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Masterbitch Theater: Profiting From Tragedy

I was torn about what we should talk about in today’s Masterbitch Theater. At first, we were going to talk gun control. Then, I considered talking about the state of mental health care in the U.S. Finally, however, I landed on something else entirely. 

Don’t get me wrong, gun control and mental health are great topics, and we may come back to them in future installments. What I’d like to talk about today is Internet publisher responsibility, with a specific focus on how some sites use tragedies to create profit. (You’ll note there are no ads on this page.)

Gawker.com, not even Gawker Media as a whole, just that one site, has run over fifty articles with the tag “Sandy Hook Shooting.” The posts have between 10k and over 100k views each. I’m not certain how Gawker makes its advertising money, but most websites are paid by impressions and clicks. P-Mag, for example, makes roughly one dollar for every 1,000 unique people who view an ad and a little less than a dollar per ad click through Google ads. We can charge up to $80 per week for a sidebar ad above the fold, through our main ad service outside of Google. We’re much, much smaller than the Gawker sites, so it’s safe to assume they can make substantially more money per impression and per click, but it’s likely they sell ads at a flat rate, depending on the site’s traffic at the time. Let’s do some speculative math, shall we?

Let’s average the pageviews to 25k per post, and round down to fifty posts total. 25,000 x 50 = 1,250,000 pageviews. If they made P-Mag Google ad money, that would be roughly $1,250.00. Since Gawker sites claim to get as many pageviews in a day as we get in a year, it’s safe to assume advertisers are paying top dollar for real estate on the Gawker sites.

PerezHilton.com, which uses the same ad service we use (BlogAds) can charge $4,000 per week to place an above-the-fold sidebar ad, and Perez gets a fraction of the traffic Gawker gets. (And we get a fraction of what Perez gets. Goddamnit.)

PerezHilton.com advertising rates for a 160x200 sidebar ad running for one week.
PerezHilton.com advertising rates for a 160×200 sidebar ad running for one week.

My issue isn’t with making money off of online content–running a quality website isn’t free. Hosting a site on a dedicated server (or farms of dedicated servers, like larger sites do) costs a lot of money, tech and coding support, art, security, and writing talent (again, for larger sites, we all work for free here) cost a lot, too. I have no problem with a company making money from hard work. What I do have an issue with is sites milking big news stories and tragedies for every pageview/dollar. If kids die, Nick Denton shouldn’t get to buy a summer home from the money he made inventing shitstorms about the circumstances of their deaths. Surely it wasn’t necessary to spread the coverage of the Newtown shooting out over 50+ posts on Gawker, and upwards of 200 posts across Gawker media as a whole.

Gawker certainly isn’t the only site to wallow in smarmy opportunism: Huffington Post has hundreds of Newtown headlines. Responses to responses to responses of some of the more viral pieces to sprout up since Friday are springing up all over my news feed, from sites both large and small. Even news sites like CNN and MSNBC are dredging the bottom of the lead barrel to write about every unconfirmed, salacious detail of the shooting.

What do you think, readers? Am I over-reacting, or are Internet publishers like Ariana Huffington and Nick Denton lining their pockets by exploiting tragedy?

By [E] Selena MacIntosh*

Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.

11 replies on “Masterbitch Theater: Profiting From Tragedy”

if i see one more “i am…” article pertaining to sandy hook, I am going to lose my shit. I understand one or two. I understand that we as human beings with tiny human brains use ourselves as a mirror to relate back to the world. I really don’t have a problem with that. But every goddamn article that is coming out is an ” I am” article. I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am adam lanza’s psychiatrist. I am adam lanza. I am, I am, I am.

Can we talk about something without talking about ourselves for a minute? In a sense, this style of writing about cultural events makes it hard to not become completely worn down by people digesting and redigesting till there is nothing left (like the i am adam lanza / no you aren’t essays that came out). It also filters everything to the nth degree and makes it a pissing contest, rather than a conversation.

I have had it with “I am…” headlines. They are designed to grab pageviews under false pretenses (“Wait, is this really the shooter’s mom speaking? …Oh, no it isn’t), which is incredibly sleazy, and I just hate them anyway. “Hey, I know what–let’s use this tragedy to talk about ME.” No.

It’s really interesting to read more about how sites make a profit and well, the sites mentioned are making a profit from tragedy. I think I’d feel differently about the colossal number of articles if (some of) the profits were being donated to the various charities and foundations that have arisen around the tragedy, given that those profits have only come about because of the tragedy.

The exploitation side of tragedies is also why I tend to stick to the BBC for information during these kinds of tragedies because, whilst I pay for the service, I know the information they’re putting out there isn’t being done so to generate profits.

Yeah, I always get this vaguely icked-out feeling after something tragic happens because not only news organizations and companies, but individuals, all seems to be competing as to who can most publicize how affected they were by the tragedy. The fact that companies stand to make profit off of it just nauseates me. Plus, the constant news coverage means that about 75% of the information presented is unchecked and generally completely wrong, which means that they’re profiting off of just making shit up.

Tragedy coverage on social media is so awkward. Scrolling past hundreds of facebook posts about it gets annoying as all fuck because it almost becomes a contest to see how can be the most outraged or who can post the most poignant tribute. Sometimes those veer into really awkward territory. I absolutely understand all the parents who were posting about hugging their kids extra hard; hell, I was doing that too, but when there are parents who can’t hug their kids anymore, it feels a bit tacky to brag about it. And it’s infuriating how much misinformation spreads. Morgan Freeman didn’t say anything!! I usually just stay away from topics that are all over my feed, but then I kinda feel like an uncaring bitch because shouldn’t I say something about it?

As for other blogs and news outlets, it’s a bit tone-deaf to ignore the stories entirely, but for the love of unicorns, limit yourself to the truly necessary stories and then update them as needed rather than posting whole new articles. And for fuck’s sake, if you’re going to cross-post something maybe read the rest of their blog first so that we don’t have to get distracted by a huge clusterfuck that veers completely away from the original story!

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