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Business News/ Companies / Bari Weiss’s Surging News Startup Lures Readers Miffed at Media Coverage of Israel
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Bari Weiss’s Surging News Startup Lures Readers Miffed at Media Coverage of Israel

wsj

At the Free Press, the site launched by a former New York Times opinion editor, traffic and subscriptions have spiked during Israel-Hamas war.

Bari Weiss has said that Free Press’s war coverage has helped make the site a core part of its readers’ media diet. Premium
Bari Weiss has said that Free Press’s war coverage has helped make the site a core part of its readers’ media diet.

Bari Weiss realized that her news startup, the Free Press, was attracting a lot of attention with its coverage of the Israel-Hamas war when famous people started citing its work on social media.

Music executive Scooter Braun shared a Free Press video about a hostage taken by Hamas. Comedian Chelsea Handler shared on Instagram Free Press’s “Voices from Gaza" video that showed a young Gazan describing Hamas as a barrier that must be removed. Cookbook author Jessica Seinfeld posted a column by Weiss about antisemitism following the start of the war, with the comment, “Bari got me straight about liberal America today."

Weiss, a former New York Times opinion editor, started a newsletter nearly three years ago that eventually grew into Free Press, positioning the site as a check on what she sees as the media’s “woke" orthodoxy. She drew attention for her leading role in the “Twitter Files," a series of releases about the content moderation policies of the social-media platform now called X.

But the Israel-Hamas war has been the breakout moment for Free Press, which is appealing to readers hungry for an alternative to what they view as an unfair characterization of Israel in mainstream media. Among its recent stories are “Why My Generation Hates Jews," a piece about polling that showed many young people siding with Hamas in the conflict; a story about a wealthy couple who are providing financial backing for pro-Palestinian rallies; and a piece about people tearing down posters of kidnapped Israeli children.

Weiss said Free Press’s war coverage has helped make the site a core part of its readers’ media diet. “I assumed that our readers were getting their meal somewhere else and we were sort of the sriracha on the side," she said. “That is no longer the case."

In October, web and email views of Free Press content jumped 62% to 23.8 million, according to data from Substack, which the site uses as its support platform, while downloads of its Honestly podcast nearly doubled to 1.7 million. That interest translated into 40,000 new subscribers, including a mix of free subscribers and those who pay $8 a month or $80 a year for extra content. Free Press says it now has about 520,000 total subscribers, including nearly 75,000 paid subscribers.

Weiss said Free Press’s coverage is resonating with people who feel the mainstream media is creating “moral confusion," for example by using terms like insurgents to describe Hamas, instead of labeling it a terrorist group.

In one article, Weiss took the New York Times to task for a headline that said Israel had bombed a Gaza hospital, information it attributed to Palestinian authorities. The Times later updated its reporting after Israel denied responsibility, as did The Wall Street Journal, and both outlets eventually said evidence pointed to a Palestinian group being responsible. The Times published an Editor’s Note saying that its initial coverage relied too heavily on claims by Hamas.

“It may well be that Bari is appealing to a slice of the public that is tired of the mainstream and wants someone who has something to say," said Peter Bhatia, chief executive of media startup Houston Landing and former editor of the Detroit Free Press. “The war is a moment for her."

While he admires Weiss’s willingness to take on the media establishment, Bhatia said he sometimes cringes when he sees work from Free Press that comes across as “advocacy or underreporting in the form of journalism."

The Free Press is still a small business, with $5 million in revenue expected this year, the bulk of it from subscriptions. The site isn’t profitable.

Advertising accounts for about one-third of Free Press’s revenue. “We don’t ever want to be beholden to the whims of advertisers, who, as you know, are consistently concerned about content that can seem political or provocative or controversial," Weiss said.

Free Press is among the outlets on Substack’s platform that have grown substantially since early October. Peter Beinart, an author and professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York who has been critical of U.S. policy toward Israel and sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians, has also grown his newsletter and media platform, according to people familiar with the matter.

