Inside Breitbart's Westside L.A. headquarters, they've got plans for global expansion

It all began a little more than 10 years ago in a basement in Westwood: a small army of young employees in T-shirts and shorts huddled over their laptops, determined to launch a news site that would shake up the world of conservative media. 

At first, the site started by Andrew Breitbart was a simple news aggregation service. But in a few short years it evolved into an idiosyncratic voice combining original reporting, incendiary commentary and outright trolling, in keeping with the rambunctious spirit of its founder, who died in 2012.

As its popularity grew, many condemned its rhetoric as extremist, xenophobic, sexist and a platform for hate speech — accusations its leaders have denied. Others laughed it off as a journalistic lightweight catering to a far-right fringe known as the alt-right.

No one’s laughing anymore. As Donald Trump prepares to take office as president, the Breitbart News Network stands poised to become one of the most influential conservative media companies in the country. Stephen K. Bannon, the site’s controversial executive chairman, was a key figure in Trump’s campaign and has been named chief White House strategist.

For Breitbart, this could mean a direct line to the West Wing, a level of media access unprecedented in modern times, according to experts. While some believe this will turn the outlet into an extension of the Trump administration, leaders at Breitbart see it as an opportunity that will allow them to compete not only with conservative rivals like Fox News, but the entire media firmament, which it sees as dishonest about its left-leaning bias.

As a matter of policy, Breitbart doesn’t discuss its inner workings and finances. It doesn’t have digital subscriptions and makes most of its money selling advertising. Now that it has become a household name and a political lightning rod, mostly for its pro-Trump coverage leading up to the election, there is intense curiosity about who exactly these bad boys (and girls) of the right are: How does Breitbart make money? What is its media strategy?  And will the firestorm over Bannon hinder its business ambitions?

In a series of interviews, leaders sounded a confident and defiantly unapologetic note. As a company, it is aiming for no less than the world.

“The goal is to become a global news network,” said Larry Solov, the company’s president and chief executive officer.

L.A. might seem to be an unlikely home to such an outspokenly conservative publication, given the city’s heavily liberal leanings. But both the founder and CEO of Breitbart grew up together in Brentwood (they were both adopted). Solov was persuaded to join the company during a trip to Israel they took together as adults.  

He said Breitbart is looking to expand into TV, though not necessarily its own cable network, and will ramp up its far-flung editorial team, which consists of about 100 people.

They will focus heavily on covering the new administration.

“We think we are going to be the best place for coverage of Trump,” said Solov, who earned a law degree from UCLA.

The company has dismissed criticism that it is too closely aligned with the president-elect, arguing that Trump’s platform fits with its core beliefs — nationalism (but not white nationalism), strong borders and jobs — and that it has never tried to hide its biases.

“We don’t believe there’s such a thing as an unbiased media source,” Solov said. “We think people who read us should know what our viewpoint is and values are and can judge us accordingly. You don’t have to like it or agree with it.” 

He described Breitbart News as an anti-establishment outlet for our anti-establishment times, delivered in a signature style that is “a little swagger, a little take-no-prisoners, a little ‘Fight Club.’ It can be biting at times. And it can be fun and funny.”

But many consider the site’s trollish style to be downright offensive. Stories that have generated heat include an opinion piece about the Confederate flag titled “Hoist it High and Proud”; one about the European refugee crisis titled “Political Correctness Protects Muslim Rape Culture”; and numerous articles on crimes committed by immigrants in the country illegally. 

“They’re a really well-funded blog that seems to favor conspiracy theories,” said Lee Wilkins, a professor who teaches media ethics at Wayne State University and the University of Missouri School of Journalism. “I don’t condemn them because they do bad journalism. I don’t think they do journalism at all.”

Breitbart has defended its more fiery articles as constitutionally protected polemics designed to trigger overly sensitive liberals — or “snowflakes” in Breitbart parlance. They point out that they have also produced real reported pieces — with a conservative world view — including stories on the California drought and border security from its Texas bureau.

The company operates out of a nondescript office building on the Westside. To avoid unwanted public attention, it keeps a low physical profile: There is no name or sign on the door to indicate that Breitbart is a tenant. A giant photographic portrait of Andrew Breitbart greets visitors at the entrance.

A recent visit showed that Breitbart retains its startup flavor, with mostly young reporters typing away on laptops. The door to the main conference room is emblazoned with the hashtag #War — a mantra Breitbart instilled in his team. The company even has a mascot: the honey badger, the carnivore and YouTube star known for its tenacious attitude and thick skin — qualities that the newsroom has adopted as its own. 

Most of its staff is spread around the country, as well as in London and Jerusalem. Among Breitbart’s immediate goals is to expand into France and Germany to capitalize on growing nationalist sentiments  stemming  from Europe’s immigration crisis and growing doubts about the European Union.

