Banter M Issue 48

In this week's edition of Banter M:

The Facebook Death Star and the End of Clickbait - Daily Banter founder Ben Cohen reports on what it is like navigating a website in the post clickbait era of the internet and coming to terms with being a lowly subject in an industry almost completely reliant on Facebook for survival. 

Can You Not Like the New "Ghostbusters" and Not Be a Misogynist Prick? - Chez Pazienza argues that the negative reaction to the Ghostbusters trailer was at least partially an angry overreaction by misogynistic douchebags, but also because it intrudes on the magic of the 1984 classic. Is it ok to say that without being labeled a sexist? 

Like a Virgin - Tommy Christopher takes us on a behind the scenes adventure from his time reporting on Hillary's Pennsylvania primary victory celebration in Philadelphia in 2008 - his first time covering a live political event. 

The Facebook Death Star and the End of Clickbait 

by Ben Cohen

During the early days of the Banter, we would spend a good amount of time ragging on sites that ran clickbait articles à la Buzzfeed. When Bob Cesca, Chez Pazienza and myself started back in early 2012, we wanted to set ourselves apart from the other sites by publishing provocative and ballsy content, but doing it with unimpeachable research. And that meant targeting the crap on the internet and going after them mercilessly. Picking apart the nonsense on the internet was a noble mission we thought, and I even got into a twitter fight with the founder of Buzzfeed over his grotesque listicle kingdom (and I didn't hold back in telling him what I thought about his contribution to serious commentary and journalism online). 

Back then however, we were not thinking too hard about a sustainable business model. The traffic grew consistently (a 10% increase every single month for almost 3 years) and we figured that this would result in a steady flow of cash somewhere in the not too distant future. We didn't have to resort to garbage lists about cute kittens, or pollute facebook with "This One Simple Trick" type articles to get traffic -- our voice and writing was so strong it seemed, that the traffic appeared doing whatever it was we were doing. 

As we were to learn however, growing 10% a month in the era of the listicle was not enough to become a profitable or sustainable website for the long term. Despite sometimes getting millions of pageviews in a month, we found it completely impossible to generate consistent and predicable revenue. As sites like Thought Catalog, Elite Daily, and Mic grew at an insane rate by churning out one garbage millennial 'think piece' after the other, we could only scale it at a relatively moderate pace when publishing high quality content. 

So what then to do? The urge to sell out and publish listicles was strong as we were faced with severe cut backs and the very real prospect of closing shop. But instead of giving up on our core principles, we decided to continue doing what we were doing, but pivot the financial model to subscription. It was an incredibly difficult time moving to a partial membership model from both a technical and editorial point of view, but our readers got behind us and their subscriptions helped keep us going through the ups and downs of our daily battle for traffic.  

The mixed subscription/ad based strategy was better than just relying on ads, but again it was not enough to be sustainable. While subscription gave us a much needed boost, our need for ad revenue still trumped all. And as a small-to-medium sized publisher, we were unable to secure decent paying ads and had to make do with third party ad networks that essentially sold our ad space at a fraction of its true value. As Digiday reported recently:

Despite their efforts to diversify their revenue into other areas like events, ecommerce and subscriptions or memberships, advertising is still the dominant model for publishers. In addition to negotiating clout, being a bigger publisher means having access to bigger sales teams that can absorb the demands associated with selling on multiple platforms — not to mention having the big audiences that are still a requirement for many ad buyers.

This isn't necessarily anyone's fault, but the massive amounts of cash flooding the industry for 'platforms' that distribute largely un-edited, meaningless content serves to make life incredibly difficult for anyone attempting to do something halfway decent. Continued the Digiday report:

It’s an awkward time in media, where distributed audiences are growing faster than publishers’ ability to monetize them, says Paul Berry, CEO and founder of RebelMouse. But the big, VC-backed publishers are focused foremost on scale and have enough runway to afford to be able to figure out the revenue later, so they can better afford to take a risk on a platform where the payoff isn’t necessarily known.

