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March 22, 2022, 2:55 p.m.
Business Models

Black Rifle Coffee has a reputation. Its military news site is aiming for something different.

“I want to swing above our weight class. I want us to be able to cover and do more than we should be able to do.”

Where do you expect to get on-the-ground reporting from Ukraine?

Probably not from a website run by a coffee company. But Coffee Or Die Magazine, a military news site and print magazine owned by the Black Rifle Coffee Company, has a Ukraine-based senior editor, Nolan Peterson, and a contributing writer, Jariko Denman, filing regular dispatches from Kyiv and Mykolaiv. Peterson, a former U.S. Air Force special operations pilot (we wrote about him previously here, when he was the first U.S. journalist to embed with the Ukrainian army) works with a team of 20 other full-time staffers to provide daily news for people in the military, veterans, and first responders.

“Black Rifle Coffee has a reputation, depending on what circles you’re in,” said Marty Skovlund, Jr., Coffee or Die executive editor, who served in the U.S. Army for eight years before becoming a writer and reporter. This past Monday, he returned from a two-week reporting trip to Ukraine. “For me to come in and say, yeah, I’m going to start this news outlet that strives for objectivity? There was some skepticism.”

Black Rifle Coffee is a veteran-owned company that, per its tagline, “serves coffee and culture to people who love America.” It was profiled in The New York Times Magazine last year as the “Starbucks of the right”; its brand was “a recurring feature in footage of last summer’s anti-lockdown and anti-Black Lives Matter demonstrations in various states” and at the January 6 U.S. Capitol attack. It’s endorsed by Sean Hannity, who has his own medium roast collection and praised by Donald Trump Jr. (“How do you build a cool, kind of irreverent, pro-Second Amendment, pro-America brand in the MAGA era without doubling down on the MAGA movement and also not being called a [expletive] RINO by the MAGA guys?” Black Rifle founder and CEO Evan Hafer, who served in the U.S. Army Special Forces for over a decade, mused to the Times Magazine’s Jason Zengerle, going on to say, “I hate racist, Proud Boy-ish people. Like, I’ll pay them to leave my customer base.”)

But Coffee or Die is focused on the journalism. Skovlund was writing for the military news site Task & Purpose and had known Hafer for years. When Hafer told him that he wanted to launch some sort of media entity, perhaps a company blog, Skovlund pitched a fully fledged news site instead. It launched in 2018; Coffee or Die’s quarterly print magazine published its first issue last July.

Skovlund feels his mission is clear. “We are always going to be the ones that are putting people on the ground in matters that matter to [readers],” he said. Half of Coffee or Die’s 21 full-time employees are veterans or first responders. “One guy [Mac Caltrider] is a former Marine who went to the Baltimore PD and then left there to come write us and is now one of our staff writers.”

While Black Rifle Coffee is based in San Antonio and Salt Lake City, Coffee or Die staffers are scattered around the U.S. (or, in Peterson’s case, in Kyiv). “I want to swing above our weight class,” Skovlund said. “I want us to be able to cover and do more than we should be able to do. One of the ways we can do that is by having people spread out. In 2020, during the protests and civil rights crisis, we had people on the ground in Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis. We weren’t the only ones there, but we were the ones [our readers] maybe trusted more. Our readers know, ‘This person was in the army like me,’ or ‘This person was in the Marines like me.'”

Coffee or Die aims to run at least five stories on its website on weekdays, Katie McCarthy, the site’s Indiana-based managing editor, who was formerly the managing editor of Guns and Ammo’s special-interest publications and a reporter for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, told me. (Between February 24 and February 25, 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Coffee or Die published 23 stories, including three from Kyiv.) Stories are published across four verticals — military, intel, first responders, and culture — and longer feature stories (like “What did we leave behind when we left Afghanistan?” and “Exclusive front-line report: Modern trench warfare in Ukraine“) are highlighted in a separate section. “We try to have a good mix between relevant, newsy information as well as some evergreen stuff, like, profiles about significant people or businesses within [the] military/veteran/first responder community,” McCarthy said. Perhaps due in part to the Ukraine coverage, the site is averaging 2.1 million pageviews per month in 2022, and its daily newsletter goes to 12,670 email inboxes.

