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Newsweek and the race to fill Google with suicide news

Illustration by Garret Beard

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Warning: This piece contains language and content regarding suicide that some people may find sensitive or triggering.

Fashion designer Kate Spade died by suicide on Tuesday, June 5th. She was 55. Anthony Bourdain, the good-natured celebrity chef, died three days later, at 61, also by suicide. Bourdain and Spade’s deaths were doubly mourned because they were icons: Spade’s handbags defined a part of ‘90s New York City; Bourdain’s legacy as an astute, caring chronicler of the kitchen and other parts of the world is as yet unmatched.

The day Bourdain died, The New York Times published a remembrance by Pete Wells, the paper’s restaurant critic. It wasn’t quite an obituary, though it did summarize Bourdain’s life, and it wasn’t just a paean, because Wells chastised Bourdain (gently, of course) about what unsavory behaviors he might have prolonged with his veneration of swaggering kitchen jocks. In print, the headline read “Culinary Sage Who Served Up Unsavory Truths”; online, it read “Anthony Bourdain Was a Teller of Often Unappetizing Truths.” At The Washington Post, the print and web headlines were the same: “‘Brilliant, fearless spirit’: Fans and friends mourn Anthony Bourdain, who died at 61.” Both were measured, sober examples of how to write a headline after a person has died.

Newsweek, on the other hand, took the opposite tack, producing a series of stories clearly designed to feed search engine demand. “Who Is Anthony Bourdain’s Ex-Wife Ottavia Busia? Chef Dead At 61,” read one; “What Is Anthony Bourdain’s Net Worth? Chef, Found Dead At 61, Built Cooking Empire, But Money Wasn’t Top Concern,” read another. (There were three others in the same vein. The news site Splinter called the practice “grimy as fuck.”) Those headlines were eventually changed — they now read “Restaurant Business ‘Brought Together’ Anthony Bourdain and Ex-Wife Ottavia Busia” and “How Anthony Bourdain Used Immense Wealth, High Profile to Champion Charitable Causes” — but the site’s drive to capture a piece of the massive audience searching for details clearly remains.

Google Trends data showing a spike in searches for “anthony bourdain net worth” after his death
Google Trends data showing a spike in searches for “anthony bourdain net worth” after his death
Google Trends data showing a spike in searches for “anthony bourdain wife” after his death
Google Trends data showing a spike in searches for “anthony bourdain wife” after his death

In the days following both deaths, there was an outpouring of grief and well-meaning suggestions about the power of checking in on the people you know as a deterrent to suicide. But there was also a flurry of prurient interest in highly personal details: for Bourdain, it was his family and his money. For Spade, it was what she used to kill herself and how she did it.

Online, sandwiched between the legitimate anguish people felt at this pair of losses and the anecdotes about chance encounters with Bourdain and Spade, Newsweek created a number of distasteful headlines to blare those answers, optimized not for humanity but for search engines. “Who Was Kate Spade’s Husband, Andy Spade? Designer Found Dead In New York,” reads one from Newsweek. “Kate Spade Net Worth: Massively Successful Designer Dies At 55,” reads another.

The headlines were in bad taste partly because it’s unseemly and vaguely cannibalistic to wonder about the intimate last moments of a life. But it’s also partly because these publications seemed to ignore the very real phenomenon of suicide contagion, which states that when a person takes their own life and it is publicized, it strengthens the idea in the minds of people who might have been considering suicide themselves. Mental health experts have found proven links between publicized suicides and similar subsequent deaths, especially when celebrities take their own lives. That presents an ethical dilemma: just because people are searching for information on how Spade and Bourdain died, does that mean publishers — editorial entities that exist in part to answer the public’s questions about the world — should serve those answers?

Newsweek, which was bought in 2013 by the media conglomerate IBT (now Newsweek Media Group), has in recent years been grasping for more and more web traffic as its profits have fallen along with the rest of the industry. For publications, the pressure is existential: selling ads has been a dominant financial model for as long as the news business has been around. (Many, many other ways to make money have been tried; few, if any, have worked.) Publishers need traffic to sell ads, and lots of publishers will do anything to get and increase traffic. And gaming search engines has long been a fast way to get that traffic.  