The rise of distribution platforms like Facebook has essentially turned the industry on its head, with publishers waiting anxiously to see how algorithm updates and new features will either help or destroy their businesses. While the industry is thankfully moving beyond the crappy clickbait nonsense that defined it over the better part of the past decade, new challenges have arisen as a result of these mega social media platforms that make it no less difficult to navigate. As Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, Emily Bell argues

Social media hasn’t just swallowed journalism, it has swallowed everything. It has swallowed political campaigns, banking systems, personal histories, the leisure industry, retail, even government and security. The phone in our pocket is our portal to the world. I think in many ways this heralds enormously exciting opportunities for education, information, and connection, but it brings with it a host of contingent existential risks.

Journalism is a small subsidiary activity of the main business of social platforms, but one of central interest to citizens.

The internet and the social Web enable journalists to do powerful work, while at the same time helping to make the business of publishing journalism an uneconomic venture.

This 'social Web' is essentially Facbook, and anyone in the industry knows just how important it is to their business. Facebook has been a gift and a curse to sites like ours -- on the one had it serves as a phenomenal distribution platform for our work, but on the other it has cheapened the total value of content and made sites dangerously reliant on them as a source of traffic. This 'awkward' time in media means it is virtually impossible to know what is going to happen in the future as we genuinely have no idea what Facebook is going to do from one month to the next. We cannot plan more than two months ahead at a time given we don't have the capital to invest in our own platform (and we would still be reliant on Facebook anyhow) and have to see an almost immediate benefit to anything we put money into.  

I have steadfastly believed that good content will reign supreme in the long run, and I will always invest in the writers above all else when the opportunity arises. This strategy has actually served us surprisingly well given we are still around, still growing, and still able to pay our writers (unlike most of the other giant publisher that rely on an army of unpaid writers to create their content). Facebook has intermittently boosted and destroyed our traffic in almost equal measure, but given we are not completely reliant on them as a source of revenue (thank you Banter Members!), we don't have to completely organize our business around them. So moving forward, if there is any kind of strategy, it will be based around creating good content at almost all cost. 

Wish us luck. 

Next: Can You Not Like the New "Ghostbusters" and Not Be a Misogynist Prick? - by Chez Pazienza

Can You Not Like the New "Ghostbusters" and Not Be a Misogynist Prick?

by Chez Pazienza

Ghostbusters is my fiancée's all-time favorite movie. She can quote it word for word, line for line. Before we moved in together, one of the first things you encountered when you walked into her apartment was an original Ghostbusters poster, framed and in mint condition. Whenever the movie pops up on TV or cable, no matter how many times she's seen it before, she'll watch it again. Her adoration of the film borders on unhealthy. So taking into account the fact that she loves Ghostbusters and that she is, yes, a woman, there are undoubtedly plenty of people out there right now who would think she's overwhelmed with excitement about the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot, the one that features an all-female leading cast. Kinda feels like a slam dunk in terms of her being a target audience, right? Well, wrong. Bring up the new Ghostbusters around her, particularly with the goal of declaring that it in any way deserves to sit alongside the original Ghostbusters, and she'll probably take a swing at you. See, to her there's only one set of Ghostbusters -- and none of them is Melissa McCarthy. The new movie is, to put it bluntly, fucking dead to her. It doesn't even exist.

This week, the new Ghostbusters movie made headlines -- and not the good kind. The film now officially holds the ignominious title of having the most down-voted movie trailer in YouTube history. As The Hollywood Reporter explains, the movie's initial trailer has "624,461 thumbs-down votes, based on 29,906,237 views. That's one thumbs-down vote for every 47.9 views." Now the Ghostbusters clip isn't the most down-voted YouTube video clip in general, only the most disliked movie trailer, but it's still noteworthy that so many people seem to have such an aversion to a movie that hasn't even been released yet. Granted, the first Ghostbusters trailer was legitimately bad, not necessarily as in the-movie-looks-bad but more like this-is-a-terribly-made-trailer. It was so clumsily put together that a friend of mine here in L.A., terrific photographer and editor Bevan Bell, recut it and saw his version go viral as an example of what the Ghostbusters trailer probably should have been. But there's no doubt whatsoever that many if not most of those who down-voted the trailer weren't commenting on the level of competence that went into making that 2:30 clip -- they were slamming the movie itself. They were slamming the very idea of a female-centric Ghostbusters.  

