Oct 11, 2022 - Politics

Iowa conservative news sites gain popularity

Illustration of the Republican elephant icon with cursor arrows in place of stars

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Alternative media sites targeting conservatives are gaining steam in Iowa.

What's happening: These sites, like The Iowa Standard, are garnering millions of page views and revenue from right-leaning audiences who are seeking news that conforms to their beliefs.

Why it matters: The news and platforms are echo chambers — potentially lucrative ones — intended to push back against what the creators see as a liberal-bent media ecosystem.

  • The trend is familiar at the national level, but the increased focus on state-level politics and media adds a new dynamic with some funding coming from local Republican officials themselves.

State of play: Owners of several local-based conservative sites told Axios they gained thousands of new visitors starting around 2020 — an enormously strife election year where de-platformed Trump supporters sought out news alternatives as social media sites like Twitter and Facebook fact-checked and flagged misinformation.

  • Pandemic and school-related news in Iowa, such as banning books and mask mandates, garnered droves of readers not only from our state but around the U.S.

How it started: Luke Martz launched Iowa Field Report in 2020 after hearing from other conservatives who "... had become frustrated with the way our party was being portrayed by the mainstream media" and believed there was a liberal tilt.

Details: Martz, who works as a Republican political consultant, doesn't call himself a journalist because of his conservative leanings, but said he has an "immense amount of appreciation and respect for good journalists."

  • He believes there is a gap in conservative coverage in Iowa's media landscape. His site primarily covers campaign and election news and op-eds from Republican candidates.
  • Martz wrote two recent stories that ended up gaining national traction, including Sonya Heithusen, a Democrat running for Iowa House, being charged with recklessly firing a gun and the police report from a former Mike Franken campaign staffer who accused him of inappropriately kissing her.

Yes, but: While Martz describes his site as the "home for mainstream Iowa conservatives," other sites, like The Iowa Standard, thrive more on stories that "... basically give a voice that a lot of the other media outlets would consider misinformation," said owner Jacob Hall.

Context: Hall's site has gained notoriety for stories like a transgender teen being "topless" at a Pella public pool, though he was using trans tape, and a plane carrying undocumented migrant children that landed at the Des Moines airport.

  • He works full-time running his for-profit site. While some of it is funded through advertisements, the majority is through contributions from conservatives around the state, including some officials from the Iowa GOP he declined to share.
  • Last year, Hall said his site reached 7.8 million page views.

The other side: Lori Lovstad, a former Ankeny school board president, said she was subject to online harassment following stories about her on The Iowa Standard because of her choice to support a mask mandate in the district.

The intrigue: While some local people read the stories, Lovstad said many of the online threats were made by people who didn't live in Iowa. It escalated to the point where the Ankeny police called her to alert Lovstad of a death threat.

  • Even though Lovstad lost her re-election campaign in November 2021, a year later, she said the messaging still reverberates. She said some parents fear speaking at school board meetings because it could turn into a story on sites like The Iowa Standard.
  • "I don't even like to call them just conservative because there's a lot of conservative people out there who are very reasonable," Lovstad said. "They just come in and throw metaphorical hand grenades and feed an outrage machine."

The bottom line: Shane VanderHart, a longtime conservative news writer in the state, said Republicans have felt misrepresented, especially during the Trump era. VanderHart runs Caffeinated Thoughts and made his own Iowa politics site, The Iowa Torch in 2020.

  • But he fears that as conservative sites gain more traction, people will start living in "silos" and never get outside perspectives.
  • While he said his site focuses on reporting facts with a conservative view, he worries that more "clickbait" and hot-button headlines will garner the most traction.

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