Grave Diggings

Like moths to incandescence, journalism’s implosion has been accompanied by the fluttering of endless media-theorizing gadflies, each advancing some pet thesis about the demise of the profession. They would do well to heed the clever Montaigne quote opening the latest n+1 editorial, on the fate of magazines, “just because an industry is dying does not make it something else.” Well, it turns out that old Monty said no such thing – irony of ironies, the quote is apocryphal – but the sentiment is sound. The journalistic enterprise ekes onward. In the meantime, as traditional media platforms continue their cinderblock-in-a-Maytag routine, those few outlets that have triumphed commercially have been emboldened, with places like the Huffington Post holding forth, convincingly, on matters of journalistic ethics.

Last week, a Tumblr post managed to get Felix Salmon and others on the media-criticism circuit going about Maria Popova and her use of affiliate advertising on Brain Pickings. Popova, who in recent months has been the subject of reverent interview-profiles in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and Mother Jones, calls herself a “curator” but has also been an outspoken critic of the relationship between advertising and journalism. The interview that provoked the Tumblr screed had Popova quoted as follows on the topic of advertising:

It doesn't put the reader's best interests first – it turns them into a sellable eyeball, and sells that to advertisers. As soon as you begin to treat your stakeholder as a bargaining chip, you're not interested in broadening their intellectual horizons or bettering their life. I don't believe in this model of making people into currency. You become accountable to advertisers, rather than your reader.

The claim is a bit of buzzword minestrone, but it raises a worthwhile question: does digital advertising make journalists more or less beholden to outside interests than print ads? And how does this argument fit into the way Popova has monetized her own highly popular books-and-culture outlet?

As we will demonstrate, the answer to the latter informs the former, and we catch Popova in continued flagrante with lucrative affiliate arrangements with two vendors other than Amazon, the sole focus of the criticism so far. In fact, she appears to have monetized her “library of cross-disciplinary interestingness” in nearly every conceivable way.

But first, enter Tom Bleymaier, author of the original 3300-word salvo posted on a one-off Tumblr account called “On Advertising.” The piece follows up on an email exchange he had with Ms. Popova after she published this article in The Atlantic, wherein he pointed out that her own site, contrary to her claims, was hardly free of such conflicts. More specifically, he took issue with Popova’s journalistic ethics criticism in light of her then-undisclosed use of Amazon Affiliate links while requesting funds from readers as “donations” for keeping the site “ad-free.”

After a series of calculations, Bleymaier concludes that Popova’s rejection of banner ads is just a smart business decision, as it compels users to further engage with her site, thus making them more likely to “convert” into highly lucrative Amazon Affiliate buyers. He estimates that she has grossed at least $1 million from Amazon since the inception of her site (or, at present readership levels, $432k annually) and argues that this makes her request for reader funds dishonest -- and her media criticism hypocritical. In a rambling and defensively personal email appended to Felix Salmon’s first blog post on the topic, Popova contested Bleymaier’s math, albeit in vague terms: “If Amazon gave me even a tenth of that a year after Uncle Sam takes his fair share, I’d be delighted. Delighted!”

* * * * *

It’s obvious that Bleymaier hit a nerve, although the initial anonymity of his post did his argument no favors. Felix Salmon’s follow-up also disappointingly shrugged around Bleymaier’s revenue estimates, a strange omission for someone repeatedly claiming expertise on online advertising models. Quoth the guy who uses phrases like “content economics” in post titles: “If Brain Pickings were written by Bill Gates, for instance, rather than Maria Popova, it’s hard to imagine that many people would place $10 per month in his tip jar.”

Where the Salmon sideshow really gets going is his follow-up post, which ran 1400 words and advanced a bizarre, sexist theory that Popova’s support is due to some female “sisterhood” of positivity on the Internet. He apologized for it a few days later, but the damage was done – instead of dismantling Popova’s deeply shady business model, Salmon was on the defensive, whatever credibility he may have possessed rightly shot, and the only mainstream outlet challenging the Brain Pickings hype machine was neutralized.

