For alternative right-wing US news outlets, November 2020 could prove to be a flash in the pan – the high point of their popularity, fuelled by pro-Trump, often conspiratorial, coverage of the US election.
Or it could be the beginning of a new era in which they are considered true competitors to the mainstream media.
As Press Gazette recently reported, Newsmax and the Gateway Pundit became two of the 50 largest English-language news websites in the world in November, jumping ahead of the likes of Cosmopolitan, the LA Times and the UK’s Metro.
Newsmax’s TV channel and One America News, meanwhile, made a dent in the cable ratings of established giants, in part thanks to supportive tweets from Donald Trump.
The big question now for these outlets, and for their mainstream rivals, is whether they can retain current levels of viewership and readership.
Right-wing media challengers emerge
The early signs for Newsmax in particular are promising (although it is worth noting that the drama of the presidential election is still far from over for viewers and readers that believe Joe Biden somehow “stole” the election from Donald Trump).
According to Nielsen television-viewing figures shared with Press Gazette by Newsmax, its total audience reach grew from 9m in July 2020 to 24.3m during election month. In addition to these figures, Newsmax said it recorded 115m online streams on its free over-the-top (OTT) channel in November – a 511% increase on the previous month.
Newsmax said that December was its highest-rated month ever, and that the first week of January – a period that included the 6 January pro-Trump protests-turned-riots in Washington – set new prime-time records, although it did not provide specific figures.
The news group also says its app, Newsmax TV, has been downloaded 4.3m times since election day.
According to online analytics firm SimilarWeb, Newsmax.com attracted 63m visits in November – up from 15m in October. In December, it fell only slightly to 62m.
It was a similar story for Thegatewaypundit.com, which saw its traffic jump from 29m to 57m between October and November before dropping slightly to 56m in December.
One America News Network’s website traffic jumped from 6.5m in October to 18.4m in November and fell slightly to 17.6m last month.
These figures appear all the more impressive when compared to those of established right-wing media outlets.
Traffic at Foxnews.com jumped from 430m to 607m between October and November, but fell to 333m in December. The website of the New York Post – which was America’s only major newspaper to endorse Trump before the election – attracted 134m hits in October (a month in which it ran a controversial investigation into Joe Biden’s son, Hunter), 128.5m in November and 125m in December.
The chart above tracks the combined growth of the websites of Newsmax, the Gateway Pundit and One America News.
The change recorded by SimilarWeb over six months is stark.
In July 2020, Newsmax, the Gateway Pundit and OAN attracted a combined 39m website visits – less than 10% of Fox News’ 399m and less than a third of the Post’s 137m.
By December, the three challenger websites attracted 136m visits between them – 41% of Fox News’ total traffic and more than the total visits (125m) attracted by the New York Post.
‘I think we’ll be number one’
Clearly, Fox News in particular remains a dominant force that is unlikely to be toppled by Newsmax any time soon. Nielsen figures reported on by Reuters in December showed that it averaged 3.6m viewers during prime-time hours in 2020 as it hit new all-time high viewership levels. The same report said that Newsmax prime-time ratings hit 495,000 in November.
But how big can Newsmax be? What are its ambitions?
“I think we’ll be number one,” says Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax and a personal friend of Trump, in a Zoom interview with Press Gazette. When he says “number one”, Ruddy appears to be suggesting that Newsmax can one day overtake Fox News to become America’s largest cable news channel.
Not long ago, this would have been a laughable ambition.
But last month, CNN reported how, for the first time ever, Newsmax TV scored a ratings win over the Fox News Channel as ‘Greg Kelly Reports’ claimed an average 229,000 viewers ahead of the 203,000 who tuned in for ‘The Story with Martha MacCallum’ on Fox.
Ruddy, a former New York Post reporter who founded Newsmax in 1998, believes his channel can eat into Fox News’ ratings because the rival channel has been “very inconsistent” in its coverage of Trump. The president himself was highly critical of Fox’s coverage of the election.
“He’s not happy with Fox News coverage, and this has gone on for a long time,” says Ruddy. “I think he blames his loss on Fox. He even said in one of his tweets that the only difference between the ’20 election and the ’16 election was Fox News coverage.”
