A Conservative Magazine May Pay a Price for Being Unfriendly to Trump

Posted December 5, 2018 4:11 p.m. EST

The Weekly Standard didn’t go along, and now its future is in danger.

Other conservative magazines, websites and news empires have thrived since President Donald Trump took office by cheering him on or, at least, playing down his faults.

But in the spring of 2017, The Weekly Standard let the world know that it was following its own course, come what may.

The magazine’s billionaire owner, Philip F. Anschutz, bought into the plan — or so it seemed — and its editor-in-chief, Stephen F. Hayes, set out to increase the size of the staff by a third. He also barred alt-right style, partisan clickbait stories and encouraged investigative and feature reporting that often put the magazine on the wrong side of Trump and his allies.

That experiment may have now run its course. And the outcome has called into question whether the conservative media world can abide journalism that questions the new orthodoxy.

Under Hayes’ leadership, The Weekly Standard did not see itself as part of the home team. Unlike some other conservative outlets, it did not, for instance, shift its longtime free-market views so that they were suddenly aligned with the president’s strategy of imposing trade tariffs. The magazine did not nod its head in agreement at a notion, newly popular in right-wing circles, that the FBI is now part of a nefarious “deep state.”

Earlier this week, as CNN first reported, word spread in the Standard newsroom that the magazine’s ownership had not approved a 2019 budget, meaning its future was in peril. In a statement, the parent company, Clarity Media, said it was “exploring a number of possibilities regarding the future of The Weekly Standard,” blaming “the evolving business landscape.”

At the same time, the company announced it was seeking to expand The Washington Examiner, a conservative publication that is far friendlier to the president than The Weekly Standard.

People familiar with the relationship between The Weekly Standard and its parent company told me that it had deteriorated in recent months.

Things got so bad that, at one point, the two sides discussed parting ways after hitting an impasse over the Standard’s request for more autonomy, and Clarity Media suggested a sale. The magazine’s leadership team worked up a plan to find a buyer, floating the idea to various venture capitalists and investors last spring. But Clarity ultimately decided against it, these people said.

They say there were a variety of factors at play, including the magazine’s expansion into cultural coverage and its refusal to engage in traffic-driving click bait. But it also had to do with its often critical coverage of Trump and other Republicans, as well as the “Never Trump” stance of the magazine’s co-founder, William Kristol, as he made the rounds on cable television — at times raising hackles at the home office.

Pro-Trump coverage is to conservative media what anti-Trump coverage is to liberal media — a great driver of internet traffic and ratings. The Standard team told potential investors that while it suffered some print subscription losses — down 7,000, or nearly 10 percent, since Trump’s election, Politico reported — its online subscriptions were up and it had more than doubled its online traffic.

Clarity would not comment beyond its initial statement.

Kristol started the magazine in 1995 with Fred Barnes and John Podhoretz, with financing from Rupert Murdoch, who sold to Anschutz, the owner of Clarity Media, in 2009.

The Weekly Standard came to define the “neocon” stance of the Bush era. Its role in making the case for the Iraq War placed it in a camp that had little in common with the views of the more isolationist Trump, who positioned himself during the 2016 campaign as an anti-interventionist opposed to the Iraq War.

Despite its independent stance, the magazine has been supportive of Trump’s Supreme Court picks and tax proposals. But its most popular story this week was one by Hayes entitled, “How Trump’s Lies About Russia Were Exposed.”

And on election night, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, barred a Standard reporter from his victory reception because of its report that he had referred to immigrants as “dirt” on the campaign trail.

On Wednesday, I caught up with Kristol, who is now an editor-at-large, handing the day-to-day operation over to Hayes a couple of years ago.

He wouldn’t comment on the internal back and forth, but he indicated he still wasn’t sure the magazine was a goner. And he said there was still room in conservative media for Trump-critical voices.

“I’m obviously very proud of what we’ve accomplished over 23 years, but there’s nothing I’m prouder of than the last two years, under Steve’s leadership, in making the case for a conservatism that stands apart from the current disfigurement of conservatism,” Kristol said. “We’re absolutely committed to keeping the voice of The Weekly Standard alive in its current form with its current ownership, or under different auspices, or maybe in a somewhat different way.”

The threat to the The Weekly Standard drew an outcry from some conservative commentators.

“America will be worse off without @weeklystandard to fight for a principled, un-Trumpified conservatism,” Max Boot, a conservative columnist at The Washington Post, wrote on Twitter.

In an interview on Wednesday morning, Charlie Sykes, the conservative radio host and a contributing editor at The Weekly Standard, said he wasn’t sure exactly why Clarity Media was weighing the magazine’s future.

“I have argued for some time that it’s very difficult to craft a business model for non-Trump media these days,” he said. “I do think a lot of people on the right think of conservative media as a safe space for them. There’s a great deal of resentment for conservatives who are going to push back against Trump and Trumpism.”

The Weekly Standard staff may find out its fate next week, after a planned meeting between its leadership team and Clarity Media executives.