Impotent male rage vented ad nauseam on the internet, unfortunately, isn't a surprise to anyone at this point -- and male nerd culture is especially susceptible to melodramatic freak-outs at the first sign of perceived emasculation. Male nerd culture is so far up its own sore, self-important ass that it felt it necessary to create an entire "movement" -- and give it an official name: GamerGate -- aimed squarely at fighting off the threat posed to video games by girls it doesn't like. Draped in the protective cloak of distance, computer savvy, and the anonymity provided by avatars of Guy Fawkes masks, these sorts of overgrown children regularly harass any female interloper unlucky enough to enter their sacred little space and really any woman who dares to be, you know, a woman. It's obscene that this is where we are as a society: that the great promise of the internet has been turned into a misogynist Thunderdome where asshole men, buzzed on Red Bull and butt-hurt that feminists are ruining their chances of ever getting laid, delight in bombarding assorted average women with threats of rape and murder 24/7. The negative reaction to the Ghostbusters trailer was at least partially an angry overreaction by these guys -- guys who are simply pissed that women are supposedly intruding on their men-only turf.  

But accepting that much of the irrational venom aimed at the new Ghostbusters is coming from sexist douchebags who simply don't like women, has it become impossible to argue that thinking a new Ghostbusters movie -- any Ghostbusters movie -- is a terrible idea without being labeled sexist yourself? In a good number of the hot-takes and think pieces the backlash to the picture has spawned over the months, there seems to be a common refrain that disliking the idea of this reboot can only be the thought process of a misogynist gorilla. I can't accept that that's the case because if I'm honest about it I have to say unequivocally that I agree with my fiancée that rebooting Ghostbusters -- or attempting to revive it in any way -- was always a fool's errand. Certainly the new movie is finished and it's now being promoted, so there's nothing I can say or do to stop this madness from happening -- and while I'll voice my opinion here I don't feel so strongly about this that I'll join the public chorus of simple YouTube down-voters -- but since bringing back Ghostbusters was first tossed around 12 years ago by none other than Dan Aykroyd, I've thought it was a terrible idea. Just terrible.

It's already at cliché at this point argue that a reboot of a beloved property from the 80s is "ruining the childhood" of Gen-Xers, just like its a cliché to claim that the same reboot doesn't, in fact, ruin anyone's childhood. In truth, the reason Ghostbusters deserved to be kept safely out of the clutches of anyone who wanted to resurrect it, even its own original creators, has less to do with stomping on some nostalgic memory than it does tainting the film's legacy. Obviously, just because there's a new Ghostbusters film doesn't mean the old one has suddenly disappeared. It's still there to watch and enjoy. But a reboot on the scale of this new picture suddenly and irrevocably alters what the Ghostbusters name means. Put simply, it waters it down. There's no way in hell this new picture will even hold a candle to the special magic of the 1984 classic or even the lesser sequel (which was even a bad idea for its time). You can claim that it will usher in an entire new generation of  Ghostbusters fans, but that really should have no bearing on whether it's a worthwhile endeavor to make a movie, certainly a reboot of a movie. Ghostbusters was a flat-out comic masterpiece by any standard. It's an iconic film. And no matter how much the new filmmakers may wish to honor that, for Sony, it's still all about a big cash grab -- and while that's what Hollywood does, in this case it's still unfortunate. 

