Pageview Journalism

I recently read “Trust Me, I’m Lying”, where Ryan Holiday talks about how he would trick the media into covering stories about products he’s trying to sell. It generally took the form of “exclusives”, “leaked” documents, and attempts to manufacture outrage. By manufacturing outrage, people would talk about the product, which made it visible to people who wouldn’t have known about it otherwise. For example, he worked with Tucker Max (author of “I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell”). He’d pay for billboards advertising the movie, then vandalize the billboards, take a picture of the vandalized billboard and pass it on (anonymously) to bloggers who’d write about it. He’d show up to feminist groups on college campuses, tell them about what a terrible misogynist Tucker Max was, and get them to organize a protest – which would only draw attention to the Tucker Max book and movie. He currently works as marketing director for American Apparel (what? you thought all the bad publicity American Apparel gets is unintentional?).

In one section of the book, he talks about pageview journalism. This is a form of journalism that is directed by pageviews (i.e. as many readers as possible). Pageviews, in turn, result in getting ad-revenue because the more readers you can get on your website, the more money you can make from advertisements. In short: more readers = more money. On the flipside, the websites employ bloggers to produce stories and have even started paying them based on the pageviews of those stories. These bloggers often get very little money, but they can increase their income if they can pull readers.

This leads to a perverse set of incentives. Writing a nuanced, informative, truthful article is inferior to writing a dishonest, anger-causing article. It creates a great opportunity for yellow journalism and celebrity gossip. It also favors being the first (or one of the first) to write about the story, rather than waiting for the facts or even verifying the facts.

Yellow journalism, or the yellow press, is a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers. Techniques may include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism. (Wikipedia)

For example, he talks about how one writer at Jezebel (a website that panders to feminists) manufactured a story about how the Daily Show has a sexist hiring policy that discriminates against women. Ingredients: a well-loved liberal TV show + accusations of sexism = pageviews. It’s clear that she made little or no effort to verify the story. The female employees of the Daily Show wrote a rebuttal of the claim, but it took several days to get their response out (and received a fraction of the pageviews). She went on to dig her heels in and increase her pageviews with articles like “5 Unconvincing Excuses For Daily Show Sexism”. The Jezebel author, rather than being embarrassed by her poor journalism went on to pretend that she was right all along, got massive pageviews (as outraged women linked to the article and shared it on Facebook and other social media), got paid for her pageviews, established a “fact” in the public consciousness that the Daily Show is sexist, and went on to greater fame (even being named in Forbes magazine’s “30 under 30” – i.e. 30 super successful people under 30 years old). Conclusion: if you play carefully, lies can be extremely profitable in both the short-term and the long-term for your career. Writing false information also gives you the benefit of being “first”.

Anyway, I couldn’t help but think that all this recent attention being paid to Abercrombie and Fitch’ CEO is just pageview journalism. Back in 2006 (yes, over seven years ago) he did an interview for Salon article saying:

As far as Jeffries is concerned, America’s unattractive, overweight or otherwise undesirable teens can shop elsewhere. “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he told the site. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either,” he told Salon.

Lately, the internet has been writing plenty of articles about it. I’ve seen the story posted several times on Facebook already (which is like gold treasure for bloggers – not only did you get someone concerned enough about it to post it to facebook, but now their friends are being driven to your site for more pageviews). For example:

Elite Daily: Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Explains Why He Hates Fat Chicks

According to this popular teen clothing retailer, fat chicks will just never be a part of the “in” crowd… One might wonder why Mike Jeffries only wants to be in the company of good-looking people. That curiosity will end after seeing what this freak looks like. After seeing a picture of Mike Jeffries, it can only be concluded that he was never around good-looking people as a kid and is now making up for the glamorous youth he wishes he had. Is Mike Jeffries the worst CEO in the world? Here are the 13 most ridiculous things that Abercrombie’s CEO has ever said.

My own take on the situation is that he’s trying to increase the brand’s image by not selling clothes to larger people. The CEO wants his brand to be associated with good-looking people in the “in crowd” because that will make his brand look like a premium brand – and that means they can charge more money for it. This is the same reason that companies hire beautiful models or famous actors/musicians/athletes to pose with their products – so that the “coolness” of the person will be associated with the product. This is the same reason companies give away products to celebrities – in hopes that someone will photograph them wearing it, and increase the reputation of the brand. I not as offended by the “exclusionary” practices of A&F to increase it’s image, it’s suggestion that heavier people are (on average) less attractive, or it’s attempt to avoid having less attractive people associated with its brand. I can understand if this is an emotional trigger for some people though (particularly people who were ostracized for their weight in school). Certainly his results have been quite good – a quote from the same Salon article:

A&F’s earnings have nonetheless increased for 52 straight quarters, excluding a one-time charge in 2004. “To me it’s the most amazing record that exists in U.S. retailing, period,” says A.G. Edwards analyst Robert Buchanan. As his A&F brand has reached iconic status, Jeffries has raised prices, only to find that the brand’s loyal fans will gladly pay whatever he asks. Total sales for November 2005 increased 34 percent over the year before, more than five times the gain made by A&F’s main competitor, American Eagle. And while many retailers struggled during the Christmas season, Abercrombie thrived — it scored year-over-year gains of 29 percent in December, compared to 1.5 percent for other specialty retail stores.

As far as I can tell, the ingredients of this story are:
(1) An seven-year-old story that can be given new life.
(2) A blogger looking for things to write about that can get pageviews. (I looked up this particular blogger’s articles, and he’s writing 9-12 articles a day for EliteDaily. This means he’s probably spending 45 minutes per article, which certainly doesn’t lend itself to careful consideration. It actually looks more like a factory conveyor belt of “news” production.)
(3) A headline that screams for attention (the CEO didn’t say he “hated fat chicks”, though yellow journalism has every reason to make that claim). I couldn’t help but wonder if the blogger also thinks the CEO “hates fat chicks” because all of A&F advertisements feature hot, young, mostly shirtless models.
(4) The blogger has a clear incentive to make the story as scandalous as possible, including putting words in the CEO’s mouth to make his words appear as nasty as possible, and then writing a diatribe against him to satisfy the reader’s desire for “justice”.

The whole story just seems like a non-important story of scandal and drama to lure readers. (That’s the sound of thousands of blogs cashing in on it.)

What are the dangers of pageview journalism?

– Journalism that is focused on finding or creating scandal and generating anger (thus keeping the public distracted), rather than paying attention to more important things.
– Journalism that panders to a specific demographic and gives them stories that will outrage them (because anger helps things go viral). This can result in a divided media landscape where each group is constantly reminded of ways they are victimized, leading to unwillingness to hear anyone else. For example, if you’re a conservative visiting conservative websites, you’ll be constantly reminded how conservatives are attacked and victimized. If you’re a feminist visiting feminist websites, you’ll be constantly reminded how feminists and women are attacked and victimized. This leads to a situation where both feel more victimized than anyone else while feeling the other-side is evil, resulting in an unwillingness to compromise.
– Dishonest journalism that accuses people or organizations of bad behavior, ruining their reputations, even if the accusations aren’t true.
– Little or no fact checking, a willingness to use anonymous sources because: getting first to publish is important and getting the facts can ruin a perfectly good story. The use of anonymous sources also adds to the ability of media manipulators (people with products to sell or political ideologies to advance) to direct the news.
– If played well, instead of getting punished for publishing false information, bloggers can actually earn money and fame through these underhanded techniques.

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