What Forbes.com was thinking

When "Don't Marry Career Women" really means "Our traffic numbers are in trouble."

Published August 28, 2006 4:30PM (EDT)

Today's New York Times has a fresh angle on the Forbes.com flap, examining the site's throwback gender commentary from a business and technology perspective (and quoting from Rebecca Traister's great story from last week). In a piece titled "At Forbes.com, Lots of Glitter but Maybe Not So Many Visitors," author Peter Edmonston notes that while Forbes.com is still doing better than Forbes magazine circulation-wise, the site's traffic has taken a hit this year. Forbes.com claims to have 15.3 million unique visitors per month, but Edmonston suggests that the true number of monthly visitors currently hovers closer to the 7 million mark, behind Dow Jones, CNN Money and Yahoo! Finance. Seeing as how Forbes tells its advertisers that "more people get their business news from Forbes.com than any other source in the world," one could see how the stalled traffic might present a problem.

Which brings us to the controversial career woman. Edmonston observes that, like many publications in the Internet age, Forbes.com tends to fall back on fluff pieces and polemics to generate traffic. "Some competitors argue that Forbes.com's popularity derives in part from racy, provocative or wealth-obsessed lifestyle features that have little to do with traditional business news," he writes. That perception could be based on intra-industry sour grapes, but some of the site's headlines rather speak for themselves -- according to Edmonston, "examples from this year include 'The Hottest Billionaire Heiresses,' 'Top Topless Beaches' and 'America's Drunkest Cities.'" And attacking working women is pretty much guaranteed to generate a furor among feminists and antifeminists alike. Pandering pieces like these may bespeak a cynical and lazy business strategy, but it's hard to argue with that strategy's effectiveness, at least in the short term. As Edmonston observes, "If Forbes.com was looking to create some Internet buzz last week, it succeeded."

Longer term, though, the strategy may prove less effective. "While eye-catching lifestyle stories may attract lots of readers," Edmonston writes, "those readers are more transient and less likely to be the kind of high-powered professionals that advertisers pay more to reach." In its quest for new readers, Forbes seems to be reaching for the bottom of the barrel.

It's refreshing to have the hullabaloo boiled down to the bottom line. And while it's depressing that career women remain cause for controversy, it's also somewhat satisfying to note that slamming working women gets the same journalistic integrity rating as billionaire heiresses and getting wasted. The Forbes.com misadventure certainly generated a lot of traffic -- Jessica at Feministing noticed this morning that Forbes.com's discussion board is still drawing plenty of antifeminist vitriol -- but anyone looking for real business news is probably already looking elsewhere.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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