Last week, with two high-profile acquisitions, a conservative media company catapulted itself from successful but largely below-the-radar company to a player with a portfolio that could make it the next news empire on the right.
Salem Communications, which got its start in the 1980s in talk radio, formally announced its purchase of Twitchy, the conservative social media tracker founded and run by Michelle Malkin. It also reportedly finalized a deal to acquire Red State, best known for the punditry of its editor-in-chief Erick Erickson, and several affiliated properties in January. Both moves were first reported by BuzzFeed. (Politico had earlier reported that Salem was “in talks” to make the purchase).
The acquisitions marry RedState — inextricably linked to its editor-in-chief, who has said, among other things, that female breadwinners are antithetical to nature — and Twitchy, which trolls Twitter for viral fodder like #MeninistTwitter, with Salem and its vast radio empire that includes the official radio program of the United States Concealed Carry Association.
In the insular world of conservative media, those are a pair of mammoth additions in less than a week. And in the eyes of Salem’s competitors, it could spark an arms race of acquisitions. The kind of media ownership consolidation that some on the right decry in the mainstream media seems to be now seeping into their world as well. Small scrappy start-ups are suddenly being swallowed up by more established corporations with a lot of money to spend.
“I think there’s going to be a natural consolidation in our industry,” Stephen Bannon, executive chairman at Breitbart.com, the conservative news site founded by the late Andrew Breitbart, told TPM. “What you’re seeing in legacy media, you’re going to start seeing the same thing happen in conservative media, where you cut overhead out and keep the content and try to drive unique page views and all that. It just makes sense.”
The powers that be behind Salem Communications are religious conservative standard-bearers. Stuart Epperson, chairman of the board, and Edward Atsinger, the CEO, have both been members of the secretive Council for National Policy, a group that hosted George W. Bush as he launched his bid for president and was called “the genuine leaders of the Republican Party” in a 2005 New York Times profile.
Time named Epperson one of the 25 most influential Christian evangelicals in 2005, and they both gave money in 2000 to support a California ballot initiative to ban gay marriage. All conservative bonafides from an ideological standpoint.
The acquisitions, particularly Twitchy and its social media focus, mark new territory for Salem, a company built on talk radio before grabbing TownHall.com in 2006 and Malkin-founded HotAir.com in 2010. Jonathan Garthwaite, Salem’s vice president and general manager for TownHall and Hot Air, said that the new outlets should give Salem access to an audience and a space that it currently doesn’t have.
“These sites are some of my favorite sites. It seemed like a pretty logical thing for us to look into,” Garthwaite told TPM. “They are all very complementary. Every one has a different style, a different focus, a different personality. I think they’ll all work really well together.”
“I’m interested in building a sound business as aggressively as possible and delivering a product that has value.”
As for their high-profile figureheads: Malkin said in a blog post that she would step down as CEO, but continue supporting and promoting Twitchy. Erickson did not return TPM’s calls for comments about his future role at RedState.
The audience numbers are significant: Twitchy self-reports 12 million unique page views per month, and BuzzFeed reported that Eagle Publishing’s properties, led by Red State, attract five million page views per month combined. New audiences could also mean more email addresses to sell to advertisers, a reportedly major part of TownHall’s and other conservative outlets’ revenue stream. The terms of the sales were not disclosed.
The addition of Regnery Publishing, which is a part of Eagle Publishing, gives Salem the opportunity for “full-brand management”: radio, digital and book deals can all co-exist under one roof. That is critical in the current cross-promotional, multi-platform media environment.
With Salem flexing its acquisition muscle — the company had total revenue of almost $229 million in revenue in 2012 — it could be pushing its conservative competitors to do the same. By picking up two well-known targets in the span of a few days, it put the rest of the right-wing media universe on notice.
“We are very aggressive on expansion, and I’ll come back and talk to you about more stuff at the beginning of the year,” Bannon said. “We look at every opportunity that’s out there and, by the way, we’re not alone. You’ve got a lot of really smart people out there at other operations looking at what combinations make sense.”
Bannon said that Breitbart had explored purchasing Human Events during the summer after the 69-year-old conservative magazine ceased publishing its print edition in February. More moves are likely in the near future, he said — and that activity is going to be catalyzed in part by Salem’s aggression in the last week.
“Everybody’s looking to build communities. I think that’s going to trigger a lot of consolidation in this space,” Bannon said. “I think there’s an internal business logic right now for consolidation. Size matters in this business, and I think you’re seeing some of the smartest guys out there with Salem leading the way. You’re going to see more of this.”
Photos: Malkin, AP Photo; Erickson, gageskidmore/Flickr
This post has been updated to include Politico’s earlier report on the Salem/Eagle Publishing deal.