. Others, like IJR, have had significant staff cuts. There are many other examples, and this is almost always attributed to political fatigue, Trump fatigue, and of course, the Facebook changes that I brought up in The Atlantic article.

They are not usually described this way:

So not only did the individuals who until recently ran RedState destroy the site’s financial position by driving away its loyal readers in droves, they also obliterated its brand as a source of reliable news and opinion for the most ardent conservative and Republican activists in the country.

Your mileage may vary, I guess.

I would add a few more things.

Domenech says “you can’t afford to pay writers no one wants to read.” The writers that were fired from RedState on Friday were all paid on traffic only. That means they don’t earn money if they don’t generate it. So, actually, you 100% can afford to pay writers no one wants to read if you only pay them if people read them. Which is how RedState writing actually works. You get paid only for readers you actually generate, and only a share of the ad revenue.

So a writer who generated 100,000 page views kept only a portion of the ad revenue and the rest went to RedState. This was designed specifically to prevent the “you can’t afford to pay writers no one wants to read” problem.

Also, suggesting no one wants to read them is manifestly false. RedState’s top two writers were the most pro-Trump and most anti-Trump writers on the site: Susan Wright (anti) and streiff (pro). People wanted to read them. People will continue to read streiff, I am certain, and probably Susan wherever she ends up.

I’m not sure what brand-destruction I’m responsible for, either. Along with Erick, I planned the first several RedState Gatherings. These became a staple and easily one of the most influential center right conferences in the political market. Ben Domenech attended one and was even on a panel.

If it had been my decision, RedState would still be holding these activist conferences, and they’d still be successful and influential. Townhall decided to end them, not me. Not my brand-destruction.

As for who I chose to write at RedState, I would just point out that every single person who I selected and hired to write at RedState during my tenure is still writing there today, post-apocalypse. The writers I chose, the team I chose, executing the vision I had, are still there.

RedState’s brand was free thinkers, in my view, and we had those before Friday and RedState has them still today, though a smaller total. As I told The Atlantic, we represented the very real state of the GOP and movement. Anti-Trump sentiment is alive and well, just as pro-Trump sentiment is.

Trying to brush the so-called “Never Trump” conservatives under the rug, or pretend they are destroying websites, is a convenient fiction, but a fiction. It hasn’t sold yet and it probably won’t. The landscape has changed. Thanks to things like Gorsuch and the GOP tax plan, there are achievements to applaud. And the relentlessness of the Resistance on certain issues has turned off many Republicans who might otherwise be sympathetic to continued Trump-bashing.

But the fact that there is still a “Never Trump” presence is just that: a fact. And there are readers for those perspectives. That is also a fact. Facts don’t care about your feelings.

As for my own writing, I have offered exactly what I promised: criticism when deserved, praise when earned. You can visit my archive at RedState and see for yourself. I am not aware of any mandate to like him or call him a good person.

What this boils down to is that Ben Domenech was just flat-out not correct in any of the points he made. He relied on the wrong data. Most importantly he was incorrect when he called me a liar.

I was right about the numbers, and he was not. That’s the point here. I’m sure he’s a fine person otherwise, and I will always owe him gratitude for starting RedState all those years ago, as well, I think, for his stepping away from it.

And that’s the truth.

Caleb Howe is a writer and columnist, and the former Managing Editor of conservative blog

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