Will Sommer grew up in a conservative household and developed an early interest in Rush Limbaugh and other right wing media figures. When he went to college, his politics changed, but his obsession with conservative media never went away.
In late 2016, that obsession paid off. Sommer was one of the first reporters to write about Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory that a DC pizza parlor was the home of a child sex ring. After a man was arrested for firing a gun inside the restaurant, his reporting gained national relevance.
Shortly afterward, he launched Right Richter, and he soon became one of the foremost experts on the obscure right wing media outlets that, in some cases, produce conspiracies that bubble all the way up to Donald Trump’s Twitter account.
I interviewed Sommer about what it’s like to cover this community and why he decided recently to move his newsletter to The Daily Beast.
To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find a transcript of the interview.
A transcript is below.
Simon Owens: Hey Will thanks for joining us.
Will Sommer: Thanks for having me.
The reason I had you on is because you’ve developed a peculiar hobby, a hobby that a lot of other people would consider torture. And that is consuming — whether it’s reading, listening to, or watching — far right media. Not only have you developed that as a hobby, but you’ve built your own media outlet out of it. How did you first develop this obsession?
I came from a pretty conservative background in Texas, so growing up, I was consuming a lot of Rush Limbaugh, Ayn Rand, Bill O’Reilly, and all that kind of stuff. When I went to college, my politics changed, but I still had this interest in right wing media, and I think there are a lot of great characters in it, and it’s interesting to see a lot of these ideas bubble up and actually either make it on Fox News, or the president’s talking about it. Basically it got to the point where I was keeping up with all these characters, and my girlfriend got sick of me telling her about them and so she said why don’t you start a newsletter. So that’s what I did.
Most people, when they consume right wing media, they’re actually conservative themselves. And a lot of people who aren’t conservative, they’d have a hard time listening to that. It’d be like nails on a chalkboard having to listen to Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage for a long period of time. You said you fell away from your conservative leanings. How did you develop the ability to listen to it without getting riled up?
When I’m listening to it or reading stuff, a lot of times I’m looking for new trends or different things being phrased different ways. There’s maybe not that much…I’m kind of trying to see what’s developing on it rather than engaging with the actual arguments themselves.
Obviously people who are even vaguely aware of right wing media, they’re aware of the rise of Rush Limbaugh and conservative radio in the 1990s and the rise of Fox News in the 21st century. Obviously there’s plenty of right wing periodicals from the National Review and the Weekly Standard. But I think the reason your newsletter really took off is because it captured this moment in right wing media where these obscure and arcane corners of the internet started all of a sudden having increasing relevance. You were obsessed with these things growing up. How did you end up going even deeper into this darker part of the web. We’re talking 4chan. We’re talking r/the_donald. We’re talking some of these Twitter accounts run by white nationalists and Pizza Gate conspiracy theorists.
I’ve always been interested in internet subcultures and weird internet stuff. So I started going beyond your Fox News stuff and stuff like that. Especially when you get into blogs, like if you’re reading the Gateway Pundit and stuff, there’s a lot of good feuds which always make for interesting stories. And so, that’s how I got into it. I basically have always consumed a huge amount of internet. When, say, 4chan got started becoming a hangout for neo nazis, I was already kind of on there and saw all of that happen.
So your girlfriend said you should launch this newsletter. You launched Right Richter.
It’s supposed to be like a Richter scale. I launched that in May 2016, and after Donald Trump was elected, that’s when it took off. Suddenly people understandably felt like there was this whole world they hadn’t been keeping tabs on at all, that half the country was consuming this information, and then if you’re a liberal you’re missing out on it. I think there’s a desire for a person who can synthesize that information in a way that can be fun or entertaining to read about.
How did it take off? Did someone influential share it?
When I started Right Richter, I was working for The Washington City Paper, which is the alt-weekly in Washington, DC. And already there was some crossover. Right before the election, I was the first reporter to discover Pizza Gate. I think something that helped a lot is that through City Paper and being in the DC media I knew various people, and so after the election, Amanda Hess at the New York Times mentioned Right Richter in a story, and that’s what took it from grinding it out in the low couple hundred of subscribers to north of 3,000.
You were on TinyLetter, a subsidiary of Mailchimp. I’m guessing you pretty quickly hit their 5,000 subscriber limit and had to start paying to distribute?
