When Sarah Lacy announced at one of our live events that Business Insider founder Henry Blodget would be a guest at PandoMonthly NYC, she heard actual hisses from the audience. Like the kind reserved for silent movie villains with twirled mustaches. You’d think Blodget murdered Dudley Do-Right’s girlfriend.
So why do people hate Henry Blodget? Or if that comes off a little strong, then what are the sources of anti-Blodgetism?
Well, for those who don’t know, Blodget was a controversial figure long before he entered journalism. In the late 90’s and early 00’s, he worked as an Internet stock analyst for Merrill Lynch. His status as a star analyst was cemented when he accurately predicted that Amazon’s share price would rise to $400. But many of his other predictions didn’t pan out so well. Remember Pets.com? eToys? Blodget was a fan of both, at least publicly. After the great dotcom crash wiped out these companies, Blodget became one of many symbols of that era’s excess and hysteria.
Bad judgment during the dotcom bubble shouldn’t be reason enough to hate someone. If that was the case, almost any tech entrepreneur or investor over the age of 40 would be similarly despised.
But Blodget’s sins run deeper.
As an analyst with Merrill Lynch, Blodget trashed certain stocks in private internal emails that the company publicly endorsed. In one email Blodget called Excite “such a piece of crap!” while Merrill Lynch gave it a 2 rating in its public assessment, the second-highest rating possible. This malfeasance led the SEC to permanently ban Blodget from the securities industry and charge him $4 million in penalties.
So where’s a guy to go after his misconduct was considered so great that he was permanently barred from his industry?
After contributing pieces to Slate and a widely read op-ed to The New York Times, Blodget founded Silicon Alley Insider, which later became Business Insider. The site, which launched in 2007, publishes a wide and sometimes vexing array of news and analysis, much of it aggregated from other news sources, and usually affixed with an eye-popping headline (my favorites are headlines that start with “You Won’t BELIEVE…”).
But the storytelling format that has come to define BI in the public eye has been the slideshow. Slideshows about wealthy dogs. Slideshows about Disney princesses. Slideshows about yachts. Even, on occasion, slideshows about business. It’s not that a simple juxtaposition of photos and words is so terrible. It’s the perception that BI will turn anything into a slideshow because it means more clicks, even at the expense of the user’s experience. (Mercifully, BI has now added a “View as one page” option to its picture galleries).
Then there are stories Blodget writes himself. Early on, the majority of Blodget’s posts were easy-reading yet analytically-sound blog hits that effectively got to the heart of a number of tech stories. But of late his posts have become stranger and stranger, sometimes even veering into the realm of outsider art.
In one, Blodget expresses genuine bemusement at finding a newspaper (of all things!) outside his hotel room. But his tour de force was “I Was Quite Surprised By Some Things On My American Airlines International ‘Economy Class’ Flight,” a 28-page slideshow about how there were some things that he liked and some he didn’t about flying economy on an international flight. The gulf between the reach of Blodget’s voice and the utterly inconsequential subject matter of the post (not to mention the absurd article format) made it a strange yet memorable artifact of modern Internet content. It’s the Jerry Seinfeld of blog posts. Of course, people fucking hated it.
This is the harmless stuff. Other times, Blodget seems to court controversy. For instance, there was his “Why Do People Hate Jews?” shtick. Blodget could have googled “history of anti-Semitism” for an answer. Instead he posed the question as a shamelessly click-baity and provocative headline, which, intentionally or not, threatened to trivialize a serious problem. (Blodget went on to change the headline and wrote that he regretted writing the piece)
Most recently, Blodget took heat for calling on the NYC restaurant Balthazar to stop using bathroom attendants. Honestly, it’s a reasonable plea. I encountered one last week unexpectedly at a Chance the Rapper concert and yeah. Sure. They’re kind of awkward. Again, people were bothered by Blodget’s inconsequential complaint. Rich people problems, etc. But when the owner of Balthazar said he would discontinue bathroom attendant service, it caused a minor uproar, as if Blodget had lost these poor guys their jobs. It turned out that the owner merely reassigned the workers, but the story might not have ended so happily.
So where does that leave us? Is Blodget a calculating financial criminal now applying his loose ethics to the field of journalism? Is he simply playing the same game as his traffic-chasing peers across the Internet? Or is he as naive as he claims when he says he didn’t expect the outcry to headlines like “Why Do People Hate Jews?”
In his defense, while his site’s all-caps headlines and shameless slideshowifying may have shocked in 2011, the world of content today is more like Business Insider than Business Insider itself. The shock-and-awe of Upworthy headlines make Business Insider look like the stately New York Times. And the prodding hate-reads you see emanating from places like Thought Catalog are far more destructive to our digital well-being than anything Business Insider writes. The site has also begun investing in more long-form journalism like Nicholas Carlson’s epic piece on Yahoo, which was not only well-regarded but also well-read, clocking over a million views.
Blodget has also been a great ambassador for getting investors interested in content companies by making his site’s impressive growth metrics public and evangelizing about how the future of news is bright, both economically and otherwise. He’s led by example, proving himself to be a deft fundraiser and entrepreneur, raising over $18 million for his site. That said, there’s still the issue of profits. According to Ken Auletta’s profile of Blodget, Business Insider lost $3 million in 2012, about a quarter of its revenue. However, Blodget calls the loss an “investment” and emphasizes that its only spent about half the $13 million it had raised prior to its most recent round. The company even turned a small profit in the first quarter of 2013, he says.
One could argue that even if Business Insider isn’t the worst offender of these questionable content practices, it helped shape the heated, page-view reliant model that dominates journalism today. Maybe there was no other way to drive the growth of BI, which in January announced 23 million unique visitors a month. And on Twitter, BI editor Steve Kovach says the company broke 30 million uniques last month.
Hopefully, some of this will be settled at next week’s PandoMonthly, where Sarah Lacy will ask Blodget about where Business Insider is headed, whether content companies can be built on quality or do they need to shamelessly chase traffic and clicks, and what the hell was he thinking when he sat down to write his most controversial blog posts.
[Correction: An earlier version of the story misquoted the number of unique visitors at most recent count as only 8 million]