Elite Daily, Content Farm Or Groundbreaking Site For Upwardly Mobile Youngsters? You Decide

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Just what is Elite Daily?

The site portrays itself as “the voice of Gen Y” but it also comes across as a content farm, or even “an astounding troll-hole.” It claimed to have grown to 8.5 million pageviews a month on the back of articles like:

You Don’t Need To Be A Millionaire In Order To Feel Like One

or

Why You Should (Or Shouldn’t) F*ck Your Friend

or

Disney Princesses Didn’t F*ck Me Up

But other reports indicate that number is inflated, and more recently surfaced information indicates the company has a history of lying. It even seems like some of the writers on the site aren’t real people, with pictures of models used on fictional bio pages instead of reality.

The founder, David Arabov, is alleged to be the son of Jacob Arabo, or Jacob the Jeweler, the Harry Winston of hip-hop. In 2007 Arabo was accused of money laundering and pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents and filing false documents with the federal government. He’s currently out of prison and Jacob & Co is alive and well.

That said, it’s pretty damning that Jacob & Co-centric stories appear on 40 of the 4,792 stories on Elite Daily’s Luxury section, with no disclosure that Jacob is the father of founder David Arabov.

The site has been around since 2011, but underwent a major redesign and relaunch in May of this year. I attended the launch party and wrote about it on TechCrunch. Since then, new details and questions have surfaced about the site, which prompted a deeper look.

Jacob & Co Promotion

Perhaps the most egregious thing about Elite Daily as a media site isn’t the sometimes misogynist tone of the articles, but the undisclosed promotion of Jacob & Co’s jewelry.

A large number of luxury brands are covered on the site’s Luxury, Timepiece, and Fashion sections, and Jacob & Co articles don’t appear more than any other brand overall. However, Jacob & Co.-centric articles appear quite a bit on the Entertainment section, where the site receives the most traffic. To be exact, 18 out of 4,028 stories in the Luxury section feature Jacob & Co.

Arabov calls this “a perk.”

“If you’re trying to tell me I started this site to boost my father’s marketing, that’s pretty crazy,” said Arabov. “It’s my father. I’m going to put articles up there when something good is going on there. Yeah, why not?”

From Arabov’s perspective, he has the right to push stories about his father’s company without mentioning his relationship to it. This isn’t necessarily above-board. But we, the media, creep ever closer to that grey line between promoted, paid-for content and unbiased journalism.

Cnet now has Review Replay, where they take payment to resurface an old, positive review of a gadget. BuzzFeed and Gawker have been toying around with native advertising and promoted stories for quite some time now, though doing so with a far more obvious (and existent) disclaimer.

To make matters even shadier, many of the stories about Jacob & Co (as well as many of the other posts on the site) are written under pseudonyms.

Pseudonym Journalism?

Writers such as Preston Waters, Paul Hudson, Ashton Tyler, William Kent, and Eddie Cuffin are very real (I spoke to each of them). But their names aren’t.

Preston Waters is actually David Arabov himself; Paul Hudson is Paul Jurczyk; Eddie Cuffin is Edin Veljovic, Ashton Tyler is Max Grunner, and William Kent is Robert Saintlot.

Some of their bios are entirely satirical — Ashton Tyler (Max Grunner) never did coke with Lindsey Lohan — and some of them are factual. Paul Jurczyk, for example, claims that every part of the Paul Hudson bio is an accurate description from his own experience.

Kaitlyn Cawley, editor-in-chief, explains that she doesn’t do much writing (opting instead for editing) but that she usually posts under the pseudonym Kgasm.

A number of these pen name writers believe there is no responsibility in telling the truth when it comes to their byline or bio, as long as the articles themselves are accurate.

“You don’t want people to look too deep into your writing if they know your background,” said Max Grunner (Ashton Tyler). “You should take the article for what it is, and not worry about the byline.”

Other writers simply use a pseudonym to protect themselves, as Elite Daily content usually stands on one extreme side of a discussion and relies heavily on opinion. For example, check out this post, From ‘No Homo’ To ‘Yeah, Bro’: How Gen-Y Became So Cool With Their Gay Friends. The article chronicles our growing comfort with gay people, somewhat brashly, and using almost only opinion.

This one, too (The Difference Between The Douchebag And The Asshole).

“A lot of what I write is opinion-based, to get a rise out of people,” said Eddie Cuffin (Edin Veljovic). “That’s what Gen Y is about: I have opinions and I want them to be heard, so people can notice that they exist.”

Other writers, like Kaitlyn Cawley, simply don’t want the excessive profanity from their 20-something Elite Daily years to haunt them in their later years. (Or disappoint their parents.) The writers and editors all maintain, however, that the articles posted under pseudonyms are not counterfeit in any way because of the pen names.

Tyler Gildin, the Humor Editor, is working to be a stand-up comedian and always posts under his real name. “I want to make a name for myself, so pen names don’t really make sense for me.”