“I’m already interviewing people there,” said Alexander Marlow, the site’s editor in chief. “Both of them have big elections that are looking similar to Brexit and the rise of Trump in the U.S., in which you have a populist nationalist movement gaining credibility.”

France will hold its presidential elections next year, with Marine Le Pen, the controversial head of the country’s far-right National Front party, having already declared her candidacy. Germany will hold national elections next year. 

Marlow was a 21-year-old student at UC Berkeley when Andrew Breitbart hired him as his first employee. Now 30, the L.A. native, who attended Harvard Westlake, became editor in chief in 2013 and is now based mostly out of Washington, D.C.

He said one of Breitbart’s objectives is to court millennial conservatives, a demographic that he feels Fox News and other conservative outlets overlook.

“I think the conservative media has been derelict,” he said. “I’m not trying to trash talk them when I say this, but they have done nothing to cultivate young people.” 

Marlow sees an opportunity to lure Trump supporters put off by Fox News’ ambivalent take on the Republican candidate, since “so much of their audience feels betrayed by how they covered this presidential race.”

As a result, he said, Breitbart is experiencing a surge in readership. The site drew 19.2 million unique visitors in October, up nearly 50% from 12.9 million visitors in the same month last year, according to data from ComScore.

Breitbart easily beat other conservative news sites The Daily Caller and The Blaze, whose October unique visitors were 10.2 million and 5.8 million, respectively.

Breitbart’s own metrics paint an even more robust picture. It estimates it has 1.8 billion page views so far this year, an increase from about 1 billion views for all of 2015.

Those figures still pale in comparison to mainstream sites like CNN and Fox News, which see unique visitor traffic that is triple that amount or more. But Breitbart said it is confident it will continue to grow its readership even after the election bump.

Traffic is vital to Breitbart because like many news sites, it supports itself mostly with advertising revenue, said Solov. He said Breitbart works with a number of networks to produce ads on its articles and video clips. He said the company employs a sales manager who oversees a staff of three.

Breitbart also generates revenue from its online store — you can buy a tank top with the logo “Border Wall Construction Co.” — but it declined to elaborate.

It is rumored that hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer has been a major backer of Breitbart. Mercer, who couldn’t be reached for comment, was a major supporter of Trump’s campaign, and his daughter, Rebekah, has been a part of the president-elect’s transition team.

Experts say there is an increasing opacity in media ownership and funding as private equity buys up more news organizations.

“If the ownership is concealed, that’s a legitimate area of concern,” said Edward Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.

At the same time, the mainstream Washington media are hardly a paragon of virtue.

“It’s an elite closed loop,” said Tom Bivins, a professor who teaches media ethics at the University of Oregon. Reporters are often “fed information anonymously from the White House and politicians.”

Breitbart’s closeness to Trump caused a major schism at Breitbart this year, when editor at large Ben Shapiro resigned, claiming that Bannon had betrayed Andrew Breitbart’s legacy by cozying up to the Republican candidate. 

Bannon’s appointment to the White House has been harshly criticized by members of both parties who have latched on to some of Breitbart News’ more outlandish headlines to denounce him as an anti-Semite and the site itself as white nationalist.

Bannon, who is on a leave of absence from the company, wasn’t available for comment; but Breitbart leaders have gone on the counteroffensive, calling the attacks false and threatening a lawsuit against “a major media company,” which it has not identified.

“We think we were influential in the election and people are resentful of it,” said Solov, noting that he is Jewish, as was Breitbart.

“We are a nationalist website. How the word ‘white’ got tacked on is part of a coordinated media smear campaign,” said Marlow. “We like that we have a border —  we don’t want to cede our country to unelected global bureaucrats. It has nothing to do with skin tone.”  

Breitbart employs a number of minorities and women in prominent editorial positions. In a recent article, its London editor in chief Raheem Kassam praised Bannon for hiring a “brown guy” from “a Muslim family to run his London operation.” 

The company has also been accused of being part of the alt-right —  the informal  political cohort often described as militantly conservative — after Bannon was quoted in Mother Jones saying Breitbart was a platform for the movement. 

But company leaders deny they are actually part of the alt-right. “We have done a number of articles on the alt-right, but that doesn’t make us alt-right,” Solov said.

Breitbart News said that while it maintains a pro-Trump stance, it won’t shy away from criticizing the future president if he deviates from his platform. 

“Our readers expect us to be tough on him and honor his commitments to voters,” said Joel Pollak, senior editor at large and in-house counsel at Breitbart.“If we’re not tough on Trump on living up to his promises, then our readership will be tough on us.”

david.ng@latimes.com

Twitter: @DavidNgLAT

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