Does Ruddy know whether Trump has confronted Fox News executive chairman Rupert Murdoch about his concerns? “He told me that Rupert, when they chat, is very supportive and always has been,” says Ruddy. “But he questioned whether that was true or not. I don’t know.
“I’ve always liked and admired Rupert Murdoch. I just wonder how much he’s involved in the news product at Fox News, or any of his news properties, these days.”
More importantly from a ratings perspective, Ruddy believes Trump’s supporters have noticed a difference in coverage.
“Newsmax is a known brand among a lot of people, especially in the heartland, that don’t trust the mainstream media,” he says. “And I think also they have been inconsistent on their coverage of President Trump. And a lot of people are not happy with the inconsistencies of that coverage.
“Newsmax has a long history of, I think, covering the president very fairly, where we have given his side of the story. We’ve also included some criticisms of him. But it has been very consistent. I think Fox is all over the map.”
‘I do believe that Biden is the legitimate president of the United States’
The elephant in the room here is that when Ruddy says Fox News has been “inconsistent” in its coverage of Trump, many would translate this to mean: Fox News has held the president accountable and reported accurately on the results of the election, which he lost.
Media commentators believe that one of the main reasons for the success of Newsmax, the Gateway Pundit and others has been their coverage of election conspiracy theories and their late (or in some cases non-existent) acceptance of Biden as winner of the election.
Newsmax, for example, began acknowledging Biden as president-elect on 14 December – a move that Ruddy said made the president “a little bit angry” – well over a month after Fox News and established media outlets.
Still last week Newsmax host Greg Kelly said on his programme: “Sometimes, sometimes, the bank robber gets away with it. Joe Biden stole this election. You know it. I know it. Tens of millions of Americans agree with us. He, he did it. Donald Trump should not concede because he didn’t lose.”
Does Ruddy himself concede that Biden won the election fair and square?
“I accept the result of it,” he says, before going on to list his concerns about mail-in ballots and “anecdotal evidence”. But he adds: “I do believe Biden is the legitimate president of the United States, and Newsmax will respect him as the president of the United States even though we may disagree on political things.”
‘I think the media is becoming increasingly authoritarian’
Like it or not, given their current trajectory, the US media industry is likely going to have to start taking outlets like Newsmax seriously (as business competition if not journalistic competition).
Ruddy also has ambitions to expand Newsmax internationally, including “doing something bigger in Britain”.
“We’d like to do more on the digital side first,” he adds. “We also want to enhance our London bureau. We have hired a respected journalist in Britain to handle our London bureau. I’m not sure if he’s officially signed yet – I can’t announce it yet – but we are hiring somebody to run our London bureau. And we think it’s going to be a hub of a lot of international news and reporting.”
One of the main factors behind Newsmax’s recent success appears to be that many Americans distrust or dislike traditional media outlets.
Why does Ruddy think this is?
“I think the media is becoming increasingly authoritarian and less open and less liberal than true to their principles of free speech and free discussion,” he says. For example, Ruddy takes issue with the media describing Trump’s unproven and unsubstantiated claims of election fraud as “baseless”.
“So when they don’t report the full facts, or what people think is a fair report about what actually happened in the election, people get angry. And it really incites people.”
‘I do not see him starting Trump TV’
One challenge for Newsmax and the pro-Trump media challengers could come from the president himself. Reports have suggested that, on leaving the White House, the former Apprentice star might set his sights on launching his own Trump TV.
Ruddy isn’t worried.
“I think he’s going to leave the White House – everything will be okay on that front. And I think he’s going to be a media and political force for some time to come.
“I do not see him starting Trump TV. I do not see him starting any media organisation. He’s , he’s an international statesman, a global media force – I think he’s better served by being part of a lot of media. We’d love to have him contribute to Newsmax. I’ve said that publicly. I think he’s going to be a voice.”
And will Newsmax be broadcasting Trump’s first interview after he leaves the White House?
“I’m not expecting it,” says Ruddy. “We certainly would be happy if he was open to it, but I haven’t asked him for it.”
Picture credit: Shutterstock/ Evan El-Amin