What happened was, this January I switched over to Mailchimp. As you mentioned, the initial cap on TinyLetter is 5,000. I hit that, and they were generous enough to give me 3,500 more subscribers. And then I hit that, and it was like, I can’t really ask them again. I moved over to Mailchimp in January. The thing about Mailchimp is it’s pretty expensive. It’s for north of 5,000 subscribers, it was going to be $80 a month. As a result, I needed to start making some money. So I launched a Patreon as well with some premium content in an effort to allay those costs.
So you were at the City Paper for a while and then you went to The Hill, right?
Yeah, I was at The Hill as a campaign editor for a year and a half, handling political coverage and coverage of the midterms. And then, it was also, right wing media stuff came up a decent amount. I went down to Charlottesville expecting a brief march and that was going to be it, and so fortunately I was on hand for that when The Hill needed a reporter there.
I find it interesting that you were working for traditional media while you were covering this alternate media that has, because of who’s currently in the White House — It feels like if Hillary Clinton had won this form of media would have stayed a backwater of the internet, but now, because you can see things bubbling straight to Donald Trump’s desk…Looking around at your colleagues at The Hill and other mainstream publications, how much influence do you think this far right online media had on the media in terms of influencing it, and how prepared were your colleagues to cover and understand this new powerful faction? And I wonder if ultimately that’s why your newsletter became so popular, because so many of us sought to understand what the hell was going on.
I think that’s a lot of what happened. Readers were very into it, good word of mouth. Someone would see something that’s crazy, like the Seth Rich stuff would flare up, and they’d say this is such a crazy world, it’s very overwhelming, where can I turn to get a handle on this stuff? People would recommend Right Richter.
As far as how the media interacts with the right wing media, or your alt right types, I think the mainstream media, in general turned out to be ill prepared, both in terms of getting fooled a lot by trolling campaigns…there’s kind of this assumption, and this happened at the New York Times with the ombudsman, where they just see these emails from people where they’re assuming good faith. And at the same time, especially after the election, there was parachuting into various right wing things, whether it was a rally or writing about some right wing personality, and people were just getting duped. Famously the New York Times “nazi next door” story is a classic example.
Mike Cernovich is a great example of what you’re talking about. He’ll find some weakness of some reporter supposedly crossing a line, even though he crosses the line all the time with racism and misogyny. But he’ll start a drumbeat against that reporter, get people writing and tweeting to their editors. These editors, they might be smarting up by now, but at first they were treating it as if it were good faith, that these people were actually concerned about how this reporter had acted, when it’s really just a coordinated campaign.
Exactly, and Mike Cernovich specifically is known for doing that. I’ve been on the receiving end of stuff like this. Some savvier outlets would say, this is a Mike Cernovich thing, tell him to beat it. But I think other editors, especially older ones and ones that aren’t as familiar with the internet and social media, they say oh my gosh….typically as a reporter if someone you haven’t written about is up in your grill, people assume they’re acting in good faith. With this crew, it’s a lot of people looking for scalps.
You mentioned how he reacted to you. How has this community reacted to it being covered by someone who knows all its BS and knows where the bodies are buried, and doesn’t take them on good faith.
There’s been a couple reactions. One is that, people get really mad about it. I’m very measured and try to avoid some of the dumb mistakes other reporters have made, both factually and in terms of…it can be very tempting to get into feuds with these people, and I don’t think it’s ultimately productive for the newsletter and for my ability to report on this. My incognito browser is getting a good workout because a lot of these people have blocked me on Twitter. At the same time, more amusingly, a lot of, especially marginal right wing personalities, love getting mentioned in it, and so they also get very mad if they weren’t mentioned in that week’s issue. So they’d be like “this week’s Right Richter stinks.”
What about sourcing and original reporting, how difficult has that been?
They’re a difficult crew to report on. The beauty of covering any media reporting, the output of your subject is easy to access. I just open YouTube or look at Twitter. At the same time, any amount of reporting that you do, especially if it’s going to be a negative story, people accuse you of stalking them. They really take it to 100 really quick. And so, it’s a difficult crew to report on. The beauty of going to The Daily Beast is that now I’m going to have enough time to do reporting. It was otherwise trying to fit in a phone call before work, or something like that.
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How did your editors at The Hill respond to you working on this?
It was mostly positive, it was kind of a separate thing from The Hill. It ended up being useful in terms of some of The Hill’s coverage having someone who was paying attention to this.
Ostensibly, especially covering this president, it sort of fits within mainstream media coverage. He tweets these things, and we’ve seen right wing conspiracies that people within the administration have shared on email and elsewhere. At some point, it behooves the mainstream media to explain where some of these conspiracy theories originate from. So it seems like there might have been some crossover between what you were doing at Right Richter and what you were doing at The Hill.