Weiss, 39 years old, grew up in Pittsburgh and attended Columbia University. She later worked for various publications aimed at Jewish audiences, including Haaretz, the Forward and Tablet.

She said she is a registered independent who, like other “politically homeless" people, is unrepresented by the two main U.S. parties. After four years at the Journal, where she was an op-ed and book review editor, Weiss left in 2017, frustrated that the opinion page wasn’t taking a tougher stance on Donald Trump. At the New York Times, which she joined that year, Weiss says she was cast as a right-winger.

In her open letter of resignation from the New York Times in 2020, which was addressed to publisher A.G. Sulzberger and circulated on social media, Weiss described a culture of intolerance, saying that she was “the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views." The Times said at the time that it was committed to fostering a healthy work environment.

Before resigning, Weiss faced criticism for her comments on Twitter describing a “civil war" inside the Times “between the (mostly young) wokes" and “the (mostly 40+) liberals." One colleague called her description a “misrepresentation" and “ungenerous to colleagues."

Free Press, which now has 20 full-time staffers, reflects Weiss’s skepticism of what she views as identity politics run amok. A recent column by Weiss titled “End DEI" made the case against institutional efforts to foster diversity, equity and inclusion, arguing they are undermining America. Another piece featured “The Black Activist Trying to Save Oakland from ‘Phony’ Woke Progressives." The site also has plenty of social commentary, like an essay from author and humorist David Sedaris that takes aim at overly doting parents.

Free Press is finding success partly because it offers “a strong unfiltered voice that is not filtered by layers and layers of bureaucracy," said Jesse Jacobs, a partner at the Chernin Group, which has invested in media businesses including Barstool Sports and Hello Sunshine. “Bari has done that extraordinarily well," said Jacobs, who describes himself as a friend and informal adviser to Weiss.

Early on Oct. 7, after Weiss and her wife, Nellie Bowles, had returned home from a Shabbat dinner, Weiss’s phone blew up with messages about Hamas’s attack on Israel. Weiss immediately began commissioning stories, and the next day a number of employees converged around her kitchen table in Los Angeles to drum up ideas.

In her first column after the attack, Weiss wrote: “You are about to withstand a barrage of lies about the war that broke out today in Israel." She has penned columns about “Jew hate" on college campuses and examined the views of Gazans who don’t support Hamas. Weiss interviewed an Israeli mother whose two young sons had been taken by Hamas as hostages.

Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, a think tank, said there is a camp of Democrats in the U.S. “yearning for that unequivocally pro-Israel voice she’s providing."

Bowles, who is Free Press’s head of strategy and the writer of a paywalled column and humorous news roundup called TGIF, said she knew their reporting had struck a chord when she got notes from cousins and friends saying they were reading Free Press as their main source of news on the war.

“This was a moment when it was like, oh my God, people are relying on us," said Bowles, who also previously worked at the New York Times.

The audience for Free Press is a swath of America, from moms who home-school their children in the middle of the country to Ivy League professors, Weiss said. “For those who are just discovering us and also for those who have been with us since the beginning, we want to make sure that we’re giving them a mix of things and not just stories about the war," she said.

Going forward, Weiss’s plan is to expand in podcasts, videos and a series of events including national debates, she said. The company recently signed a two-year deal with Netflix that lets the streamer create nonfiction content using Free Press intellectual property.

Securing business partnerships hasn’t always been easy. In one case, streaming platforms declined to support the podcast series “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling," in which the “Harry Potter" author spoke about the backlash she has faced over her views on gender and sex. “It was a good lesson for us," Weiss said. The podcast has more than 12 million downloads, she said.

In the media world, big news moments tend to produce big audience gains, but holding on to readers and viewers is tough, as many publishers and cable networks discovered when the “bump" of the Trump presidency faded.

Weiss isn’t concerned about the Free Press suffering the same fate. “I have really come to believe that we need new institutions in this country, and I am learning how unbelievably hard it is to build one of them," she said.

Write to Alexandra Bruell at alexandra.bruell@wsj.com

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