Business Insider editor and CEO Henry Blodget has published a 91-slide presentation and accompanying article in which he expresses an optimistic view for the “future of news,” envisioning a world of global digital news empires with hundreds of millions of readers and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue all within 10 to 20 years. Under the appropriately link-baity headline “BUSINESS INSIDER SECRETS REVEALED!” he lays out what he has learned about digital publishing since the site’s inception in a New York City loading dock in 2007.
Blodget’s sunny vision for the digital future leans on the cost-efficient benefits of the form, the importance of “native” content, a comprehensive approach to news discovery, and a multi-platform approach.
Among Blodget’s many data points, the most useful is his parsing of “digital revenue” from “digital display advertising.” While digital display ad growth is flattening, digital ads are cheaper than their print counterparts, and mobile is pressuring CPM, Blodget points out that digital advertising in general and digital content revenue are both growing rapidly, while the New York Times has proven at least one instance in which a subscription model can work – to a degree.
“Digital cannot support print economics,” he writes. “But!” – and here he’s doing that annoying Business Insidery thing where content is spread out over individual slides in order to generate more clicks – “Digital can support digital economics!”
Part of the reason for that is that digital newsrooms can be very efficient, says Blodget, a former Merrill Lynch Internet analyst who in 2003 was barred from the securities industry and paid a $2 million fine to settle charges related to alleged fraud but has since established himself as a savvy media figure. In a graph that compares Business Insider’s efficient newsroom favorably to the digital teams at Forbes, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, Blodget claims that Business Insider has nearly 180,000 readers per editorial employee.
Of course, one of the reasons Business Insider has been able to keep its editorial team light is that it has mastered the art of aggregation and coupled it with sensationalist headlines that just beg to be clicked on. Often, these headlines disappoint, followed as they are by a story or snippet that doesn’t quite pack the “gee whiz!” punch promised by the promo. But, like the suckers for snacky content many of us are, we keep on clicking, eager to learn just why Apple is so nasty to its employees, what exactly a Hedge Fund War is, or to get the bite-sized version of a New York Magazine story on why Tide detergent is being traded for crack cocaine.
To borrow a phrase, Business Insider’s content is often high on sugar and low on nutritional value – it just so happens that sugar is far more addictive than celery. Can someone with a horticultural background tell me whether or not sugar is cheaper to produce than it is to grow celery? Because that would really help my metaphor here, and it would provide the perfect segueway into my next line, which is that it’s good for Business Insider that the cheaply produced stuff can still attract a big audience.
Blodget makes a defense for that sort of content – the listicles, the charticles, the slideshows, the GIFs, the links, the “photo essays” (
a flattering term he uses to mean a string of pilfered photos re-published with a grabby headline Update: Blodget has been in touch on Twitter to assure me that Business Insider does publish original photo essays by its own photographers. Here’s an example. In other cases when the site has published photo essays from other parties, it has done so with their permission. Here’s an example of that. I used the word “pilfered” uncharitably, and for that I apologize.) – by arguing they’re “native” to digital publishing, just as articles and videos are native to print and TV. He does note that there is still room for videos and articles on digital platforms, too.
Blodget also takes a shot at BuzzFeed, which has built a large audience by producing content that is eminently shareable on Twitter and Facebook. “Contrary to what you occasionally hear, ‘social’ is not the be-all and end-all for digital news sites (in fact, the importance of “social” is grossly overstated),” he writes. Instead, Business Insider favors an “all of the above” approach to traffic referrals, tailoring its content to capitalize not only social, but also on search and email.
At the same time, however, Blodget points out that the homepage has lost its primacy for digital publications. In an era of distributed content, every page is a front page, stories travel separately from their publications, and they have to be available on all platforms.
Relatedly, he takes stock of the remarkable rise of mobile. About a third of Business Insider’s traffic now comes from tablets or smartphones, and it has extended the reading hours of its readers to commutes, bedtimes, and weekends. But doesn’t mean the publication will go “mobile first.” That would be a dumb strategy, he argues. The publication’s readers like to read its content on all screens, big and small, so it favors a “mobile, too” approach. In any case, he reasons, many Business Insider readers prefer big screens – which, one must concede, are much more conducive to viewing click-bait slideshows.
In the context of all the doom and gloom about newspapers and magazines shutting down or going online-only, Blodget’s optimistic view must be a ray of sunshine for media industry watchers. But don’t too excited. After all, a more cynical reading of Blodget’s presentation shows that media operations of the future will require fewer editorial staff while relying more on gimmicky share-bait, and serving up more of those false-promise headlines.
Digital news organizations today, Blodget reckons, are like cable news channels in the 1980s. “Everyone is worried about ‘the future of news,’” Blodget says in his slideshow, before following up with a one-word slide: “Relax.”
Digital works, he promises. “The world has never been better informed.”
[Photo by llee_wu]