Carlson Launches Right’s Answer to HuffPost
Tucker Carlson (ZUMA Press)
The offices of The Daily Caller evoke a long-ago era of journalism, circa 2005 or 2006, before the Los Angeles Times closed its big-city bureaus, The Washington Times fired 60 percent of its staff, and magazines from Gourmet to Portfolio shuttered for lack of revenue. A staff of 21 reporters and editors sit in blindingly white offices and a wide-open center space, cranking out content for the site’s January 11 launch. Other possible hires walk in and out of Editor-in-Chief Tucker Carlson’s office, past a lounge inhabited by liquor bottles and a sleeping dog, and decorated by clocks that tell the time in far-flung and random locations: Pyongyang, Jackson Hole, Washington, Honolulu.
“I just thought it was funny,” said Carlson, chewing on a piece of Nicorette. (He quit smoking last year, on his 40th birthday.) “We dispatched some intern to go and get those signs made. Actually, it was $150 — I never would have done it if I’d thought it would be so expensive. But something about it amused me. They’re on velcro. We swap ‘em out — we’ve got a whole drawer full of ‘em.”
[GOP1]Last February, Carlson — the conservative former host or co-host of shows on CNN and MSNBC, and still a Fox News contributor — gave a speech to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in which he urged activists on the right to “copy” the journalistic model of The New York Times. “They need to get out, find out what’s going on, and not just analyze things based on what the mainstream media has reported,” Carlson said. He was roundly booed. Four months later he officially announced plans to launch a news site “along the lines of The Huffington Post” with an ideology “not in sync with the current program.” When he talked with TWI on Wednesday, Carlson suggested that the desire for news like that, and the potential to break big stories, was greater than ever.
“When was the last time you saw, on television, a straight explanation of what’s in the competing House and Senate health care bills?” Carlson asked. “What’s in them? People want to know that!”
In the time between that announcement and next week’s debut, Carlson and his partner Neil Patel — a former aide to Dick Cheney — raised money, scouted out staff (“we didn’t ask about ideology,” said Carlson) and held poker games at their original, grimier office in Washington’s Dupont Circle. A June launch date was pushed into autumn, and then pushed back again. The reason, explained Patel, was that “our aspirations kept growing.”
“The size of the staff is much bigger than we started with,” Patel said. “We were very lucky to get the amount of money we did based, basically, on a PowerPoint.”
As they convinced funders and advertisers that the online journalism model was viable — “two years ago, who would have thought that The Huffington Post would get more traffic than The Washington Post?” — they expanded the scale of the enterprise. When they go live, it will be with more than $3 million in start-up capital, enough to run the site for at least a year.
That site will bear as much of a resemblance to The Huffington Post — the juggernaut that now clocks around 17 million hits per month — as Carlson speculated that it would back last summer. According to Carlson, there will be at least one editor monitoring and posting stories “24 hours a day, around the clock, in the office.” The top story of the moment will run at the top of the page, with more content running beside it. Stories written by the magazine’s reporting team, which includes Washington Times veteran Jon Ward and Government Executive’s Gautham Nagesh, will be cycled in, marked as “DC Exclusives,” much the way that stories by Huffington Post reporters trade space with headlines that link to stories from other publications. A staff blog — possible names include “Caller ID” and “The Daily Trawler” — will indulge in more humor, some of it written by long-time conservative blogger Jim Treacher (real name Sean Medlock) who moved to Washington from Indianapolis after Carlson gave him a call. And an iPhone app is on the way.
“Tucker is one of the most talented journalists I know,” said Ana Marie Cox, a host and reporter for Air America Radio who spars with Carlson in online chats hosted by The Washington Post. “Given free rein, he’ll definitely produce something interesting, compelling, and conversation-starting. Whether that thing can wind up being a financial success, I have no idea. If I could answer such questions I would not be a journalist.”
Carlson and his staff are spending the final hours before the launch polishing off content that can break out of the gate — exclusive interviews, lists like the Top 15 Most Wasteful Stimulus Projects, and short features from think tankers and established politicos. Arianna Huffington will have one of the first pieces on the site. Carlson, who started his career as a magazine writer, is working on an investigative piece for later.** **When Carlson talked to TWI on Wednesday, he had a wallet full of business cards handed to him by excited political candidates, Tea Party activists and PR flacks who’d heard him speak at Grover Norquist’s weekly meetings of the conservative movement. It was the first time, said Carlson, that he’d ever gone to the meeting. He wanted as much news, and as many stories, as possible. Whether they came from ax-grinding researchers or established reporters didn’t much matter.
“If there’s a story whose facts are verifiable, and it generates interest, and it comes from Satan himself, I will take it and I will pay him a reporting fee,” Carlson said. “But if we take a piece from Satan, that does not mean we’re on board with Satan’s agenda. It just means that the provenance of the piece, the origins of the piece, is not the most important thing. People don’t give you stuff because they love journalists. They give you that stuff because they’re pushing an agenda.”
The New York Times-style investigative journalism that Carlson has told conservatives to cultivate will not largely come, as the Times’s investigations come, from inside the organization.** **The Daily Caller is taking one page from Andrew Breitbart, whose biggest story — a multi-city hidden-camera investigation of ACORN — came from two freelancing conservative conservative activists. The Daily Caller’s investigative pieces will come from outside; some will develop in-house, but most are being sought out from the ever-expanding population of journalists who need work. “Our view,” said Carlson, “is that there are enough seasoned freelance journalists out there that you can let them do it.”
Veterans of other new media start-ups are sold on what they’ve heard about the “HuffPo of the Right.” Conor Friedersdorf, a freelance journalist who worked for the short-lived site Culture11, contrasted Carlson’s focus on journalism with the much-praised, quick-hitting tactics of Breitbart’s Big Hollywood, Big Government, and Big Journalism.
“I hope that The Daily Caller aspires to produce writing that is as well written and professionally edited as the stuff that the talented Tucker Carlson writes for Esquire,” said Friedersdorf. “The alternative — the Andrew Breitbart model — is to publish poorly reasoned, atrociously edited screeds on the cheap, on the assumption that ideologically friendly readers will keep clicking anyway.”
Carlson’s full-time staff, still taking shape this week (Helen Rittelmeyer, slated to be a reporter, left Monday for a job at National Review), is skewed toward younger reporters who had, in his view, the “energy and temperament” for the job. They don’t have hard quotas for blog posts, articles, or pageviews. They seemed ready to work hard without that.
“I keep reading all of these Nick Denton memos for Gawker,” said Carlson, “these ferocious memos to writers where it’s like ‘get a million pageviews this week or you’re fired!’ Maybe we’ll have to do that! But it’s not my personality at all.”
Whenever he’s asked, Carlson will happily admit the lofty goals he’s set for the site. It’s got to fill the gap that the “pathetic” media has left in coverage of how government works. It’s got to generate buzz and drive the conversation, getting stories that other media have to chase and topping a million page-views a month, “although one word I’ll never use is ‘metric.’” It’s got to be fun. That’s the point of the foreign clocks and the random posters Carlson has placed around the office. But there’s the occasional strange found object that makes a greater point, like the photo of a joyful Korean businessman perched on top of his store during the L.A. riots, holding a rifle.
“Because he’s taken the time to defend himself with a firearm,” explained Carlson, “he’s not going to be victimized by the racist mobs below. He is smiling. That’s a smile that reflects both his self-satisfaction and also the promise of America. The promise of America is ‘We’ll let you do what you want, as long as you defend yourself.’ I just love that. I’ve had that over every desk I’ve ever had as an adult.”