On March 17, for instance, Coffee or Die ran five stories: “‘Servant of the People,’ starring Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, returns to Netflix,” “Seeking public reports, Ukraine launches war crimes database,” “Tragic station house accident, heart attack kill 2 firefighters,” “Dispatch: Life carries on in wartime Kyiv,” and “Special operators break down the switchblade drones headed to Ukraine.” The Coffee or Die YouTube channel also has frequent video dispatches from Ukraine, where one YouTube commenter wrote: “If someone would have told me 5 years ago that I would be watching a news report of a war in Europe from a coffee company I would have told them to go see their doctor about their medication levels. You guys are the best. Honest and unbiased news and outstanding coffee. Stay frosty.” Another: “A coffee company’s newsletter has become what Vice news was a decade ago, which is the duty the main stream media abandoned before that. *sips coffee* Well done, guys.”)

Ethan Rocke is senior editor of the site’s culture vertical, overseeing three staff writers. He spent 10 years on active duty, working for command newspapers and other official military publications, then finished his undergraduate degree and got a Master’s degree in multimedia journalism at the University of Oregon. He’s the coauthor of The Last Punisher: A SEAL Team THREE Sniper’s True Account of the Battle of Ramadi.

“There’s this kinda simplistic binary in the veteran community that you’re either a bro-vet or a woke vet,” Rocke said. “I’m sure a lot of people would classify me in the woke vet category. One of those dudes who’s overeducated and full of book learning, leans left politically, that kind of thing.”

Black Rifle, on the other hand, he said, is definitely a “bro-vet coffee company.” (Per the military streaming service Vet TV, the definition of a bro-vet: “A veteran who lets everybody know he’s a vet. His attire usually consists of Gruntstyle t-shirts, cargo pants, combat boots, and a high fade. Usually, an asshole who complains his whole enlistment, gets out, then tells people to thank him for his military service.”)

Coffee or Die, he believes, has the potential to bring the bro vets and woke vets together. “I’m very interested in being that place that, when we’re writing straight news, we’re not trying to bias the reader one way or another, though we are making some value judgments by virtue of what we choose to report on,” he said. “We try to find those things that more left-leaning or right-leaning outlets might avoid, or would have a hard time serving to their audience.”

For instance, the site covered George Floyd’s murder by police and the protests that followed. The stories I read were generally straightforward, though not surprisingly they were more focused on police (“National police shortage accelerates amid civil unrest,” “Two LAPD veterans on police reform and what needs to change,” “Some police are taking a knee with protestors — here’s why“).

Rocke spent a weekend reporting from inside the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone) in Seattle. Here’s how his article begins:

I had seen the Fox News report June 10: “Seattle helpless as armed guards patrol anarchists’ ‘autonomous zone,’ shake down businesses.” Above the headline, superimposed on a banner image of a protester running past burning cars and buildings, was the all-caps label: CRAZY TOWN.

Fox News later admitted the image was an Associated Press photo taken May 30 in St. Paul, Minnesota. And also they Photoshopped several wire-service photos together, mashing up images of an armored, AR-15-carrying leftist with more chaotic scenes. Apparently, sometimes you accidentally manipulate wire photos to support a particular narrative. […]

Four days after protesters took over Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct and established an “autonomous zone” in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, I drove up to see for myself what was happening there.

“There are certainly things that a good chunk of our audience is not going to want to see,” Rocke said. “I personally always try to push the envelope a little bit there.”

Black Rifle Coffee went public last month and plans to reorganize as a public-benefit corporation. The Washington Post noted recently that “Black Rifle Coffee Co. mugs litter the living quarters” of a Ukrainian sniper unit.

Coffee or Die will keep focusing on the journalism, Skovlund said. The quarterly print magazine, which has 2,000 subscribers paying $11.99 per issue, includes a couple of stories about coffee, but the most recent 132-page winter edition included just a few pages of ads. Coffee or Die’s website has no advertising other than a couple of banners for Black Rifle products.

“Nobody is calling me from the company and saying we need to sell more coffee,” Skovlund said. “We are doing something that I don’t think there’s necessarily a playbook for.”

Screenshot from a Coffee or Die dispatch from Ukraine in February.

POSTED     March 22, 2022, 2:55 p.m.
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