There's another point to consider, a response to the inevitable cries about how Star Wars became a series of sequels and so have many other legendary Hollywood properties, so why not Ghostbusters? The reason: Ghostbusters is a comedy, and comedies are notoriously perilous to reboot, particularly when they're comedies as seminal as Ghostbusters. Imagine for a moment the reaction a studio would get if it said it was planning to reboot Blazing Saddles, or Annie Hall, or Animal House. There are, without question, some films you just don't touch for fear of damaging the legacy, and Ghostbusters is absolutely one of them. The fact is that it's simply too beloved a comedic entity for anyone sane to have wanted to take on the responsibility of remaking. Let's face it, Sony didn't care one way or the other; it was simply out to turn this movie into a franchise, which would basically put an ATM on the studio lot that pumped out money every few years. As for the guy Sony hired to make the movie, well, he had another agenda in mind altogether.  

So here's where I'll try very hard to tiptoe around the elephant in the room. Approaching it from the point of view that it was a bad idea to remake Ghostbusters no matter who was starring in it -- I hope I can say that being that Sony has already announced plans for a complementary male-centric Ghostbusters and I won't see that either -- it was an even worse idea for Paul Feig to use the film to make a statement. And yes, say what you will, he pretty much said out loud that that's what he was doing with it. Hiring funny women to play Ghostbusters, within the context of the whole enterprise being unfortunate, didn't somehow make a lousy situation worse. It does naturally change the tone of the new film to something dissimilar from the classic movie and there really is an argument to be made that taking any liberties at all with a storied picture like Ghostbusters -- certainly in the name of modern identity politics or the need to prove a point -- feels something akin to sacrilege. But that said, the cast is really the least of the problem with this whole effort. Certainly the notion of making SNL star Leslie Jones the stereotypical sassy black woman -- and a transit worker no less, rather than a scientist -- is a tedious, possibly even offensive misstep for Feig, but that still feels like a small mistake in a movie that's always been one big one. 

A couple of weeks ago my fiancée got a package at our door. She excitedly opened it up and showed me what was inside: a t-shirt she'd bought online, one with the familiar Ghostbusters logo. Believe it or not, despite her unending worship of the original film, she had never owned a t-shirt emblazoned with that symbol. I smirked when I saw it, then broke the news to her: "People are going to think that's for the new movie." She suddenly looked dejected. "But it's not!" she responded. "It's the original." See, that's the thing. There's a new Ghostbusters in town. The iconic picture that's always been my fiancée's favorite isn't the only one of its kind anymore. The characters she loves from that movie aren't the only "Ghostbusters" anymore. For her, as a diehard fan, that's a pretty big issue. I guess maybe it is for me as well.

Next: Like a Virgin - by Tommy Christopher

Like a Virgin

by Tommy Christopher

Last week saw the probable end of the 2016 Democratic presidential nominating contest when Hillary Clinton took four out of five northeastern states, including a massive win in Pennsylvania, where she also beat then-Senator Barack Obama in 2008. Consequently, last week also marked the eighth anniversary of my very first real-live coverage of a political event, Hillary's Pennsylvania primary victory celebration in Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, due to the vagaries of media turnover and internet archiving, none of my coverage of that event is currently available online, but I still have my memories, and some of the media I've been able to cobble together from my very first journalistic field trip.

Up until that point, I had been covering the campaign via telephonic interviews and press conferences, which was, itself, way outside my mandate as a political blogger for AOL's The Political Machine, which would later become Politics Daily (which is now HuffPost Politics). At the time, there was absolutely no other original reporting on the site.

I discovered that one of my clients at my day job was also a big-time Hillary Clinton fundraiser, and so he hooked me up with other connections, and that's how I wound up invited to the event, which took place at the Park Hyatt at the Bellevue in Philadelphia. 

As an eager 40 year-old rookie, I showed up at the event way early, and there were only two or three other reporters in the media room when I got there. The room had a TV and speaker system, and the requisite shitty internet connection, which I believe was not wireless.

I was a ball of nervous, useless energy, so after I set up my laptop and delivered a live video "update" to my readers (I'm being generous by using the plural here), I proceeded to annoy everyone I could find. The first person I met and annoyed was Leigh Ann Caldwell, who was with Pacifica Radio then, but who's now a political reporter for NBC.

