The sudden demise of the influential liberal website ThinkProgress has opened the door for another proudly left-leaning blog to beef up its staff in advance of the 2020 presidential election.
Shareblue was already hoping to play a more active and harder-nosed reporting role in the political cycle before ThinkProgress was shut down earlier this month. Now, the site has begun to hire some of ThinkProgress’ former staffers—three, so far, in total—with the hope of sharpening their policy acumen and reporting output right as the campaign heats up.
“We are in a shrinking field, and progressive news needs support and needs financial backing now more than ever,” said Shareblue CEO Allison Girvin. “I think people are a little concerned that there's an erosion in this space, when it's more important than ever to be building this out.”
As far as progressive news sites go, Shareblue remains a newbie to the block. It began in September 2016 when Democratic activist David Brock rebranded the progressive website Blue Nation Review as Shareblue, hoping to build the left’s answer to Breitbart News. A longtime Hillary Clinton backer, Brock believed Shareblue could play a pivotal role in countering the types of Clinton scandal stories that conservative media had successfully injected into the mainstream media bloodstream.
But when Clinton lost the election, Brock adjusted the mission statement. Instead of a proudly pro-Clinton outlet, Shareblue would take aim at Trump, Republicans, and what he deemed “spineless Democrats” who acquiesced to the president. Brock did not respond to a request for an interview for this article.
Over the past two years, the site has explored radically different editorial directions. In early 2017, David Sirota, then an investigations editor of International Business Times, accepted and quickly backed out of becoming the chief executive officer of Shareblue’s parent company, citing lack of resources.
But in the past few months, Shareblue has made a concerted effort to begin staffing up with the more explicit goal of competing with rival left-leaning websites and blogs. The organization hired several veteran news reporters from partisan and mainstream outlets including Girvin, a well-respected former top editor at NBC News. Its masthead now includes former ThinkProgress staffers Melanie Schmitz, serving as managing editor, Josh Israel, a senior writer and Frank Dale, its social media editor.
In an interview with The Daily Beast on Tuesday, Girvin said she wouldn’t describe the recent changes as a “pivot.” But she acknowledged that the site was looking to make a bigger impact on the 2020 election. She also hired new social media managers and investigative reporters, and said the organization was bulking up legal coverage and increasing digital video output. Although the ideological orientation of the site would remain the same, the new team would increase story output, and focus on increasing the detail and depth of stories.
Cementing its place as a go-to outlet for left-leaning journalism won’t be easy, however, in large part because the site is still trying to shed elements of its prior reputation.
When it relaunched as Shareblue in 2016, Brock and avid Clinton fan Peter Daou were focused largely on how mainstream media outlets were, in their eyes, mistreating the Democratic presidential nominee. Their zealous defenses of Clinton had a cost, however. The duo angered many fans of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who felt that the site was overly biased against him. Tad Devine, a top strategist on Sanders’ 2016 campaign, referred to the publication broadly as “the pond scum of American politics.”
It wasn’t just Sanders’ team that recoiled at the site. The coverage of Sanders left a bad taste in Daou’s mouth too. He lamented that Shareblue “developed a reputation as the Hillary Bernie-bashing website,” and said that if he could do it all again, he’d try to make the coverage less acrimonious towards the Vermont Senator, and focus on commonalities between the supporters of the primary candidates.
“I think Shareblue got caught up too much in the primary fight,” Daou told The Daily Beast. “Looking back, I’m not sure I would have done it quite the way I did it. I think I would have geared the project more towards building bridges between Sanders and Clinton supporters.”
As it expands its media footprint today, the image of Shareblue as a pro-Clinton sounding board persists, in large part because of Brock’s continued association with the site. But Girvin told The Daily Beast that any criticism that Shareblue is explicitly anti-Sanders is unwarranted and misguided.
“Prior to David Brock taking over the site, it was used primarily for pro-Hillary content, which led to Bernie Sanders criticism, as you might expect,” she said. “I don’t think that has any relevance for the site today — the mission changed after the election, as did the staff and leadership.”
While Shareblue has been gearing up to compete with fellow left-leaning sites, it has done so in an increasingly less crowded field. The shuttering of ThinkProgress has come as other progressive-minded outlets, like HuffPost, VICE, and The Intercept, have shed jobs.
Their losses have been Shareblue’s gain. One former ThinkProgress staffer who has joined Shareblue said that current company leadership “was definitely sad to see what was happening with ThinkProgress,” yet also “selfishly a little bit excited to scoop some people up.”
In her interview, Girvin said that when she heard that ThinkProgress was in trouble, she reached out to her network of contacts to figure out whether there were staffers who would fit well on the site. Although she said she did not see ShareBlue as the descendant of ThinkProgress, the latter’s experienced staffers would be important assets.
“They have done some very good work over the years,” Girvin said of ThinkProgress. “We were able to pick up some fantastic folks from over there.”
Girvin also expressed confidence that Shareblue would not be going the way of ThinkProgress anytime soon, noting that the donors and chairs remained committed.
“There's a dedication by our chairman and by our donors and some of the institutions that support us to progressive news and to the coverage of the progressive movement,” she said. “As you have other progressive news sites shutting down, their support of us becomes more critical.”