ThinkProgress, the influential news site that rose to prominence in the shadow of the Bush administration and helped define progressivism during the Obama years, is shutting down.
The outlet, which served as an editorially independent project of the Democratic Party think tank Center for American Progress, will stop current operations on Friday and be converted into a site where CAP scholars can post. Top officials at CAP had been searching for a buyer to take over ThinkProgress, which has run deficits for years, and according to sources there were potentially three serious buyers in the mix recently. But in a statement to staff, Navin Nayak, the executive director of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, said the site was ultimately unable to secure a patron.
“Given that we could find no new publisher, we have no other real option but to fold the ThinkProgress website back into CAP’s broader online presence with a focus on analysis of policy, politics, and news events through the lens of existing CAP and CAP Action staff experts,” said Nayak. “Conversations on how to do so are just beginning, but we will seek to reinvent it as a different platform for progressive change.”
A dozen ThinkProgress employees will be losing their jobs, a CAP aide said, as many who were on staff had already gone to work elsewhere and some were incorporated into the larger CAP infrastructure. Those who are being laid off will be given a severance package that runs through the end of November and health care coverage that lasts through the year, said the CAP aide.
As for the actual website, thinkprogress.org will continue to exist. But it will no longer function as an independent enterprise focused on original reporting. Instead, according to Nayak, it will be folded “back into CAP’s broader online presence” as a sounding board for policy and political analysis by existing CAP and CAP Action staff experts.
“Conversations on how to do so are just beginning,” said Nayak, “but we will seek to reinvent it as a different platform for progressive change.”
Nayak did say that ClimateProgress, which started as an independent blog before merging with ThinkProgress, will be taken over by its founder, Joe Romm.
At its peak, there were few more important pieces of unapologetically progressive, online real estate than ThinkProgress. The site combined original reporting with an attack-dog mentality to target Republican lawmakers and conservative ideas. A testament to its success is found in the list of prominent alumni currently working in politics and journalism. That list includes Faiz Shakir, who now serves as Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign manager; Amanda Terkel, the D.C. bureau chief of the Huffington Post; Nico Pitney, the political director at NowThis; Alex Seitz-Wald, a top campaign reporter for NBC News; Ali Gharib, a senior news editor at The Intercept; and Matt Yglesias, one of the founding members of Vox.
But the site suffered from editorial frictions during the Obama years, when the visions of some of the staff clashed with the larger political demands of CAP and its donors. At one point, CAP’s then-CEO Jen Palmieri wrote a guest post on Yglesias’ ThinkProgress blog to issue a defense of Third Way after Yglesias had criticized the centrist-Democratic group. Elsewhere, there were rifts and tensions over ThinkProgress posts that were critical of Israel.
In the fall of 2015, staffers at ThinkProgress unionized, in part as a means of formalizing editorial independence from CAP brass. And there was a sense that the election of Donald Trump in 2016 would spark a boomlet in material for staff to investigate and cover. In 2018, the site brought on board Jodi Enda, an alum of CNN, to serve as editor in chief, in what was presented as a movement towards more original reporting.
But editorial tensions have lingered. In April, the website posted a story and video about Sanders’ personal wealth which had grown over recent years due to book sales. The presidential candidate responded in a lacerating letter targeting CAP for accepting corporate donations and linking the published story to the bidding of said donors.
In early May, sources told The Daily Beast that the ThinkProgress writers’ union and the author of the story were concerned with the way in which Enda had handled the ordeal, including her making edits without the initial permission of the author. Enda said she publicly and privately apologized for the matter.
Adding to the problems has been a worsening financial situation for the site. Internal documents obtained by The Daily Beast showed ThinkProgress facing a $3-million delta between revenues and expenses in 2019, of which $350,000 had come via a shortfall in ad revenue.
Privately, staffers and some alumni argued that, with some budget reductions, CAP could continue funding operations through the reallocation of donor dollars. ThinkProgress’ staff had ballooned to more than 40 before the number began to dwindle this year. And within these quarters, there has been ample suspicion as to why CAP officials have been so alarmed over the current state of financial distress when the site has lived in this limbo for virtually its entire existence.
But CAP officials said that the long-term outlook for ThinkProgress was dire. A few months ago, they let it be known that they were looking to sell the site off to a prospective buyer.
According to Nayak, CAP had “conversations with more than 20 potential new publishers, including several extended dialogues.” But, he added, “broad trends” in digital news media “proved insurmountable in finding ThinkProgress a new home.”