What price page views?

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What lines are publishers willing to cross for page views? Last week's controversies involving Marie Claire's blog and Gawker.com publishing an anonymous first-person account of a three-year-old event involving Delaware U.S. Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell underscore the perils of the relentless pursuit of page views.

Gawker's salacious post on Delaware Republican Senate nominee Christine O'Donnell's private life (no link will be provided here) drew highly critical responses online and on the social networks from both conservative and liberal quarters, with everyone seemingly united in the horror of its invasiveness. Further, media journalists and even former Gawker employees got into the act, universally criticizing everything from the inherent crassness of it all to the ethics of paying in the low four figures for the post.

The "lapse" is clearly intentional and was even encouraged by its publisher, Nick Denton. Denton all but declared victory in his memo to staffers last week:

"This Gawker scoop is an example of brilliant packaging. The composite image that shows up on the front is good; the pull quotes; etc.

"But, best of all: the story was written in the first person. The journalist is a ghost-writer. The account is much more compelling as a result. As is the headline."

Advertisers and readers of Gawker Media know very well what they are getting from such sites: gossip and private details about public figures. And -- bottom line -- the O'Donnell post, repellant though it is, has garnered over 1.1 million page views since last week. Success?

Marie Claire's lapse may, in retrospect, have been one of editorial oversight -- or at least a certain naivete at where the relentless pursuit of page views with controversy may lead. Marie Claire EIC Joanna Coles said she hadn't read the offending post from contributing blogger Maura Kelly beforehand. In their response to the backlash, Marie Claire acknowledged that Kelly, who has since been asked not to speak to the press, was "a very provocative blogger."

Writer Megan Carpentier, formerly of Wonkette when it was a part of Gawker Media, notes by way of contrast that Kelly's Marie Claire piece -- as opposed to the anonymous Gawker post -- was bylined. Also: "It was also more pointedly critical of overweight people (not just one woman) who, given the average size of people in this country, probably account for a significant portion of Marie Claire's readership -- especially given that the MC branding was supposed to be less typical fashion-and-beauty coverage than the average ladymag," e-mailed Carpentier. Further:

"My understanding is that Nick's memo was written before the majority of the backlash, which seeped from social media and into the mainstream media rather quickly. I'm not sure that either he or (Gawker Editor Remy Stern) saw much more than dollar signs when the article was slated for publication or when the memo was written or released; their statements since have indicated that they don't believe they'll lose net readers over the incident and, if experience is any guide, they are probably right.

"... The question that Nick seemingly often asks himself is what does he want Gawker to be and the answer he seems to normally come up with is "financially successful." Social media pushed more page views to both those articles than they otherwise would have had. Marie Claire seemingly (at least to a degree) cares what the opinions of those page views does to the brand. Not caring is kind of Gawker's stock in trade: they didn't care during the Gawker Stalker kerfluffle, they didn't care during the McSteamy not-really-sex tape and, short of it actually defying historical precedent and causing people to stop clicking on a net basis, they've no reason to care now. If they can replace offended eyeballs with eyeballs that like these stories, they don't have to care -- and they usually can."

In the short term, Gawker Media's aggressive, unapologetic pursuit of page views will probably work. In fact it already has. Gawker Media, which was visited by 17.3 million unique U.S. visitors in September, is expert at giving readers what they want: a steady helping of gossip and private details about public figures. The sites traffic statistics for the last few days bear out the unsettling fact that the O'Donnell post will significantly impact October page views. 

October has been quite the controversy-driven month for the Gawker Media family. The infamous Deadspin Brett Favre photo posted earlier last month drove more than a million page views in one day. Earlier this year, Gizmodo was getting 2 million page views a day thanks to its iPhone prototype pay-for-scoop. What does this mean for legacy media celebrity and entertainment sites that compete in the same gladiatorial fundament?

Other scrappy celebrity gossip startups like TMZ and RadarOnline similarly pursue page views with an aggression that often leaves legacy media companies, protective of their brand and their reputation, in the dust. But this may be short-term thinking on the part of the startups. In the long run, Gawker Media and the other celebrity gossip sites run the risk of brand damage, lost credibility, and advertiser backlash while in the relentless pursuit of page views and scandal. While it is hard to imagine a scenario at present in which Gawker's premium advertisers would be utterly shamed into severing their ties to the site altogether, no one will know for sure until Gawker actually crosses that invisible line.

Even Perez Hilton, famous for driving traffic to his site with adolescent name calling and salacious scoop, has distanced himself from the practices that brought him so many page views. "Would people still visit my site if I wasn’t as salacious or as Perez-cious as I used to be?" asks Hilton nee Mario Lavandeira in a recent video. "If I was less nasty or biting, would my traffic go down? Well, you know, even if it does, I don’t care. Because this is really important to me." Lavandeira says the reason is Hilton is growing up -- he's 33 -- but an argument could just as easily be made for a growing awareness of his brand reputation.

Choire Sicha, who left Gawker to cofound buzzy and respected The Awl with fellow Gawker refugee Alex Balk and David Cho, has a different take on the most recent Gawker controversy, emailing, "I'm not sure Gawker cares much about the page views in particular from this, really. But they do care about the overall growth. (Not sure how this plays into their fave metric, 'new visitors,' though.)" He continues:

"So, I actually think stuff like this is more damaging in the long term. Uh, repurposed absurd National Enquirer stories that think Jeremy Renner is gay? Who ... is not gay. (Sad for us gays.)

"Because whereas this O'Donnell thing may be a bit outlandish, at least it's honest, and likely true! Whereas rumor crap, for the steady drip drip of IV page views, isn't.

"I do also think the O'Donnell story is sort of an Evil People Magazine though, you know? It's very close to People's original mission! First person, up front, story-telling ... they should re-coopt this kind of thing. But they can't. The problem with the magazine world is they've become too dependent on the access model."

If indeed, as Choire notes, "new visitors" are Gawker Media's lodestar, then matters of brand damage, lost credibility, and advertiser backlash might not figure high in to their media strategy. Gawker, which began as a Manhattan-centric media blog, has evolved -- though some might disagree with that characterization -- into a national gossip site, and a hugely successful one at that.

There are many lessons for publishers in Gawker Media's business model: in the fresh, exciting way in which they approach some of their more buzzed-about stories, in their packaging of stories and in their much emulated design. But it is Gawker Media's relentless -- some might say amoral -- pursuit of page views through lowest common denominator fare (and the ensuing negative media impact falling on its brand reputation) that haunts their otherwise remarkable publishing success. 

What lines are you willing to cross for page views?

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