Volume > Issue > Attack of the Bots!

Attack of the Bots!


By Pieter Vree | October 2018
Pieter Vree is Editor of the NOR.

At Christmastime last year, the NOR came under attack. Who was responsible remains a mystery — it could have been the Russians or the Redcoats, ISIS or MS-13, Antifa or the KKK, Francis fanatics or Fatima fundamentalists. Truth be told, we’ve yanked a lot of chains over the years. But a couple things are certain: The attack came close to being crippling (though we’ve survived to this point), and the effects will have long-term consequences (and not all of them bad).

Here’s the skinny: Leading up to the great feast, we noticed an uptick in transactions at our website, approximately 50 new orders over three days. Ah, we thought, a mini-flood of new subscribers. What a blessing! The activity died down as Christmas Eve approached, as was to be expected. But after the holy day, it kicked back up again. And over the course of two days we received some 200 new orders. Hmm, something’s not right here, we thought. All the transactions were in the same amount, and all the orders were from the same person (but with different credit cards), totaling some $5,000. We ran some reports and discovered that these orders were accompanied by thousands of declined transactions totaling $97,000. Egad! This was no blessing; it was a curse. We were being attacked by bots!

Immediately we contacted our web-hosting company and disabled our checkout page. We would have to suspend all monetary activity at our website until this was resolved. To our chagrin, this took weeks. In that span, we were unable to accept any legitimate new-subscription orders, renewals, or donations. This was a major blow to our bottom line: Our website has become one of our primary drivers of regular income. To make matters worse, it came during our year-end fundraising period. Based on typical earnings during comparable periods, we lost out on some $10,000 during the shutdown. (At least the hackers, whoever they might be, had enough respect to give their bots a break for the holidays.) On top of this, our credit-card-processing company was soon banging on our door, telling us we were on the hook for over $5,000 worth of credit-card chargebacks plus $10,000 in fees as a result of the fraudulent activity. Oh no!

While we tried (ultimately, unsuccessfully) to negotiate down the chargeback fees, our payment-processor informed us that it would be in our interest to set up a new account and eliminate the old one, which we did. But the staff at our web-hosting company demurred. After adding new security steps to our ordering system to prevent further fraud, they said they couldn’t assist us with the next step for several weeks — even though we were now losing more money by having two payment-processing accounts. Why the further delay? Well, because they had jobs that were higher priority than ours, and our website, in layman’s terms, was a dinosaur. They had only one employee left who still understood the underlying code, and even that knowledge is fading as he works with newer technologies and development practices. Our site was, they told us, easily their oldest web property still in use. Though it may still function for a while, maintaining and updating it has become progressively more difficult and expensive.

Lo and behold, by the time Easter rolled around, these issues were still unresolved.

So here we were, fresh from celebrating the NOR’s 40th anniversary, and the first year of “The Next Forty,” so eagerly anticipated in an editorial of that title (Dec. 2017), was off to a nightmarish start. “The future of the NOR,” we mused then, “is very much in doubt.” How prescient was that? Before the first half of 2018 was in the books, we were struggling with a $25,000 deficit from the bot attack and were hemorrhaging money paying for two payment-processing accounts while waiting for our web host’s schedule to clear. Meanwhile, the chargebacks were still coming in, though not as frequently (and they’re still trickling in, as of this writing).

The growing deficit wasn’t just a sunk cost; it had a dynamic effect. That $25,000 was a precious sum to us. We had been planning to use it to help fund a direct-mail and print-advertising campaign for new subscribers in the spring. These campaigns average $50,000 at a time. We would have to suspend our spring effort; we’d lost half of our discretionary budget. But without a steady stream of new subscribers to replenish those who quit on a monthly basis, we’ve watched our subscriber base shrink to a critical level. You see, based on volume pricing, the fewer magazines we produce, the higher the per-unit cost of printing and mailing the magazine. Combine the greater costs with a reduction in subscriber income (from declining renewals and nonexistent new subscriptions) and you’ve got quite the vicious cycle, one that’s been the demise of more print publications than we care to remember.

Our website was designed to prop up our print edition. Lately it’s been undercutting it. How quickly we found ourselves staring down the barrel of that dubious future!

We couldn’t afford to go on like this, and we certainly couldn’t afford a repeat of these events. Something had to be done — maybe something drastic.

