Recently, the President of CNN Worldwide Jeff Zucker sat for a wide-ranging interview with Variety, the type of in-depth feature that touches on everything from the macro strategy of the network to the small trinketry of the exec’s office (he keeps a framed Tweet of Donald Trump‘s on the wall, for the record). But it was a specific line of Zucker’s that set off a firestorm in political media, one that Variety bolded and heavily featured that inspired headlines industry-wide:
“I don’t think Vice and Buzzfeed are legitimate news organizations. They are native advertising shops. We crush both of them.”
The comment came during a discussion about the model of analytics used by the digital media powerhouses. Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith did not take the criticism lightly. He immediately responded, “I’m happy to put our tough, fair coverage up against CNN’s decision to turn its platform over to Jeff’s friend Donald Trump.”
But from the Zucker v. Smith spat spurred a curious tidbit regarding some of the quantifiable data of unique site visitors that struck us as interesting. Namely, that in the era of increased digital focus for the never-ending content generation machines, Variety directly noted:
[CNN’s] digital unit is also formidable, made stronger by the increased investment in journalists and technology. According to comScore, CNN Digital landed 116 million unique visitors in June, topping all other news outlets, including Yahoo News (100 million), BuzzFeed (78 million), and The New York Times (75 million). That same month, CNN saw 292 million video starts, more than any other news site.
It got us thinking about the dubious claims of some of the biggest names in media that tout an absurdly high unique visitors number monthly. In today’s landscape, these numbers are hardly cut and dry; rather, they often take into account a sprawling array of data that can often fudge the numerics, and make claims of veracity and success difficult to prove.
Take for example the many metrics that media companies have at their disposal today alone: domestic v. global readership, ever-shifting algorithms of traffic and search engine optimization, digital readership through social media, homepage direct traffic, video plays through social media, video “views” as the Zucker-Variety piece highlights, and newly-emerging worlds like Snapchat that, while technically a form of content generation, lacks many of the verifiable metrics. Buzzfeed and Vice are both currently among the hallowed official “Discover” channels on the platform that put out new content daily (as is CNN).
But many have questioned Buzzfeed’s value and subsequently its claims of readership after disastrously falling $80 million short of projected revenues in 2015. The flap resulted in the media giant slashing expectations for 2016, downsizing the initial projection of $500 million to exactly half that. CNN’s Dylan Byers called it “a major blow” to the company once seen as the industry’s titan, noting further, “It is also the latest evidence that the bubble surrounding fast-growth digital companies like BuzzFeed, Vice and Mashable may be approaching its limits.”
Some will try to point to the perceived idealogical bent of sites such as Buzzfeed and Vice to explain away declining readership and slashed forecasts. Breitbart Tech’s Allum Bokhari has cited an effort by Vice to actually suppress ratings data, making it infinitely more difficult to determine fact from fiction in the weedy world of analytics in the digiterati era (“The golden age of the left-wing millennial media bubble appears to be drawing to a close,” Bokhari writes). He points at Salon and Gawker too as evidence that the “absurdly left-wing” media is in a state of shambles, sifting through the wreckage of yesteryear success and attempting to save face with questionable numbers.
Undoubtedly, comScore is one of the most frequently-used sources for digital analytics. However, not everybody is convinced of the site’s accuracy and ability to take into account all contributable factors (again, remember the confounding issue: many of these statistics include a wide range of often dubious numerics, many new to the landscape). When reached for comment regarding Vice’s declining web traffic in 2016, a spokesman for the company told Variety, “Comscore doesn’t capture the entire universe of viewers consuming Vice content across all screens and platforms. Since introducing new viewership products earlier this year, overall audience size has continued to grow, with watch time at an all time high.”
On the surface, the phrase “Vice traffic” may conjure up the simplistic understanding of how many people are logging in — or being rerouted to — www.vice.com over a given month. But, as Variety’s Andrew Wallenstein indicated in March, the complexity of truth allows for the company to present data that may significantly misrepresent it’s actual readership:
The inventory that Vice makes available to media buyers is actually a combination of its own website, Vice.com, and a collection of other Web properties Vice doesn’t really own or operate, such as ModernFarmer.com and ThePlaidZebra.com. Comscore enables this arrangement by allowing one publisher to essentially sign away its audience to another publisher through a document known as a “traffic assignment” letter. These pacts are typically struck by smaller publishers lacking advertising sales infrastructure; in exchange for turning over their traffic, they can have their inventory represented by a bigger entity with better access to a wider range of marketers.
In other words, when Vice touts its monthly “readership”… it’s not. Traffic reassignment is not an illegal practice, but it’s one that has earned much scorn from an industry that is fast trying to set the rules of the game all while the game itself is rapidly becoming unrecognizable. “Vice.com actually account[s] for less than half of the traffic total the company has represented,” Wallenstein continued. And the list of partner sites — that have nothing to do with Vice’s work of angsty and hard-hitting gonzo journalism or its roots as a self-described “punk zine” — that feeds readers to Vice’s numerics include: Dose.com, Distractify.com, OMGFacts.com, SpoonUniversity.com, DangerousMinds.net, WeTransfer.com, ThePlaidZebra.com, and OVGuide.com.
One prominent marketing executive who did not want to be named for fear of alienating partners, tells Mediaite that site success is, admittedly, influenced by a variety of metrics. “Paradoxically, for an industry that is so in flux, the metrics have remained stubbornly immutable over the years,” the executive continued. The often-touted “Unique Users” metric seems to be the industry standard, but even there, problems are inherent; our source continues, “Advertisers purchase online media mostly by the impression, not by exposure or access to size of audience… the unique monthly visitors stat itself can be misleading.”
Also in consideration in this debate is traffic that is directly purchased from social media sites like Facebook that allow for sponsored content. And that lion’s share of readership can often come at a steep price for media giants like Buzzfeed. Leaked documents from 2015 indicate that Buzzfeed spent a staggering $5.9 million in six months in 2014 to buy web traffic, a fact that the media giant refused to comment on to Jordan Chariton of The Wrap in August 2015.
The digital advertising world itself is, “based on smoke and mirrors, or even outright fraud,” according to Fortune. The $14-billion industry of online ad sales is heavily plagued by “software programs designed to mimic the activities of human browsers,” or as you know them: bots. According to Fortune, as much as 60% of digital traffic is non-human which is why many advertisers are now focusing more on site engagement.
It seems as if powerhouses like Buzzfeed and Vice will continue to take advantage of muddy analytics, making it increasingly tough to tell ultimately how successful these claims of success are. Even the benchmark for veracity is ever-changing. Alexa seemed to be the industry standard for these numerics for a long time. Most sites also use Chartbeat and Quantcast to verify their real-time numbers, and clearly comScore is heavily in the fold as well. Matt Drudge of the eponymous Drudge Report often touts his record site traffic through a landing page known as Similar Web, a little-known media publishing analytics tool that is tough to come by elsewhere. There is nothing nearly as definitive as the old Nielson ratings of TV or sold papers of bygone newspaper print. Based on what is out there, however, Jeff Zucker seems to make a fair point when it comes to the often inflated numbers of current darlings like Buzzfeed and Vice, but its tough to know for sure.
J.D. Durkin (@jiveDurkey) is an editorial producer and columnist at Mediaite.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.