In March of this year Axios reported that Rare, the viral news site catering mainly to libertarians, would shut down. The article suggested that Rare had been a victim of the same plague afflicting many media producers when Facebook changed its algorithms, causing traffic to the site to plummet to about a quarter of what it was at its peak somewhere in 2014.
There is, however, another reason for the struggles of a site that took a while to settle on its libertarian identity. While it would make sense in 2013 for Cox to try to cash in on the latent opportunity represented by Facebook – as many other websites did – they might have seen another opportunity in the so-called “libertarian moment”.
This libertarian moment was always a fantasy, a fantasy of libertarian pollsters who produced data that suggested the electorate was socially liberal and fiscally conservative, not bothering to note that that could describe Mitt Romney supporters as well as Rand Paul. It was an illusion then, and it’s an illusion now that Trump has eclipsed the libertarian movement entirely.
But as differences emerged between Cox’s corporate staff and the conservative editorial staff of Rare, a libertarian direction seemed to offer a answer that everybody could be happy with — a third way, if you will. Rare could serve up its ideological cuts medium rare. What could possibly go wrong?
A lot, it turns out. When Rare launched, however, it had catered to conservatives, as one might expect from a website whose name evokes thoughts of red meat. Former editor Brett Decker even brought over Ted Nugent from the Washington Times to anchor the opinion content. At the same time, Cox VP of Strategy Leon Levitt said the site would offer “a blend of news, politics and lifestyle and culture,” but “not be mean-spirited.”
But even then Rare suffered from a divided heart. By early 2014 several of the original staffers had left, with one calling the site a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Betsy Rothstein reported that Cox corporate had “explicitly forbidden any content critical of gay equality or gay marriage.”
In 2014 Jack Hunter was hired as “essentially the editor,” Levitt told
Dave Weigel at the time. Hunter is known for his past as the “Southern Avenger,” a Confederate flag-wearing radio and editorial persona. Hunter was working for Senator Rand Paul when his past was revealed and he was forced to quit. But he then made amends through a public ritual of penance and renunciation, and was hired by Rare about a year later.
Under Hunter, the new Rare would be different than the old, which, Levitt told Rothstein, “tilted too far on the mean and divisive meter.”
“The site struggled through two iterations before finding its optimal voice: fiscally conservative but socially liberal (pro-gay marriage and marijuana legalization), which resonates with a millennial audience,” Levitt told an advertising publication in 2015. “And much of its content, like Rare Country, reflects broader common interests in that group.”
It is fair to say that, between Jack Hunter’s allegiance to the “liberty movement” and the progressive sensitivities of Cox’s corporate muck-a-mucks, Rare would come to represent a significant corporate investment in the “libertarian moment.” It did not pay off.
Other former Rare staffers suggest that the boom in traffic in 2014-15 may have been due to an “unsustainable promotional investment,” says Jim Robbins. “Were the hits essentially bought?” he asked.
“There were people in the upper leadership who were trying to wedge in material that fit a more libertarian agenda, but in my opinion the problem there was the content they were pushing just wasn’t very good, says Robbins. “It was not serious and lacked quality.”
Around September 2014, Cox Enterprises was trumpeting Rare’s 20 million page-views, and a rapid decline after that could be a sign that investment ran out. Similar sites with fewer Facebook likes tend to have much greater engagement per post, which could be another sign that their following is, as they say, inorganic. Rare’s forays into video seem to have been even less successful: nothing on their YouTube channel has more than 10,000 views and most have far less.
Will Alford, Rare’s Senior Director, began to keep the website on a tighter leash after Hunter took over. He attributes the closing to “things going on internally at Cox” as much as anything with Rare. In a statement to Cockburn he described what some of the goals were:
We chose to launch a site for a conservative audience, not for any personal ideological reasons, but because we thought that was where the momentum was, where the story was the most interesting at the time (lots of pent up feelings about Romney losing) and where the best business opportunity was for a digital-only brand. Across the company at our newspapers, our research was telling us that more and more readers were citing “liberal bias” as a reason for quitting us, so we were especially interested in seeing what it would take to make conservatives happy. The idea was that we’d have all these learnings we could then share with the other Cox properties. …
In the very beginning, I think we were naive about what it’d mean to be a “conservative site.” Conservative isn’t just one thing, and there is as much rancor toward factions within the right-of-center space as there is toward liberals. We learned on the job about the minefields. We struggled in the beginning through personnel missteps and defining what exactly we were about. We couldn’t be The Daily Caller or Breitbart because that’s not authentically who we were. We also were trying to succeed as an advertiser-supported media brand, and a lot of what other right-wing sites publish is toxic for advertisers. We didn’t have rich benefactors with an ideological agenda to push.
This is admirably candid, but if all this talk about conservatism being the “best business opportunity for a digital-only-brand” sounds a little mercenary, that wasn’t lost on their readers either. Because of their experience with the liberal media, conservatives don’t tend to give news outlets their trust.
Moreover it is interesting to reflect on Alford’s assumption that social conservatism is “toxic for advertisers.” In the threats of corporate boycotts of Indiana and North Carolina over religious liberty and transgender bathrooms, the hostility of corporate power to traditional values is becoming harder to ignore. Rare represented a kind of conservatism at peace with woke capital: the kind that can be commodified and sold, larded with a helping of transgenderism.
That made it especially poorly suited for the age of Trump.