Screen Shot 2013-09-04 at 9.52.05 AMAccording to Arabov, it’s the writer’s choice whether or not they use a pseudonym, an option he’s chosen for himself as Preston Waters.

The practice of pseudonyms in journalism is, again, like the jewelry conflict, not entirely above-board. Journalists are expected to tell the truth. If the reader can’t trust the byline or the author bio, how can they be expected to trust the article? At the same time, creating a sub-brand as an author at a media site is part of being a journalist. People gravitate to their favorite authors based on style, voice, and opinion. At Elite Daily, the same thing is true, except those authors are characters based off of real people who are writing about real opinions.

Arabov says that there are plans to make the pseudonym strategy more transparent to readers.

Elite Daily Traffic

In May, Elite Daily told me that they publish between 120 – 150 posts on the home page every day, and that the site sees around 8.5 million unique page views per month.

On July 25, The Awl reported that Elite Daily posted an average of 46 posts per day in July. The article also cited comScore saying: “Elite Daily received 1.024 million unique visitors from the United States in June, slightly down from their 1.1 million in March, but “up from 256,000 in July 2012 when we first started reporting on the site.”

Arabov said in his interview that the original figure he gave me for posts-per-day was a goal NOT actual output, and that the site currently aims for 80 to 100 posts each day. He also said this doesn’t include weekends, when the site publishes 8 to 10 posts per day.

Yesterday, as of 7pm ET, Elite Daily posted a total of 74 articles. Today, as of 3pm ET, 66 posts have gone up. This content is created by 17 salaried writers and over 500 global contributors.

The site has 25 employees in total.

Here’s a picture of some of them:

elitedailyoffice

Still, why is there a 7 million hit disparity between Arabov’s claimed monthly uniques and comScore’s?

Arabov showed me Google Analytics and Alexa ratings, which credit Elite Daily with 8.1 million uniques in the month of June, as well as 8.1 million uniques in May, when I first ran my story and reported 8.5 million monthly uniques. The site is currently ranked at 1,783 in the United States by Alexa.

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However, comScore confirmed to us that their tracking shows between 1 million and 3 million uniques monthly over the summer months.

Arabov claims that part of this discrepancy comes from the fact that Elite Daily only became a comScore subscriber recently. He provided me with the contract showing that Elite Daily subscribed to comScore in August, after The Awl story went up on July 25.

Non-subscribers are tracked with the same product, but don’t have the same access to the data or customer service as subscribers. For non-subscriber publishers, it’s their responsibility to add the proper tagging to all corners of the website, including mobile, and every other URL or page that should be tracked.

comScore chief research officer Josh Chasin said that the difference here “could be a question of how they implemented the tags.”

“We give them instructions and information on how to do this, but there’s a whole gamut of how difficult it can be for publishers to implement tags,” said Chasin. “Some developers say ‘I’ll have the tags up in half an hour’ because their site is built to throw in a line of code. And then we have developers tell us ‘do you have any idea what kind of engineering project this is for us?’ It really just depends on the site.”

Not shockingly, Arabov says that Elite Daily did, in fact, have trouble implementing the tags across the entire site.

“Mobile wasn’t being tracked and we get around 50 percent of our traffic from mobile.” He also says that the company is currenly working with comScore now to clean up the dictionary and have the site properly tagged after signing up for a subscription in August.

Chasin offered another possible cause as de-duplication. It works like this: if TechCrunch is seeing 1 million page views from desktop, and 1 million page views from mobile, ComScore assumes this equals around 1.5 million views, because there is some overlap.

Moreover, comScore only tracks U.S. figures as opposed to international, and filters out any suspect traffic that might be non-human. comScore also uses something called a “dictionary” to filter out any urls that are serving as back-end calls.

On the other hand, Google Analytics measures cookies and “comScore measures people,” as Chasin put it. “We may see 13 billion cookies globally, but that doesn’t mean there are 13 billion people on the internet,” said Chasin.

Google Analytics aims high, comScore aims low.

Funding

In May, at a party located on the rooftop of investor Oliver Ripley’s Black Ocean offices, David Arabo told me the company had no funding. I asked directly if Ripley, who told me himself we were on his property, had invested in the company. “No, we’re bootstrapped,” said Arabov.

In reality, Elite Daily received a total of $62,650 in seed money (along with another $20k in earlier operating expenses from Gerard Adams) in February of 2012, split between Black Ocean and Gerard Adams, a serial entrepreneur and angel investor. Black Ocean partners include Oliver Ripley and Andrew Reis, which have since split up. Both of them still hold equity in the venture. Reis now runs a firm called Sam Stella, which is why Sam Stella is listed as a partner alongside Black Ocean on the Elite Daily masthead.

The $62,650 seed round has already been used up, according to Arabov, but the site is now generating enough revenue to be cash-flow positive. Enough to power the 25-employee startup.

Elite Daily functions out of the same building Black Ocean, and Arabov says he pays rent to Ripley for the space.

