Newsweek’s shitty, SEO-optimized articles following the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade last week exposed how the site has essentially thrown morality out the window, in order to drive clicks and cash in on celebrity deaths.
In the wake of both deaths, Newsweek published posts answering some really tough questions, like who Anthony Bourdain’s eleven-year-old daughter is and whether or not Kate Spade was related to David Spade. (She is.) The Verge’s Bijan Stephen tried to get an explanation from Newsweek about why they had started doing this, and well, it went about as well as you’d expect (emphasis mine):
When asked for comment, [associate culture editor Maria] Vultaggio referred me to Ken Frydman of Source Communications, a strategic consulting firm Newsweek has engaged to do public relations. Frydman was hired as a “troubleshooter,” in his words, this January (on the day Newsweek Media Group was raided by the Manhattan DA for the company’s possibly fraudulent ties to Olivet University). He gave me a call, and after telling me that everyone dies — and that “some people die at their own hands,” in reference either to Bourdain or to the deceased designer Bijan Pakzad, with whom I share a name and who died of a stroke in 2011 — he declined to answer questions in reference to this story over the phone. (Frydman has a history of being brought in when an outside reporter has a scoop about Newsweek. Earlier this year, when The Daily Beast’s Max Tani obtained audio of a conversation elaborating the “significant” financial problems Newsweek faced, Frydman was dispatched to harass him before the piece went live.)
This man’s job, to reiterate, is in public relations and communications.
The answer from global editor in chief Nancy Cooper was more diplomatic, but still completely dodged the question of why they felt the need to pick up traffic on the back of details about Bourdain’s 11-year old daughter just hours after her father’s already extremely public death:
“Readers consume Newsweek’s stories in different ways,” she wrote. “When a big story breaks, some readers want an in-depth, reflective piece of the kind we run in Newsweek magazine. Others prefer smaller pieces that answer specific questions about the events or people involved. That’s how our newsroom handled the death of Anthony Bourdain: quick takes on key aspects of the story, which in turn feed a classic tribute to Bourdain in the magazine. We did the same with the death of Kate Spade, the Royal Wedding and Trump-Kim summit, which was the subject of a Newsweek cover story a few weeks ago. The goal of our coverage is to serve all of Newsweek’s readers in the ways that they choose to engage with a story.”
As Stephen writes, Newsweek’s Google search-driven style now “substitutes statistical patterns for human judgment,” and the trend doesn’t look to be ending any time soon:
This will not end, because people are insatiably interested in tabloidy detail. Whether publications decide to chase search traffic or forgo it, people will continue to search for the answers to their questions. For search engines, which are responsible for creating these conditions, the question is larger: can Google provide the information people want from news sources without encouraging publications’ narcotic, amoral dependency on its algorithms in the first place? For now, the answer appears to be no.
Stay with me here: what if Newsweek, and other sites, didn’t give in to the impulse to pick up easy traffic on the personal lives and suicide methods of celebrities while their bodies are still warm? Cooper’s answer makes it seem like there’s only one path you can take when writing about a celebrity’s death: a real obituary in print that comes only after you’ve run through the deceased’s entire family through an extremely gross Heavy.com-style content machine.
There’s another way, and that way is to choose to not engage in this bullshit. You’re Newsweek! I know times are tough, but if you’re really desperate for traffic, find some other way to get it that doesn’t include selling your soul for clicks.
One suggestion: run a story about when the World Cup starts, which is Thursday.