Andrew Breitbart's conservative media empire has lost its charismatic founder and most fervent advocate — can it thrive without him?
In the wake of Andrew Breitbart’s sudden death March 1, the future of his conservative media empire is up in the air.
Breitbart News Network anointed Stephen Bannon to be the new CEO, editor and chairman on Monday, charged with shepherding the company without its charismatic founder. In a twist of fate, the company consolidated its websites under the Breitbart banner three days before the passionate politico died. Breitbart's "Bigs" – BigHollywood, BigGoverment, BigJournalism and others – are now subsites on Breitbart.com.
The sites initially relied heavily on aggregating content from other news sources and blogs from prominent figures in the political, media and Hollywood industries. The relaunch, which includes a complete design change, is intended to help pivot the site toward more original content and news for conservative readers.
According to ComScore, Breitbart.com drew 1.7 million unique visitors in February, the most recent period available. Including Breitbart.TV (the video portal), Big Journalism and Big Government, the figure was close to 2.5 million.
But can a new leadership team and snazzy look maintain the rabid following and media influence that a larger-than-life figure like Breitbart commanded? Even those on the right concede that it won't be easy.
Breitbart, a provocateur with uncanny media savvy and instincts, worked with both the progressive Arianna Huffington and rightist Matt Drudge before going solo several years ago. Last year, he played a pivotal role bringing down former Rep. Anthony Weiner after the Democratic congressman fired off an ill-advised tweet that included a graphic photo of his anatomy.
That scoop provided vindication for Breitbart, who earlier posted an explosive video depicting Obama administration official Shirley Sherrod, apparently making a racist statement. Breitbart's video turned out to be selectively edited, inaccurately portraying Sherrod, was forced to resign in the wake of the website's report. She was later offered her job back, but declined.
Despite the embarrassing disclosure, Breitbart never apologized. Debate over the video raged on — continuing to bring attention to the blogger and page views to his website long after the scandal subsided.
“Andrew was both a web addict and a web genius," Marc Cooper, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism, who has known Breitbart since the late 1990s when he was working for Huffington.
"He could single handedly create, run and maintain one of the most trafficked 24-hour sites in the world,” Cooper said, referring to the Drudge Report, where Breitbart worked before launching his own site. “He had a skill set that is not easily reproducible, and in the world of the web one individual can make a huge difference."
Sal Russo, chief strategist for the Tea Party Express, said the Breitbart News Network "won't have the flair that it did because there isn't an Andrew Breitbart there."
Yet he compared the future of the Breitbart enterprise to the Reagan Revolution, which has continued without its chief architect. That’s what will happen with Breitbart’s ventures, Russo says.
Joel Pollak (pictured right), editor-in-chief of Breitbart.com, acknowledged that his former boss is "irreplaceable as an individual."
“It’s still Andrew Breibart’s website,” Pollak told TheWrap. “But his model and what he believed in is still what drives us.”
Breitbart lived to upbraid mainstream media and liberal politicians, relying on citizen journalism to uncover scandals or cover-ups. He played a key role in uncovering congressman Weiner's sexting scandal, uncovering the lewd photo Weiner sent to college student and hijacking the press conference where the Congressman admitted to it.
The site’s two most noteworthy posts since Breitbart’s death are of the same ilk, though less salacious.
One is a video of Eric Holder suggesting that someone “brainwash” U.S. citizens to oppose guns. The other is a video of Barack Obama embracing former Harvard law professor Derek Bell.
Thanks to those posts, Pollak said Breitbart.com's traffic has been strong since his death — triple what it was before the relaunch and consolidation. Breitbart's monthly traffic on Breibart.com, according to ComScore, has fluctuated between 1.5 million to 2 million monthly uniques since August. If Breitbart.TV and the "Big" sites are included, that number rises by about 1 million.
Also read: Why Andrew Breitbart Raged Against the Left
“The role Andrew filled in the conservative movement and the Breitbart enterprise, they will not be able to replicate,” Matt Lewis, senior contributor to the conservative Daily Caller, told TheWrap. “But I think what they can do is be very successful utilizing the format and the infrastructure that he created, and adapting it to their personalities.”
As part of its relaunch, the site will focus more on news and less on blogs, more on original content and less on aggregation. Lewis argued that there is a large appetite for another conservative-oriented news site.
“A common lament among conservatives is that punditry is easy,” he said. “What is really needed are outlets and center right journalists who actually do reporting.”
Lewis also noted that the Drudge Report will continue to link to Breitbart.com.
The consolidation obscures weak traffic at most of the “Big” sites. Their combined traffic fell well short of 1 million unique visitors almost every month in the last year. Despite a staff of about 20 across the sites, Breitbart.com was clearly driving traffic for Breitbart News Network.
Cooper said that the number of scoops they have had are minor, but Breitbart “knew how to perfectly extract every ounce of publicity and commercial value out of those things.
"That is really difficult to do, especially when you’re as smart as he is and you know in your heart that you really don’t have that much,” Cooper said.
And that may prove to be the company's biggest problem. What happens when you want to get a story out into the media and you no longer have the charismatic leader so closely identified with the brand?
Breitbart, whose Twitter account with nearly 80,000 followers is still active, used the platform to berate both national figures and random dissidents. Those fights would bring attention to his site and its stories.
His magnetic personality also made him a fixture on cable news, either through personal appearances or discussion of his antics.
Pollak said that Breitbart’s activity on Twitter would be impossible to replace as he had “mastered” the medium.
As for television? The site is still working on it. While contributor Dana Loesch has a gig with CNN, no one has Breitbart's appeal or cache.
Breitbart's personality — impish but not malevolent, deliberately controversial yet lovably sincere — is what earned him the respect of some on the left. It is also what made him irreplaceable.
“His desk sits next to mine and its empty and it will always be empty,” Pollak said. “It’s exactly as he left it.”