The NOR first appeared in what was then called the World Wide Web in the late 1990s. An impassioned NOR supporter, Jonathan Fischer, created an NOR website of his own initiative and on his own time — with our approval, of course. We are eternally grateful to Mr. Fischer for giving the NOR its first online presence. The second iteration of the NOR website was developed in the mid-aughts. The fruit of much love and labor by Michael S. Rose (currently the NOR associate editor), it was, at the time of its launch in 2005, ahead of its time: It had more, and more interesting, features than many similar sites, and it was received with rave reviews. But that was then. In the digital world, change follows change at a stunning pace — last night’s upgrades were themselves upgraded this morning — and obsolescence is an immediate reality. If yesterday’s revelation is tomorrow’s relic, what can be said for something that was inaugurated 13 years ago? Our website, marvel though it once was, had become a console tube television in an era of wall-mounted flat screens. However! That it has been functional for this long is a testament to Mr. Rose’s foresight and ability. It’s had a good, long run.

Thirteen years is virtually an eternity in the virtual world, where nothing is static and nothing stays settled for long. We realized that if we hope to stay solvent into the future, we can’t have any more online lapses. There was only one path for us to travel, with one solution at the end of it. We had to upgrade our website. In late spring the decision was made and the die cast.

This time around, however, Mr. Rose, whom we hired in 2005 to be our web designer (and whose role expanded over time), acknowledged that even with his experience and expertise he wasn’t capable of meeting the task of a major redesign. Time and other responsibilities have encroached on his availability. He did, however, spearhead the redesign and will see it to fruition. Once that is accomplished, he will hand the reins to his most capable wife, Barbara E. Rose, who also serves as our book review editor. So, in a departure from our standard m.o., we opted for outside help and contracted with a well-known and reputable web-development team, one that has worked with numerous Catholic apostolates. And now, after months and months of design and implementation, we are pleased to announce the launch of the third iteration of the NOR website.

The web address remains the same. You can still find us at www.newoxfordreview.org. And we’ve retained many of the features that made Rose’s iteration unique and compelled repeat visits. Still intact are our online Archives (which currently date back to 1987), News Link, Topical Dossiers, Ad Gallery, and Gear Shoppe. You can still submit letters to the editor through our website, and Daily Feed emails will still arrive like clockwork into the inboxes of those who’ve opted to receive them.

And those of you who have an extant online subscription can rest assured that your login information has been ported over to our renovated site and will remain in effect until its term expires, at which point you can re-up and enjoy another noteworthy continuity: Our subscription prices will remain the same for the time being.

Of course, as with all things old and new, there are differences. We put a lot of thought into the new layout, which is less cluttered and easier to navigate. Best of all, the new design more closely resembles the classic “look” of the NOR print edition — while keeping apace of the latest trends, including the ability to share NOR material across various platforms, including social media. We invite you to check out our new site and share your favorite NOR articles — or those that anger you, as the case may be! — with your online friends and groups.

At the NOR, we value content over design. For us, content is king. And so one of the more dramatic departures is the addition of a new content-driven feature: The NOR website now hosts a blog platform. Called The Narthex, the NOR blog will feature daily entries from a rotating cast of bloggers, some newbies and some old hands, including Rob Agnelli (a credentialed moral theologian and bioethicist), Richard M. Dell’Orfano (a writer with a science background who practices “intentional pennilessness”), James G. Hanink (a longtime pro-lifer, NOR contributing editor, and former NOR associate editor), and Barbara E. Rose (NOR book review editor, web editor, and noted bibliophile), with others joining the crew over time. The Narthex will be open 24 hours to all visitors to our website. We invite you to see what it’s all about.

And rest assured that our redesigned website has an ordering system that is free of bugs and safe from bots and hackers — of all stripes. We have a streamlined ordering process that boasts strengthened security to prevent future breaches.

For those of you who never saw the value in a subscription to the NOR website, and are still on the fence, we have another new feature: We now offer a 7-day trial subscription free of charge, during which time you can take the NOR website for a “test drive,” with no obligation to join. What’s better than free? You have nothing to lose by trying it out.

Of course, none of these improvements comes without a cost. We have budgeted $80,000 for our website upgrade. It ain’t cheap if you want it done right. And we have to get this right, or it could be our last big hurrah.

Add to that figure the $25,000 loss, plus the evaporation of our $50,000 advertising budget (the other half of which went to cover operating costs), and we’re $155,000 in the hole. But that’s not all.

