Henry Blodget told me slideshows are "native digital storytelling." Here's what I think of that
Last Friday, Business Insider’s Nicholas Carlson published a 75-page slideshow about his recent business class flight from New York to Beijing. The slideshow, which consists entirely of blurry photos and simplistic captions, each granted its own Web page, has so far generated more than 3 million pageviews.
In August, Carlson published a widely praised 22,000-word profile of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. That story, which took six months to report and is seen by many media watchers as the best piece of journalism to appear on Business Insider, has so far attracted just over 1 million views.
When a slapdash slideshow of a mundane plane trip brings in three times as many pageviews as a deeply reported biography of one of the most fascinating figures in business, you have to wonder why all online publications don’t just drop what they’re doing and pivot to a slideshow-first strategy.
It’s a killer business move, at least in the short term. Every time one of those “slides” – which are really just “pages” – loads, a new ad impression is served. Business Insider makes most of its money from those ads. Each time a new one is loaded, it pockets a few more pennies.
Last time Carlson did one of these slideshows, I was quick to mock him. Carlson had dedicated a 50-page slideshow to documenting, in ludricous detail, his first time staying at an apartment that he booked via Airbnb. One page in that slideshow featured a hotel’s stock photograph of a gym (“... there’s a gym...” said the accompanying text).
To draw attention to the flimsy pretext for this particular pageview grab, I stripped the slideshow of all its pictures and published the words alone as a piece of prose. Aside from being strangely poetic (“The bathroom was small, but who cares / The light was great / Big windows”), the post showed how Carlson, who is a much more talented reporter than this slideshow suggested, had farmed fluff for ad impressions.
Of course, it worked. The slideshow was good for 270,000 views.
During his recent one-on-one interview with Sarah Lacy for PandoMonthly, Business Insider founder, CEO, and editor Henry Blodget took exception to my teasing of Carlson. In the course of calling me out by name a dozen times, Blodget said that slideshows are wonderful things because they’re "native digital storytelling."
The Web, Blodget argued, demands a different approach to storytelling than what you find in print. When TV first emerged, news programs simply featured people reading news from newspapers. That, of course, soon changed, and TV news became a picture-driven medium. Similarly, on radio, sound and music play a greater role in the telling of stories. And so, digital media lend themselves better to different types of storytelling. Such as slideshows.
And that is why, on Friday, Carlson regaled the Internet with 12 pages dedicated solely to what the Lufthansa lounge at JFK looks like on the inside. One of those pages featured a photo of a power socket. (An artist's impression of the slide is shown above.)
To Business Insider’s credit, you can always click the “View as one page” option. But that is not the default setting, and it is given no special prominence on the page. Most people won't even notice it is an option. If they do, and they click that button, they are then presented with a long river of images that gush down the page. When there are 75 such images, one risks severe RSI on attempt to scroll to the finish line.
Readers love this stuff, Blodget claims. People respond to pictures. Snapchat is popular for the same reason. Hence, the slideshow is a gift to readers: a perfect blend of pictorial narrative with drip-fed suspense and a “ta-daa!” pay-off at the story’s conclusion. (In this case it was a photo of hotel room’s interior with the caption “Time to sleep!” Damn, you Nicholas Hitchcock, no one saw that twist coming!)
By Blodget's telling, the fact that these examples of native digital storytelling also happen to maximize ad impressions in the most effortless, craftless way imaginable is not something we should dwell on. Readers love it! Look at those pageviews! Cry into your Earl Grey, snobby media critics! Golden age of journalism!
And, actually, I agree with Blodget. Up to a point. The Web has certain qualities that facilitate a novel approach to storytelling. That is part of the beauty of online media. The Web is interactive, social, dynamic, hypertextual, mobile, and not bound by arbitrary limitations such as word-counts or page sizes. It provides a rich environment for high-definition imagery and film. Thanks to the Web, we can broadcast content asynchronously, nimbly, and at a low cost, and we can blend a panoply of multimedia elements – video, audio, maps, graphics, tweets, status updates, 3D art, animations, gifs, real-time posts – into story experiences that transcend what is offered by print, TV, or radio.
There are many examples of native digital storytelling that back up Blodget’s suggestion that not every piece of news published has to be a block of text. A few highlights:
The New York Times’ interactive graphic that contrasts Port Au Prince before and after the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
Boston.com’s “The Big Picture” feature – see, for example, this item on the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan – which tells news stories solely through stunning photography.
A BuzzFeed listicle that shows the Instagram photos and videos of a fighter in Syria who appears to be affiliated with al-Qaeda.
A Storify of the Boston Marathon bombing, which combines tweets, videos, photos, and links to news stories from the scene and related events in the immediate aftermath.
“Snow Fall,” of course.
The Guardian’s “NSA Files Decoded” interactive feature.
What does not belong on this list, however, is a slideshow that demands that the reader load a new page each time she wants to advance in a story. Especially if there are 75 such pages. Yes, it’s “native digital storytelling” inasmuch as there is no other medium that would facilitate such a reading experience (unless you’re counting PowerPoint). But, it is an impoverished example of the form. It is a mode that serves the media owner much more than the media consumer.
None of the examples I list above treat readers as mere click meat – instead they match the power of the medium to the best-possible consumer experience. Rejecting page-per-photo slideshows in favor of these immersive and novel storytelling techniques is not a case of journalistic snobbery; it is a matter of recognizing a superior reading experience. It is a case of acknowledging publications that respect a reader’s time and intelligence.
In his interview with Lacy, Blodget said that he wished that I, instead of mocking Business Insider’s slideshows, recognized that the company is innovating and trying new things. That it’s still growing and experimenting. That it, like its contemporaries, is trying to figure out how to make the economics of a new media venture work. And of course, I grant Blodget all of those points.
I like Business Insider as a publication. It does some excellent work, as evidenced by Carlson’s Mayer profile, and the one he did recently on AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, and by Alyson Shontell’s recent scoop about the Snapchat founders conceding that the excommunicated co-founder, Reggie Brown, may deserve something in recognition of his contribution to the product.
I can live with the breathless headlines, and the aggregation, and, actually, even the slideshows. The truth is that Business Insider is trying, and it is a good publication. I want it to do well just like I want other media startups to do well. Rising tides, boats, etc.
However, Blodget just has to come clean about these slideshows, which are now getting out of hand. I mean, two of Carlson’s latests are about his first breakfast in China and his day trip to one of the most touristed sites in the world. What’s next? A play-by-play narrative about him brushing his teeth?
These slideshows are not wondrous experiments carried out in the name of pleasing readers and advancing the cause of native digital storytelling. They are economic decisions through which Business Insider is attempting to inflate its pageviews and create ever more excuses for the generation of ad impressions. To an extent, that is fair. The company is using these methods to help pay reporters and fund better journalism. The low-grade slideshows subsidize the serious reporting. But let’s be clear: this is Business Insider gaming the system.
You have to own that, Henry. And you have to wear the mockery. When it comes to these slideshows, you make a choice: credibility or dollars. There’s not much wrong with going for the latter, but you can’t pretend that it’s both.
You can try to dress this up as an innovative case of native digital storytelling, but when you do so you are only fooling yourself.
[Photo by Dineshraj Goomany]