Despite all the scrutiny directed at Brain Pickings since Bleymaier’s post, and the changes Maria Popova has implemented since, there are two additional affiliate relationships with vendors that haven’t been “discovered” and that Maria Popova continues to leave undisclosed, even after adding language to her site acknowledging the Amazon program. This is a material omission, since these programs have the potential for substantial cash and in-kind payouts for services she continues to cite as out-of-pocket expenses. Not to mention a violation of the FTC statute that makes her disclose the exact same relationship with Amazon. An "accounting" slide from Popova's O'Reilly presentation.

Here, now, let’s take full stock of how Brain Pickings is additionally monetized:

(1) Brain Pickings carries clickable logo ads for Media Temple (at the site footer) and MailChimp (on the newsletter sign-up page). Media Temple pays out between $80 and $230 per referral from her site, as measured by plans purchased within 45 days of clicking on her banner (this is measured via a tracking cookie). At 3.6 million pageviews monthly, a conversion rate of 0.001% (well below Bleymaier’s 0.1% assumption and other benchmarks) puts Popova at $2,879+ from Media Temple alone. MailChimp doesn’t pay out cash, but offers an account credit of $30 per referral.

(2) Media Temple’s terms of service require the same FTC disclosure clause that Popova placed for Amazon. She has also given a long interview to Media Temple about her “non-profit” site, where she says of their services: “It’s been seamless and all kinds of wonderful. I’m thrilled to be a part of the family, and thank you guys for taking such good care of me – big love.” 

(3) In addition to Google Analytics, Brain Picking drops a third-party Quantcast cookie on all users, which is then able to measure Popova’s audience demographics and behavior. Although this is useful in touting the attributes of her highly affluent audience for commercial purposes, it’s unlikely that she draws any revenues from Quantcast directly. Andrew Sullivan, who she cites admiringly, also measures his audience with Quantcast, but discloses the site’s use of third-party cookies in his privacy policy.

* * * * *

Maria Popova doesn’t claim to be a journalist, and she has every right to monetize her site how she sees fit. The web is saturated with high-profile bloggers and “curators” shilling a bevy of lifestyle and fashion trappings (and it's not all bad -- Felix Salmon correctly points to the Wirecutter as a good example of this model). There is nothing wrong with a blog about books and culture that follows a few of the same strategies for making money. But, as others have pointed out, Popova goes to great lengths to both obfuscate her affiliate relationships and, in asking for “donations,” make her project seem something else altogether – a “non-profit” endeavor, a service akin to a “public library” or “public radio.” And unlike her previous, unabashedly opportunistic affiliate marketing properties, she picked a .ORG suffix for Brain Pickings, further bolstering the project's intended image.

Which is too bad, because Popova wants people to think hard about how they fund content online, and she writes and speaks about it regularly. She knows that nobody will “subscribe” to a blog whose original content amounts to a few sentences sandwiched between massive block-quotes, no matter how great her taste is. The message implies the business model, so what should be subscriptions are dressed up as “donations” to a likeable bookworm, and no one suspects that such work is in fact quite profitable.

Rather than serving as a model for a greater and more sustainable media future, what we learn from Popova is that one individual producing content online has to lie and obfuscate to squeeze a liveable revenue from their audience. When in a talk last week she dropped a j'accuse on the New York Times for getting one of their ad servers hacked, it was a non sequitur presented as argumentative punchline, and perfectly illustrative of her duck-and-cover approach.

By so muddling the question at hand – and failing the legal and ethical test of owning up to her advertising model, Popova paints herself into a difficult corner. She fires ethics potshots so gratuitous and vapid one can’t tell if she’s addicted to speaking fees or simply daring the rest of us to catch her, waiting for the moment when she’s conclusively exposed as a fraud on matters of advertising ethics, journalistic or otherwise. As she asked in the same talk discussed above, “How do we provide alternatives to ad supported journalism and media?” Her behavior implies a second question, to which she has now conceded the answer: it depends on what the meaning of the word “ad” is.


Mostafa Heddaya

Follow us on Twitter | Facebook | Subscribe by e-mail