Cenk Uygur’s TYT Network has raised $2 million to fund investigative reporting in the era of Donald Trump
Watch out Democrats, Cenk Uygur is coming at you from the left.
And the liberal political pundit and chief executive of the TYT Network isn’t afraid to say so. The fervent Bernie Sanders supporter is still confident making proclamations about how the Democratic Party will lose unless it goes radical. “All the nonsense about Franken, Booker or Gillibrand running, they’re all the same!” he tells Moneyish. “They’re all standard politicians with almost no chance of winning any primary.”
What Uygur has going for him is an audience willing to put their money where their mouth is. At TYT, an online politics channel, about 30,000 subscribers pay $10 a month for unabashedly left-wing news and commentary. TYT recently concluded a successful bid to crowdfund $2 million for investigative reporting teams, and over 57,000 people chipped in with an average donation of $32.90. (A previous fundraising effort for a new studio brought in $425,000, more than the targeted $250,000.)
TYT turned to viewers because it felt they wanted to get involved (though some on the left don’t think it’s appropriate for a for-profit company to do so.) “It’s not just against the corruption of the Trump administration, which we had a sense was coming, but for us to be watchers on the wall against the establishment,” he says. “Our interests are aligned with our audience.”
That’s not entirely surprising: since the election of President Donald Trump last year, organizations such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have seen subscriptions increase dramatically. But Uygur thinks he has more going than a so-called “Trump bump.” “Our effort is not just to cover the story, but to effect change,” he says. “Millennials want news outlets to make a difference. They reject a standard of neutrality.”
Since Trump’s election— which almost all mainstream news networks missed— media circles have been abuzz with worries that audiences are segregating into echo chambers that reinforce existing opinions. To Uygur’s credit, he’s never been afraid of hearing from the other side: a YouTube video of him debating alt-right commentator Dinesh D’Souza has over 300,000 views.
The 47-year-old was born in Istanbul and moved to America as a child. He studied at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia before creating “The Young Turks,” a politics talk show that was a web pioneer. Uygur raised just under $1 million from angel investors to start TYT, which relies on subscriptions and ad revenue for income. TYT also has deals to produce shows for the likes of Fusion and Verizon. “It was just to make sure our ideas get out,” he says. But in 2014, TYT crossed 1 billion views. “We realized this has the potential to be a large business,” he said. “We’ve said that the mainstream media is covering things the wrong way, so we have a responsibility.”
Uygur’s combativeness has always been evident: he was an MSNBC personality before parting with the cable network acrimoniously. But will his brashness turn away not just fellow liberals but also centrists? He is co-founder of the Justice Democrats, a group that supports progressives in primaries against establishment candidates that they see as insufficiently left-wing and beholden to special interests. These include Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia—“Corporate Joe” and donor “water boy” in Uygur’s words—who represents a state that overwhelmingly voted for Trump. (A spokesperson for Manchin, one of the Senate’s most bipartisan members, didn’t return a request for comment.)
“The whole idea of having a beer with the other side is naiveté on steroids. I feel like I’m listening to children who don’t understand politics,” says Uygur. “What’s practical is that you break them. They either lose their seat or you make them so afraid of losing that they bend to you.”
Still, in a country deeply divided along ideological lines, can he help swing enough non-progressives to his side? “Definitely,” he says. “Conservative voters respect our candidates a lot more than [those] bathed in PAC money and that’s a giant advantage. When people see an honest person, but they may disagree on issues, but feel ‘I’ve got your back.’”
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