Why hiring Benny Johnson is a smart play for National Review

The serial plagiarist could help the rightwing magazine go viral in a crowded conservative market

It comes as no surprise that National Review hired Benny Johnson, BuzzFeed’s former viral politics editor who was fired in late July for 41 instances of plagiarism. Like so many of the conservative magazine’s mainstream counterparts, National Review is fighting for a share of an increasingly crowded online market. And Johnson gives it an immediate advantage in that arena, despite the considerable baggage he carries. 

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National Review editor Rich Lowry announced Johnson’s hire this weekend through Politico Playbook, a morning tipsheet read religiously by Beltway insiders. “Benny made a terrible mistake,” Lowry said. “But he has owned up to it and learned from it.” Johnson will take his talents to the outlet as its social media director, a newly created position. Lowry and Johnson did not respond to CJR’s requests for comment. And the magazine hasn’t given any additional statements or interviews on the hire. As Politico’s Mike Allen bullishly described it, however, Johnson “has a real shot at notably moving the needle for NR.”

Indeed. Despite a hyperactive online audience — a trait common in partisan media — National Review has yet to harness the full power of the social Web to reach readers outside its highbrow, aging conservative silo. Its website attracts about 2.5 million unique visitors a month, fewer than several more digitally nimble, though less prestigious, rightwing competitors. Johnson, known for reaching peak BuzzFeed with posts such as “The Story of Egypt’s Revolution In ‘Jurassic Park’ GIFs,” brings with him the viral sensibilities necessary to help change that status quo.

The hire comes at an ideal time for National Review, as Washington lawmakers resume a final sprint to the midterm elections in early November. Nearly a year ago, the magazine reveled in near-universal plaudits for its coverage of the government shutdown, trading its usual fare of arms-length analysis for play-by-play scoops from inside the Republican Party. But that stable of political reporters has long since dissolved. And their departures left the outlet searching for a new edge over its conservative counterparts.

Hiring a serial plagiarist, of course, raises glaring questions as to how serious National Review takes the theft of others’ work. The move holds the potential to tarnish the 59-year-old magazine’s reputation.

But the price National Review will pay appears to be insignificant, overall. Though a number of journalists expressed derision at the hire, still more, including several BuzzFeed staffers, praised it. Conservatives were especially laudatory of Johnson, a onetime College Republican who has worked for Breitbart.com and The Blaze, both popular rightwing websites.

Regardless of the reaction, at National Review Johnson will likely combine his penchant for clickbait with the magazine’s traditionally wonky commentary and analysis. That could be a formidable combination in the rightwing press, where upstart websites in recent years have quickly become household names in conservative circles: Townhall, Daily Caller, Independent Journal Review, and many more. Such outlets have gained traction with inexpensive, often irreverent content, translating their audiences’ distrust of mainstream media into millions of clicks.

In this sense, the august National Review is playing catchup. And Johnson’s hire is a low-risk, potentially high-reward bid to shrink that gap. If his personal history is any indication, he has the viral know-how that the conservative news outlet needs. But that same history likewise calls for intense scrutiny of anything he touches — be it from his new editors or anonymous media watchers online.

Johnson deserves that surveillance. Let’s hope he deserves this second chance as well. 

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti. Tags: , ,