In March 2017, Google changed its algorithm “to crack down on low-quality, ad-heavy sites and ‘private blog networks’ that are widely viewed as traffic scams,” as Will Oremus reported earlier this year at Slate. IBT Media was hit particularly hard: its flagship publication, the International Business Times, saw its organic search traffic drop 50 percent. And then came reports that the company had engaged in advertising fraud. IBT Media then threw all of its weight behind Newsweek, bringing over writers and editors from IB Times to its new flagship.

Before this editorial shift, Newsweek’s coverage of celebrity deaths was significantly different

Before this editorial shift, Newsweek’s coverage of celebrity deaths was significantly different. Search-optimized headlines only started appearing in late 2017. Earlier, they were far more moderate in tone; one, commemorating the late Gene Wilder, reads “Comedian And Actor Gene Wilder Dead At 83.” A Newsweek employee I spoke to noted that the change in tone coincided with editors from the IB Times moving over to Newsweek. When the musician Chris Cornell died by suicide in 2017, the IB Times headline read “Chris Cornell Death Scene Photo: Why Is There So Much Blood?” The piece is by Maria Vultaggio, who’s now at Newsweek editing entertainment coverage. She approved the Bourdain headlines, which were only changed after writers alerted the editor-in-chief to a growing online backlash.

The employee I spoke to corroborated the link between the influx of new IB Times writers and editors and the shift toward clickbait SEO headlines. They said editors who came over brought over “some shitty tricks,” which is how celebrity deaths ended up getting milked for search clicks. It’s not just Bourdain and Spade, either: a quick search for Avicii, the massively popular DJ who died of suicide earlier this year, shows a raft of ghoulish Newsweek headlines. “What Is Avicii’s Net Worth? Swedish DJ Dies In Oman At 28,” reads one.

When asked for comment, 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.)

When reached via email, he forwarded a statement from Nancy Cooper, Newsweek’s global editor-in-chief: “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.”

Every publication has to make this choice: reach for traffic at the expense of editorial morality or give up that potential revenue in service of professional ethics. Newsweek has chosen to take the traffic. The employee I spoke to told me they found my interest in their headlines validating. They said they were reassured that this kind of coverage — the decision to choose traffic above everything else — is not normal, that a responsible news outlet wouldn’t publish stories like this. Yet, while the new Newsweek may be the most extreme example, the underlying editorial strategy behind search optimization is one shared by many, if not all, digital media publications. Just try searching “When is the Super Bowl?” if you’re not convinced. Delivering information to people who explicitly want it is always an easy win. Even The Verge does it.

One click is a tragedy, but a million is a profitable statistic

Search-optimized coverage tends toward the uncomfortably direct because it reveals people’s private desires: Google won’t judge you for wanting to know the kind of scarf Kate Spade used to hang herself or how much money Bourdain was leaving behind. If no one’s staring over your shoulder as you type, what you enter into a search bar feels private. It’s only in aggregate that what we’re looking for becomes unsettling, and it’s only in aggregate that publishers and advertisers take notice. Those clicks come from your parents, your boss, your high school friends, your college friends, your grandparents, your accountant, your neighbor, the regulars at the bar, and the bartender herself. It’s all of us. One click is a tragedy, but a million is a profitable statistic.

Feeding aggregate demand without human judgment or editorial oversight can have disastrous consequences. Once you’ve looked at a few videos about Donald Trump, as the sociologist and scholar Zeynep Tufekci found, your algorithmic suggestions will lead you down rabbit holes of conspiracy, including Holocaust denials, white supremacist rants, and the like. The pattern of basic searches nudging you toward extremism, Tufekci wrote in The New York Times, holds across every topic, political or not. It’s not a one-to-one analogy. For example, Newsweek is writing articles in response to aggregate demand, while YouTube’s algorithm serves your next video based on an aggregate of what others watched next, but both substitute statistical patterns for human judgment.

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.

Correction: This post has been updated with Avicii’s cause of death. He died of suicide, and not pancreatitis.