I tried to imagine a fella smarter than myself. Then I tried to think, “what would he do?”
So someone who works for a magazine that was profitable for decades solely due to subscription stuffing done by cutout intermediaries noticed that publishers try to game the numbers. I can’t properly qualify that claim — it was told to me at least ten years ago by some publishing industry wonk about a practice ten years older than that; so the surety with which this claim is presented is inherited, but the gist is that in a given year, prior to the Internet and Wasserstein largess, New York Magazine made the bulk of its advertising revenue on the back of the ‘Best Of’ issues, the cornerstone of which was the ‘Best Doctors in New York’, which was as hefty as a small market yellow pages, and the numbers that juiced those page rates was realized by shoveling piles of free issues into every medical office in the five boroughs and then claiming huge pass along rates as a consequence (if you squint closely, that’s curiously circuitous).
It’s odd to see anyone responding with a canned tres scandale stance to any of this. Wanamaker’s famous (though probably undershot) observation that he didn’t know which half of his spend was futile is now almost a century old, and we are all now thoroughly experts on the process thanks to Mad Men. It’s even more curious to see anyone who makes a living writing for an ad-supported publication (and let’s be clear: 99% of all the people who have ever made it to retirement age toiling under the rubric of journalist did so only because advertising exists and literally no other reason) either wave their hands at the machinations that keep this charade in motion (Wire and Plastic Products billings in 2017: $71 Billion) or start attacking the patent absurdity of the entire endeavor. Because, friends of quality content, that path leads at best to madness, or worst, to vaporous dreams of Bed-Stuy brownstone down payments drifting ever off into the distance as you grit your teeth and file another daily dose of snark hoping for that long-awaited Vice IPO.
The whiff of desperation that isn’t fueled by the growing panic that Jonah Peretti isn’t good at producing value for anything other than his own bank account is maybe driven by the metrics verified truth that if all this useless yammering isn’t going to result in a craven personal windfall, then perhaps the backstop notion of influence is likewise as fleeting.
Because I was a poor growing up, one distraction I undertook while just taking jobs to pay the rent for myself and those depending on me and lamenting that I could never see a path towards an Eyebeam residency (yeah, I know) was to dig as much as I could into the backgrounds of those who just seemed to float along on an inevitable upward trajectory while not seeming to be, you know, much more talented? To basically measure whether or not it made sense to shirk my self-imposed responsibilities for art, or early stage options.
This probably started around the time I read an interview with Victor Nunez in the Voice (max circulation: 250,000 – when it was free, the only legit source for apartments in NYC, and widely available to a population of probably 5,000,000) about how and why he made Ruby in Paradise. The upshot (as best I can recall) is that he was mired in debt and teaching film in Florida after his generally well received debut A Flash of Green was snookered at Sundance by Blood Simple (back when film only had room for one or two independent films at most) and came into an unexpected windfall in the form of an inheritance of about $120K. His wife asked him what he intended to do — the sum was enough to retire his earlier debt — and his stance was basically ‘I would not consider myself a self-respecting filmmaker if I didn’t plow the money back into my career’ and made his second film to decent acclaim, and, uh, modest box office success.
I never plied my trade as a ‘pro blogger’ (aside from the fact that I probably couldn’t hack it) because I never met anyone making better money than me being a hack designer. And I kept watching those numbers. It’s amazing when you see the reality facing people you admire so dramatically. I’ve been a fan of John Banville since I read an excerpt of The Book of Evidence in the Paris Review (which also contained an short story from Padgett Powell, another fave — it’s convenient when our personal cultural history is so neatly encapsulated innit?), and I remember seeing a note about how his Booker win didn’t provide the expected bounce; something to the effect that he had sold maybe 3,000 copies hardback before and about three times that after. I was aghast (and it turns out, wrongly so). This was after I had sustained a minor, irrelevant blog that after I had given up on the raw log data showing 40K hits in an given week for some ostensible real metrics (shout out to 2004 era MT installs!) that proved that on a good day I got 2,000 readers. I was bigger than my hero!
These are real numbers, unlike what you will read in the New York piece, or in any of the follow-on takes and counter-takes. People will talk about comScore and Chartbeat and Google Analytics — and here is the rub — while never telling you what their audience is (either assumed or proved). This is significant. Sure, programmatic ad networks being gamed is interesting, but the numbers behind the down round at Mashable, Mic being sold for spare change, hairshirting for the shuttering of The Awl (who had a business plan that comprised mainly of bragging that their launch would be covered extensively in the New York Times, which: true, but also: so?), none of these were ever accompanied by any real facts, aside from the open joking about the fact that The Awl used to auto-reload their page to juice the numbers.
McSweeney’s turned the twee lit mag world upside when they were publishing 20,000 copies. Surely hipster endorsed media the next level up commands more eyeballs? Maybe. The last episode of the amazing (a claim offered with zero irony) Party Down had a 0.0 share — that’s 74,000 viewers if we are to trust the decades-old scam courtesy the Neilsen organization. They were so desperate they sent Lizzy Caplan to Jimmy Kimmel and told her to flat out admit this by sharing: “If you had actually seen it, the number of people in this room would actually double our ratings.”
‘Art’ or any ‘art that matters’ has always had a tiny, tiny audience. If you can get 150 people to show up to your thing, no matter what it is, or where you stage it, you should go home and fall asleep thrilled. And you have good cause to, because it’s a hard fucking thing to do. What it won’t do is pay your bills. I don’t know that it should? But the panic that seeps in around the edge of the fake metrics conversation isn’t relevant to you: the charlatans who preen about ad/editorial firewalls are just hucksters in the most classic sense, hoping to scrabble far enough along to grasp their ill gotten (and likewise unprofitable) book or production deals (please god, cast upon us an arid and unending drought in the form of Netflix cash so that I can be spared Tinyletter musings about Westside traffic) before fleeing the ever sinking ship of ad-supported content.
Featured image via the inimitable Art F City