Is The Internet F*cked? Tales From an Independent Media Outlet

Banter editor Ben Cohen spills the beans on what is like running an independent website in the Buzzfeed era
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Banter editor Ben Cohen spills the beans on what is like running an independent website in the Buzzfeed era
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This article first appeared in issue 25 of 'Banter M' our Members Only digital magazine. 

When I started The Daily Banter way back in 2007 (yes, we’ve been around for over 8 years), I had a very clear mission in mind. I wanted to start my own publication dedicated to quality content, calling out bullshit and fostering intelligent and interesting debate.

I had used the word “banter” extensively with friends I had made during my time at the university of Sussex in England, in reference to the casual but informed debate we would have amongst ourselves outside of class. Our group was not hugely academic, most of us being at the radical leftie university because we couldn’t face the more traditional institutions in England, but still deeply interested in human knowledge and its application to our increasingly complex world. To us, the physical was as important as the intellectual, ancient knowledge on par with the latest developments in quantum physics, and street smarts as no less vital to survival than the ability to write a 4,000 word dissertation.

The word “banter,” we felt, encapsulated the conversational style intellectualism we sought to promote and share with our peers. 

A couple of years later after moving to Los Angeles, an old college friend and I decided that we owed it to the spirit of Banter to put our money where our mouths were, and share our concept with the world at large (or at least our mates on Facebook). We bought the domain name, found a cheap developer and started the site a few weeks later.

Over the years, we have grown considerably – from a couple hundred visits a month to over 5 million at our peak last year.  This was partly due to investment in the site (from friends, family and myself), but largely due to the monumental efforts of the team. The trials and tribulations have been extreme — from tech disasters to ugly bust ups with other outlets and journalists, we have been through hell and back. Running an independent website is, I imagine, much like growing a small crop in a disaster prone climate. We have survived a radically shifting tech landscape with massively fluctuating ad prices that depend on complex automation platforms — much of which is completely out of our control — through force of will and a good deal of luck. We launched a subscription part of the site last year in an effort to stabilize a least a portion of our revenue, a move that proved wise as Facebook algorithm changes and plummeting advertising rates threatened to decimate our traffic and collapse our revenue model.

Through this seemingly never ending vortex of instability and uncertainty, we have done our best to maintain a high level of quality and consistency in our voice and output. This has probably been the hardest thing to do of all — and it keeps me up at night worrying about how we can keep our authenticity while generating enough revenue to keep going. We are aware of how much traffic the site generates on a second to second basis. We know how many people are on the site at any point in time, what they are reading, and whether they are sticking around. When we score big with an article, we can see its affect in real time — a feedback mechanism that is as useful as it is dangerous. Because articles that do well traffic wise are often light on substance, while thoughtful, well researched pieces can flop if they aren’t quick to read and easy to share. “Look at This Cat Doing Something Silly” shares a lot better than “An In-Depth Look at Why Environmentalism is the 21st Century’s Greatest Challenge.” This is a fact of the internet, and a seductive solution to all of our problems. By churning out easy clickbait, we could be up there with the big fish of the internet, and probably quite quickly if we all put our minds to it.

But this, I believe, would spell long term disaster for not only the site, but the writers at the Banter who are attracted to the site precisely because they get to write serious stuff in their own unique voice. Sites like Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post make millions of dollars because of their insane amount of traffic — traffic they acquire largely through gaming the system with trashy headlines and photographs of celebrities designed specifically to make you click. Of course they do produce some very high quality content, but it is paid for by the garbage churned out en masse and pumped through their extensive social media reach. This strategy has been copied by literally thousands of outlets looking to cash in on the viral content scam without doing the heavy lifting of creating content that is worth reading.

Early last year, I attempted to secure investment from venture capitalists in order to grow the site and prevent us from being so vulnerable — a compromise I was willing to make if it meant we could continue our work and expand. I sat in front of businessmen with no experience in creating content and showed them slides about our rapidly growing readership, explaining why our audience would be valuable to advertisers and the long term strategic interests of an investor’s media portfolio. The experience was thoroughly degrading and an insight into the nuts and bolts of morality-free capitalism. Investors were interested in our ‘authenticity’ so far as it translated into a lucrative exit years down the line. In one meeting, an investor explained that they had invested in the viral video site UpWorthy because it was focused on “platform” and “shareability”.

“What is so unique about your site?” He asked.

“Well, we are focused on the content,” I answered. “Platforms become obsolete every 18 months and are interchangeable anyway. Good content is relevant forever.”

“You see, I think we’re looking at this from a different perspective,” he told me. “We want a game changing platform to deliver the content. Your site is great, but it’s hard to see why it is different from a technological point of view.”

“You can’t compare us to UpWorthy,” I said. “They redistribute videos of puppies stuck in washing machines. We do serious content.”

Needless to say, they didn’t invest.

The experience taught me one thing though — we were trying to compete in a system totally hostile to what the site was supposed to be about. We are completely independent and able to write about whatever the hell we want. We don’t have to answer to investors and we don’t have to think about “exit strategies” or whatever the fuck it is vulture capitalists do with companies they’ve fattened up to sell to giant corporate conglomerates.

I now know that I would stop doing this if it got to a point where we had to switch models and turn 80% of our content into mindless garbage. No matter the hardships we face, I am only interested in continuing our work here if we get to do it in our own way, largely independent of the pressures of advertising, Facebook and other clickbait generators swallowing up much of the internet. Of course it is impossible to extricate ourselves completely from the dysfunctional eco-system fueling our bizarre industry, but thus far, we continue to attract a large number of readers who come to us because we write good content and won’t embarrass ourselves with clickbait that threatens to reduce the collective IQ of humanity, one shitty headline at a time.

Also, by providing a living example that sites can resist the pressures of turning into ViralNova Lite, we can potentially encourage others that the future isn’t cat videos, but thoughtful content created by writers who believe in what they are doing. This is an internet I’d like to be a part of, and I’m more and more convinced that it can only exist if we, and sites like us, continue make it so.