If we were to raise that sum, we’d be back to where we were before the bot attack happened. Even then we were teetering over a financial precipice. That’s because we haven’t been able to launch a springtime direct-mail campaign since 2014. We simply haven’t had enough money. And that’s due in part to the increasingly fickle nature of direct mail. You see, a dozen years ago, we expected — and usually got — a two percent return: i.e., two new subscribers for every 100 solicitations. We had a pretty thing going. That rate of return meant we typically broke even on our investment. So we were mailing twice a year on a consistent basis. Over time, however, a one-and-a-half percent return with a minor financial loss became our standard of success. Now we’re relieved if we get one percent back and don’t lose our shirts. Yet, despite the diminishing returns, direct mail remains one of the surest ways to draw in new subscribers. (Display ads in other publications can still be effective, but those too have dramatically diminishing rates of return.) So we still do it, for a very simple reason.

Years ago we made a promise to our readers that we wouldn’t abandon the print edition. Even with the rollout of our redesigned website we are determined to buck the trend of resorting to an online-only publication. Two primary factors make a print publication viable: subscribers and money. To address the first, we’ve launched a direct-mail campaign this fall, cashing out our savings account to pay for it. We hope to God it won’t be our last. We’re doing it on nothing more than a wing and a prayer at this point.

To address the second factor, we’re appealing to you, our loyal readers. To cover our losses from the bot attack and subsequent contraction of our subscriber base, underwrite our online and print initiatives (and keep those initiatives going, including resuming spring mailings next year and possibly beyond), and propel the NOR into that dubious future with a fighting chance of survival, we need to raise $205,000. This very well could be our 11th hour. We desperately need your help. Can we count on you?

To help us achieve our fundraising goal, please send your donation to: New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley CA 94706. The NOR is a nonprofit entity and has 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service. Donations are therefore tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. Checks are, of course, to be made payable to New Oxford Review. Credit card donations can be made by clicking the red DONATE button at the top of this page. We thank you for whatever assistance you can muster in this, our hour of need.

One more thing: Please remember the NOR in your prayers. Without divine assistance, all our work is for naught.



An Injection of Fresh Blood

Change is coming but isn’t limited to our website. This is, we felt, an opportune time to refresh our print edition as well. Not to worry! We haven’t “gone glossy” or, like our friends over at America magazine, altered the layout of the pages of the magazine to mimic the look of webpages on a screen. Our readers are too smart to fall for a gimmick that tries to substitute meaty discourse with eye candy. People don’t read the NOR for its style but for its substance.

Therefore, it is the substance of the NOR that we’ve spiced up. We’re pleased to introduce, beginning with this issue, a fresh slate of regular columns. Two are penned by old hands and two by new ones. They will take up the mantle that has included, to great fanfare in the past, such luminaries as Robert Coles (of Harvard Diary fame — his NOR columns were serialized in book form, spanning two volumes), John Warwick Montgomery (Letters from England/Europe), and John C. Cort (Christ and Neighbor).

Our two new columnists are talented young writers whose names will be familiar to NOR readers, as both have appeared in these pages in recent issues. Casey Chalk has written several outstanding articles, columns, and book reviews for the NOR, always bringing to bear on his topics the unique perspective of a cradle Catholic who wandered into non-denominational evangelicalism and then made a pit stop in strident Calvinism before finding his way back home to the Church. His bimonthly column will be called Revert’s Rostrum.

Jason M. Morgan, another bright young mind who has written several excellent articles for the NOR, will bring the privileged insider-on-the-outside perspective of an American living abroad to topics of religion and culture, including pop culture (though not exclusively). His bimonthly column will be called Cultural Counterpoint and will alternate with Chalk’s.

We are thrilled to have these two men on board as regular contributors.

The old hands include Michael S. Rose, our original web editor, who saw his role with the NOR increase over the years until he became associate editor, one of the duties of which has been to assist with filling out the monthly New Oxford Notes column. In addition to stepping down as web editor (after the transition to our renovated website is complete), Rose will step away from this task and begin a new column of his own called Literature Matters, in which he will examine great works of literature and how they apply to our lives.

Meanwhile, Pieter Vree, the other erstwhile regular contributor of New Oxford Notes (along with Rose), will shift to writing a column called New Oxford Notebook. It will be a continuation of the New Oxford Notes column, now of happy memory, which was begun in 1999 by then-editor Dale Vree with the assistance of then-deputy editor J.A. Gray. The younger Vree’s column will continue the hallowed New Oxford Notes tradition of edifying and occasionally outraging readers while examining the burning topics of the day.

The News You May Have Missed column will continue to run in its usual spot on a monthly basis, and we’ll still publish the occasional guest column. All four new columns appear for the first time in this issue. Flip forward to find them, or simply refer to the table of contents on page three. Prosit!

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