Absolutely. As far as reporter, there’s a lot of should we cover this conspiracy theory or are we just giving it more credence? It’s a legitimate concern, but with a lot of this stuff, it’s real in terms of a lot of people believe in it, and in the case of Pizza Gate, it sent a guy with a gun into Comet Ping Pong. In the case of QAnon, which is another more obscure right wing conspiracy theory, we saw this fellow shut down the Hoover Dam. So there’s a lot of real things, and I think readers deserve to know about them.
In terms of the epicenters of how things get seeded and get laundered through various media factions until they land on Fox News or Donald Trump’s Twitter account, where do you see a lot of this influence? We hear 4chan mentioned a lot. We hear r/the_donald at Reddit mentioned. But at the same time, I wonder how big Twitter is, because I feel like ever since Chuck Johnson and Milo, after they got banned from Twitter, it wasn’t that they completely went away, but I hardly even think about Chuck Johnson or Milo anymore. Do you think the de-platforming works? Is Twitter the main driver? Where do you see the nodes of influence?
It’s a very free flowing system and things go back and forth. But I think one of the more interesting methods is stuff that happens on somewhere like 4chan. Or more often stuff happening on places like Reddit or on conspiracy YouTube where people do 24 hour streams. That will bubble up to somewhere like The Gateway Pundit or Infowars, and then it might get picked up by someone like Sara Carter, a big Sean Hannity guest. And then from there, it spreads to the rest of Fox News. And then potentially Trump tweets about it. So there’s this bubbling up from low levels in the comments and blogs of sites like TruePundit or Conservative Treehouse. These are very high context or very confusing places if you just look at them. In a pretty bizarre way they can have an effect on the national discourse.
As far as de-platforming. I think I’m sort of two minds about how often Twitter should be getting rid of people. But I do think that it’s hugely successful in terms of reducing a right wing figure’s influence. Milo went from being hugely well known. Obviously there were other things that affected his credibility within the conservative movement. But he went from a guy who was very out front in terms of being in reporters’ minds to a guy who is reduced to posting on Instagram. And in the exact same thing with Chuck Johnson. He was a character that everyone was sick of, and a guy who gets his credibility and his influence basically from antagonizing people, well, if you kick him out, that goes away. And he’s sort of fuming on Facebook.
It’s a theme reading your newsletter about far right media that they’re at constant war with the platforms. They have their own conspiracy theories about how they’re being silenced. In some cases they actually are being silenced, because the platforms are trying to figure out how to actually deal with these people. YouTube is trying to figure this out in terms of surfacing suggested videos. Twitter’s been battling them for a while. Is that part of their persecution complex? Do you think we could see in a few years that the platforms could stamp them out or reduce their influence?
I think this is why they, in part, when someone gets banned from Facebook or Twitter — or another thing that happens a lot is they’re very freaked out about the idea of shadow banning.
That’s when their account doesn’t get deleted, but their content isn’t being shown to anyone.
Right. There’s a lot of, like when we saw Diamond and Silk testifying to Congress, there’s a lot of is my engagement not what it should be. This always comes with the implication of, this is some good content and I should be blowing up. And so, all these right wing figures, especially those not affiliated with any outlet and don’t have a safety net in terms of if people stop caring who they are tomorrow, they’re very anxious about crossing the line with Twitter, what will get you banned, what will get you suspended.
On the other hand, getting a suspension or a ban, at least in the short term, could be good for their publicity. Especially if they can be embraced the way that Diamond and Silk were by Congressmen or by Fox News, that can be good for business.
Speaking of being good for business, what does that mean? We’ve seen with the rise of Sleeping Giants, this group that’s educating brands about the fact that their ads are showing up programmatically on Breitbart, getting them to block Breitbart. There seems to be a growing awareness for brands that advertise online of where their ads are appearing, and it’s getting harder and harder for some of these far right publications to run programmatic advertising. One thing I’ve always wondered, where is this person making money? And even if they’re making money now, where are they going to make money 20 years from now after Donald Trump has gone away and this moment has passed? Where is Chuck Johnson going to get a job 10 years from now? How are they making money?
I do think a lot of it, especially for a certain kind of career track, is not becoming so toxic as a personality that you can’t go get a deal with the Heritage Foundation or get funded by some Koch group. Chuck Johnson, specifically, he claims to have invested in Bitcoin at some point and now has some spending money.
It is interesting how these figures get their money, and a lot of time, there turns out to be, like in the case of Mike Cernovich, it turns out he was being bankrolled by alimony from his ex-wife. There is a certain amount, especially if you’re a freelancing personality, you have to fly to wherever the big rally is going to be, or wherever the shooting was. So there’s certainly travel expenses.