When I asked Arabov why he lied about funding, this was his response, via email:

To be honest, we technically never looked at it as a round of funding or ever went out there to get funding. It was more so just money we had the day we registered the company. It was money given to us to get us rolling in the beginning, which only lasted us the initial first 4 months as we had no revenue source back then.

When companies are getting millions of dollars of funding, this wasn’t seen to us as a way of raising a round or anything just to get us a little bit off the ground.

The Awl’s Brendan O’Connor, who spoke to an unnamed former writer and an investor who spoke off the record, reports that Elite Daily has received funding from “whale-sized investors” as well as implying (though never explicitly saying) that Arabov’s father, Jacob Arabo (confirmed to be Jacob the Jeweler) is also funding the venture.

According to Arabov, Black Ocean, and the cap table I was shown, the ~$60k investment is the only funding the company has received at all. Arabov stated that Arabo has no stake in the company, financial or otherwise.

Update (10:10am ET): Gerard Adams has just responded to my email requesting confirmation of the $30k figure, saying that he actually invested somewhere around $50k rather than $30k, as Arabov had said.

Here’s the email:

The reason I wasn’t able to get the exact numbers to you so quickly is because when me, David, and JSP came up with the idea of Elite Daily it was together in my conference room during the time David was interning for me and I didn’t look at it as one of my typical investments where I make one lump some investment as funding for an idea…. this time I was part of the Foundation of the idea along with my partners so I just started paying for operating expenses as we began building the company together. Not only did I truly believe in our concept of Elite Daily, but I believed in David who was a hardworking intern and had many characteristics of a leader and Jonathon who was just as hard-working, tech savvy and very determined. I know the initial amount we spent getting Elite off the ground was about the number David gave you with addition of paying for our videographers salary and a few other operating expenses so I would say an accurate number was $50,000. I apologize for not getting you the exact number quickly but the fact of the matter is this was a different investment then most of my other companies. We decided to bootstrap this thing together and raising money wasn’t even a thought because we were so confident and passionate about our idea, Elite Daily. We nailed it and it quickly was able to catch momentum and turn cash flow positive in just months time. This has been an amazing journey for all of us and we feel blessed to be making such a positive impact on so many lives in Gen Y. It’s awesome when people email us or come up to us from all over telling us that Elite is something they read everyday and has inspired them. We plan on being here awhile so the na sayers can try to knock us down but we will never let it deter us from accomplishing our goals.

O’Connor also implied that David’s brother Benjamin may be involved with Elite Daily, as Ben Arabo works at Elite SEM (a search engine marketing firm) in the building next door to Elite Daily and Black Ocean’s midtown office.

To set the record straight, Elite SEM has been around long before Elite Daily, and the name similarities are a mere coincidence, Arabov insists, as is the location. Plus, Ben is a lower level employee at Elite SEM, which focuses on ad-words to help build traffic to ecommerce sites, not media brands.

Redemption Or Relapse?

elitedaily-clapboardThere’s no question of whether or not Elite Daily serves up low-brow, consumer-driven, misogynist content.

Arabov believes that for every misogynist article, there is a feminist counter article. That remains to be seen.

Some of the most popular posts on the site aren’t particularly misogynist. Here. Have a quick look.

For my part, I’m hoping for redemption. My original post on Elite Daily (which my editor pulled) missed some important points and was inaccurate with others. I apologize, readers, for not digging into the information I was given originally. Where content and media is concerned, page views, content volume and funding are all important when determining the value of a property. I consider it a lesson learned.

In the case of Arabov and Elite Daily, the question is still in the air.

Is it shady to promote Jacob & Co jewelry without mentioning it to readers? According to most journalists, myself included, yes.

Does Arabov have the right to push the line of native advertising on his own site, a self-proclaimed part of a new media generation? I guess so. It’s his site.

Are pseudonyms the best way to give a proud voice to Gen Y, the stated goal of the site? Is that the point? Elite Daily is by Gen Y and for Gen Y, so fuck the status quo?

Or does this character-based strategy degrade the credibility of the content on the site?

More importantly, will Elite Daily make any changes to be a more transparent media institution?

We’re not correcting the record because we particularly like Elite Daily or anyone at the organization. The perception that we were fooled is difficult to shake and I went back to set the record straight. Like all start-ups Elite Daily is a mix of hustle, fibbing (or outright lying), and mismanagement. We’ve seen each of the best startups exhibit these traits.

Still, Arabov seems earnest in his effort to create his own brand of a young media site, and admits to making mistakes along the road.

That Elite Daily was called out to such an extreme degree by The Awl smacks of someone’s sour grapes and little else. We are, because of our legacy, pro-entrepreneur — but not at the expense of the truth. My initial post glossed over Elite Daily at best.

To listen to my full interview with David Arabov and several Elite Daily writers, check out the SoundCloud embed below:

Editorial Note: This interview was interrupted twice. The first time was due to a phone call to my phone, which was ignored and the recording was restarted immediately. The second break is when my interview with David had finished, and we were waiting for the other writers to join us.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of contributing writers as 200. According to the company, Elite Daily in fact has 500 contributing writers.