Washington Blade’s Fishy Rise in Readers

If Newt Gingrich can do it, so could the Washington Blade.

It appears that The Blade, Washington’s LGBTQ newspaper, has seen a sharp rise in Facebook likes and Twitter followers in the past week — and one that’s causing some industry insiders to whisper that something fishy may be going on.

In fact, they have purchased a Facebook campaign, Editor Kevin Naff told FishbowlDC in an angry morning phone call Friday in which he grew defensive, hung up on us and insisted, in our first exchange ever, that he’s been in the business way longer than we have. “We have been increasing our social media efforts,” he snapped. “We have been partnering with bloggers and we purchase an advertising campaign on Facebook, something anyone can do if you have money.”

But pssst…could they be buying Twitter followers? Just how manufactured is their following? A little over a week ago, the publication pole vaulted from 9,000 followers to 12,000 overnight. Then from 11 p.m. to 2.am. on that Thursday night/Friday morning they leaped from roughly 12,000 to nearly 14,000 followers. Now they’re resting at 14,157, which weirdly means they lost 212 followers over the weekend. On Friday they had 14, 369 followers. Previously they were several thousand below the national gay snark site, Queerty, on Twitter and below the local gay site Metro Weekly on Facebook in terms of likes. Now The Blade is hundreds above both.

“It’s real easy,” barked Naff. “It [the Facebook campaign] gets your name out there and encourages people to read our stories.” Naff accused Metro Weekly personnel of planting this story, which, in effect would turn this whole story into a good old-fashioned cat fight. “You shouldn’t fall for the petty vendetta,” he said. “There’s nothing unethical about what we’ve done.” Naff snarled that part of the reason for the jump is their recent hire, Phil Reese, as digital manager. (This was before the phone went dead.)

To give an overview, from February to November of this year The Blade went from the 7,000 range to 9,000. Suddenly last week they vaulted to the arena of 14,000. Metro Weekly‘s Facebook count at the moment is: 5,610 likes. Their Twitter following: 6,676.

“There’s just no way you can go up that quickly,” remarked an insider who thinks The Blade manufactured the whole jump.

Sean Bugg, Co-publisher of Metro Weekly, remarked on the sudden jump based on his own experiences in the business. “Obviously I have no direct knowledge of how the Washington Blade either gains or maintains their Twitter feeds or how they get their followers on Facebook,” he told FBDC. “I do know from experience that it’s very difficult and very eyebrow raising to see five to six thousands readers come through in one evening. It makes you wonder, what’s the cause of that? For us, we had Lady Gaga tweeted out our video of her. That got us over a 140 thousand YouTube hits, but it wasn’t this sudden increase of Twitter followers. Web traffic doesn’t necessarily convert to Twitter following or Facebook increases. You get spikes. You generally see a more steady growth in these things.”

What does Bugg think is happening here? “I can’t say specifically what might be happening, but it’s the kind of thing that raises my eyebrows,” he said. “I don’t have access to their internals, but we work in journalism. All of us are trained to look at data that looks kind of odd.”

But Karl Frisch, a Democratic strategist at Bullfight Strategies and an early adapter and expert in Social Media — his Twitter subscriber number is 3365 — says the seemingly seismic shift in The Blade‘s following may not be as outlandish as some are making it out to be. “That would coincide with advertising,” he said, noting that he has seen a number of Blade ads on Facebook. “I would say it’s unusual, but The Blade has a sophisticated approach to social media. When they came back from the dead they committed a lot of resources to Facebook and Twitter. I’ve seen the ads. I think  buying adversting is very common.”

Frisch said readers still get to choose where they’ll go. “Someone still has to click ‘follow’. They have to show that they’re interested in following you. I’ve been on Twitter since the second week that it existed in 2006. Given what I know of them, I would say that they are perhaps in the midst of a good bit of traffic to their accounts. I’d be interested to see where it is in two weeks.”

The Blade may even want to hire Frisch, who didn’t raise his voice or slam the phone down once during a polite conversation about web traffic and advertising.