As far as the income streams, there are a lot of different ones. As we saw with Breitbart, it was bankrolled by the Mercer family. But then that has a downside that if you anger your backer, you’re going to get fired. Breitbart’s been really hit by this advertising boycott. Additionally, you’re increasingly seeing people turn to Patreon and people can pay you on YouTube. But the difficulty is that you’re now dependent on that platform. And so we’ve seen these guys scrambling to come up with an alt-right fundraising process. The problem is that there’s only a couple payment processors, like Paypal or Stripe. They just can’t get their credit cards processed, and then you’re out of luck when that happens.
Let’s talk about you and Right Richter. It started out as TinyLetter, then you moved to Mailchimp. You launched a Patreon account. What was your experience on Patreon? How much response did you get? What was the setup? You had premium content behind the paywall.
When I launched it, there was a $4 tier of essentially another newsletter a week, and then there was a $6 tier of a monthly QandA. The response was awesome. The Right Richter readership, there’s a hardcore bunch of supporters. They were very generous in terms of signing up. Frankly, it was a lot of content to produce. And so part of the appeal of The Daily Beast is be able to put everything in one basket. Obviously I would no longer have to work at The Hill. I could focus everything …and, the other thing is, I wanted to give the Patreon subscribers good content. At the same time, some of these things I was writing were pretty interesting and could have had a larger reach if they weren’t behind a paywall. So, there certainly is an interest for me getting that stuff out all in one place.
Did you ever think that you wanted to continue building this out yourself rather than bringing it over to a mainstream media outlet?
The idea of, the Patreon was going pretty well. Another thing I had considered was just freelancing and just treating Right Richter as my base income. At the same time I wanted the resources that come with a mainstream outlet, whether that be expenses, travel. Additionally, I think the Daily Beast team is great, and it’s useful, particularly as a young reporter, to have some people backstopping you. They’ll see your stuff and offer you guidance and legal resources.
Will the Right Richter brand continue? Is there a newsletter that’s going to appear that’s called Right Richter?
Right Richter will be continuing. I’m still working through the logistics of just porting the newsletter over. But yeah, it’ll be the Daily Beast is doing a newsletter push right now, and it’ll be one of the Daily Beast newsletter properties.
Are you also going to be writing articles for the web?
Yeah. I’ll be doing articles on the web as well. A couple articles a week, plus Right Richter.
And do you still own Right Richter? I’m always curious how these deals are structured where a media brand comes under the umbrella of a larger company.
I do. That’s still with me.
It’s like they’re renting it underneath their banner. The way you have it structured is that you can split it off again in the future.
That kind of gets into some legal stuff I’d rather not discuss. But right now it’s still with me, I’ll continue writing it. Looking forward to a new era. In the past, there were some issues with proofreading. And the design wasn’t what it could be. So now there will be more people involved with that.
Will you have a team with you? Or is it still just you producing it?
It’s still mainly me, but just as far as working with the newsletter stuff.
Have they talked to you about monetization or how they plan to …
It’s still very early stages in terms of that.
So what do you want to do that’s more ambitious?
I just like to do longerform reporting. And just generally getting back into reporting more. I’m officially a tech reporter, I’m covering internet subcultures and stuff like that. Keeping up with the right wing media and that kind of stuff. But also branching out, just generally, about how technology is changing the world, and vice versa.
The parallel to you at BuzzFeed would be Charlie Warzel. Are there any other reporters out there covering this beat this closely?
As far as covering right wing media stuff, I think BuzzFeed has a good team.
I did a profile of Media Matters last summer, and they’ve been tracking these groups for years now. They have people assigned to r/the_donald and 4chan.
I think Media Matter does great work. Especially over the last few years they’ve retooled the team over there, and they’ve expanded beyond just watching Fox News every night. I think Jared Holt at Right Wing Watch, there’s always new stuff coming out and good people keeping an eye on it.
How much does the broadcast media lean on you as a source to come on radio and TV shows to explain something?
A pretty good amount. I would say last year, a lot of this alt right stuff was really hot. And frankly, with some of these outlets, the question was why don’t you hire me? These reporters were just calling me all the time. And sometimes they don’t even quote you, link to the newsletter. As just as part of the business end, there’s a lot of hustle for links if someone’s quoting you. And there have been some people who were on the receiving end of some harsh words from me for quoting me, and then they say a reporter at The Hill. But let’s get the link in there.
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