Not to brag, but I'm pretty sure this was before "selfies" were a thing. She was 22 years old then, and I was stoked to be in the presence of someone from the great Pacifica Radio.

There were also a couple of foreign press guys there, one of whom got kicked out later because they said they didn't have enough room for any more foreign press. 

With nothing to do for hours and hours, I ventured outside the hotel to annoy more people. Not intentionally, mind you, but with nervous effervescence, introducing myself to everyone, and automatically assuming they gave a shit. This guy was a Reuters photographer whose name I forget, but I want to say it was Jeff.

We talked a little bit about the job, and he was remarkably detached from his subjects, something I would learn is a consistent trait among news photographers. They practice apathy as objectivity.

On the street, I also met Matt Taibbi, whom I later misidentified to my readers as "Matt Bai" because I'm an idiot.

I had just read one of his Rolling Stone pieces, so I guess we talked about that for a minute, and since I still had a pretty good head of hair going on back then, I remember smirking to myself about the hat. Karma's a bitch.

A few minutes later, I ran into Dana Milbank, and since I was still dork enough to be starstruck by cable news panelists, probably sounded like Kathy Bates in Misery while I had him take a picture with me.

That media room I showed you before, it turned out, was for the second-banana new media types, and featured a decent spread of cold cuts, snacks, and beverages. What I later discovered was that the big print and TV outlets had their own room with a hot buffet, which I promptly snuck into. After loading up my plate, I found Milbank again, and he invited me to sit next to him until the campaign found me and threw me out. I remember telling him that part of me was rooting for the historic nature of Barack Obama's candidacy, and he totally shaded me. "Then I guess you can't be a journalist," he said. I didn't argue because I didn't want him to rat me out before I'd finished my food.

With hours still to go before anything would happen, I did what I always do at these things, take pictures of the empty stage and all the backstage shit. In between all of this, I was updating my readers, because I knew the best thing I could do was to bring them along on my childlike journey of discovery, rather than describe shit that they could see on C-Span.

This was also my first time meeting Andrea Mitchell, who was, like almost everyone I met, very gracious. Here she is prepping a live shot from the press riser.

This is the view from in front of the press riser, which is what Hillary would see from the stage.

This is one of my favorite pictures from the event, of the Hillary Clinton supporters lining up to get in. That little girl with the Hillary sign, who's probably in college now, symbolized everything I thought was great about Hillary's campaign.

This is one of my other favorite shots, of a dead-eyed Secret Service agent whom I felt aptly symbolized Hillary's toughness.

I also met Craig Crawford, whom I recognized from Countdown, and who was stoked to be recognized.

That was taken after, but I first met him behind the press riser, and as we chatted, I made one of my all-time shittiest gaffes. We were talking about Jonathan Alter, both saying very kind things about his work, and I said "Yeah, but who does he think he's fooling with that hair? Just face facts and buzz it already!"

Crawford made a little nervous smile and said, "Well, it's only been a few months since he was treated for the cancer."

I apologized for being such a huge fucking asshole, and he laughed, but like I said before, karma's a bitch. 

Eventually, it was almost time for the speech, and there was this one weird moment when Candy Crowley emerged onto the balcony, and the crowd went nuts like something out of Evita.

For the actual speech, I mostly took video, none of which I can locate anymore, but I did manage to get this one picture of Hillary from in front of the press riser.

After the event, I also got to meet one the best Hillary Clinton evangelist you'll ever meet, and one of my favorite people in the world, Sally Albright. 

She was working as part of Hillary's advance team, and we immediately hit it off, and remain friends to this day. Unfortunately, I can't tell you my coolest Sally stories, except to say that one of them involves the Wu-Tang Clan. She's a comms strategist who could probably get Bernie Sanders to vote for Hillary if she got five minutes alone with him.

Finally, in what would become a trademark of my behind-the-scenes coverage, I took a shot from behind Hillary's confetti-strewn podium after it was all over.

I still have some of that confetti somewhere. Here's hoping I get to collect some more in November.