The marketing of financial products promises far higher profit margins than the online “affiliate” businesses that underlie websites like The New York Times’s Wirecutter. While a publisher recommending a gadget on Amazon might earn a single-digit percentage of a shopper’s purchase, the “bounties” paid to Red Ventures for directing a consumer to a Chase Visa Sapphire Reserve credit card or an American Express Rose Gold card can range from $300 to $900 per card.
The arrival of Red Ventures’ executives hasn’t always gone over well among the journalists who find themselves working under Mr. Elias. Journalists, like members of a medieval guild (the guild hall is Twitter), tend to be more connected to the folkways of their profession than to any corporate culture, and some roll their eyes at Red Ventures’ rah-rah retreats, which feature fireworks and song. More troublingly, some reporters at The Points Guy, which also covers the travel industry in general (it has been a comprehensive source for information on where vaccinated Americans can travel), have complained that the new owners have eroded the already rickety wall between the site’s service journalism and the credit card sales that fund it.
Red Ventures is “all about profit maximization,” said JT Genter, who left the site more than a year ago. He and other Points Guy writers said they hadn’t been pushed to publish stories they found dubious — indeed, the site has occasionally offered carefully critical coverage of Chase and American Express, its dominant business partners. But he noted that Points Guy journalists are required to attend regular business meetings detailing how much money the site makes from credit card sales, which some take as a tacit suggestion to put their thumbs on the scale.
Mr. Elias said Red Ventures has a “nonnegotiable line” concerning the editorial independence of its sites, adding that he has given his cell number to CNET employees and instructed them to call him if they ever face pressure from the business side.
“I told them, ‘There’s a red line,’ and they’re like, ‘OK, we’ll see,’” he said.
Red Ventures’ roots in marketing, its investment in tech aimed at selling you something and its almost-accidental move into trying to provide readers with trusted, even journalistic, advice have made for an odd amalgam. And the company’s Silicon Valley style extends only so far. Its employees don’t receive equity in the company, and lunch isn’t free, just subsidized.
The company does offer a maxim-happy workplace, though, with inspirational slogans printed on the walls of its atrium in cheery fonts. The one I heard executives refer to most was “Everything Is Written in Pencil,” a motto that makes sense for a company that has changed almost entirely from its marketing origins to become a leading purveyor of service journalism. And its executives seem to have absorbed the idea that they are selling trust, even if they don’t put it in the language of journalism professors.
“Brand and trust are at the core of everything that we do,” said Courtney Jeffus, the president of the company’s financial services division, which includes Bankrate. “If you lose brand interest, then you don’t have a business.”