Business Insider, over-aggregation, and the mad grab for traffic

September 22, 2011

By Ryan McCarthy

The news that Business Insider raised approximately $7 million should be great news for those who follow the world of web media. Henry Blodget’s got a flat-out growth story on his hands: his staff of 60 now attracts 12 million visitors a month, according to their internal stats.

But there’s reason to be concerned about what Blodget’s team has sacrificed along the way. It’s worth noting that venture-backed media companies can very much be in a race against time for growth. Investors want a return on their money and, given the economics of web news, that almost always requires exponential growth in uniques and pageviews. (Note: I worked at the Huffington Post from 2009 until mid-2011. The Huffington Post, like many others, has been guilty of “over-aggregating” from source material.)

Take this article, for example, which employs one of the site’s characteristically amusing headlines “IT’S OFFICIAL: The Recession Has Created A New Lost Generation.” The piece was, as of this morning, posted prominently near the top of Business Insider’s home page, but it’s a flat-out rehash of a strong piece by the AP. So far, Business Insider’s piece has attracted 4,600 views, per their stats.

The AP summarizes new Census data, which can be found here, talks to economists and provides very valuable analysis of what this new data says about our economy. Very little of this is readily apparent from the Census news releases, by the way. The AP reporter, Hope Yen, did the hard journalistic work of sussing out these figures.

What does Business Insider’s piece offer? By my count, the piece reprints seven datapoints from the AP’s article. It offers one link to the AP’s piece, and no link to the Census department’s latest release. Nor does it offer any original analysis, context or information It does, however, link to a Business Insider slideshow of “19 scary facts about getting a job in this economy” at the bottom of the page. I have no real idea if Business Insider pays for AP content — I can only assume that if it did they’d simply cut and paste the entire AP article onto their site.

Here’s another example, which got 12,000 views per the site’s stats. Business Insider wrote 112 words on a 182-word TMZ story on a former NFL running back who is now living with his parents. There are two quotes in the original piece, which TMZ says were obtained from court documents. Business Insider reprints both quotes wholesale, then lifts almost every other fact from the original article, including details on the player’s contract and information about his child support obligations.

This seems to go against the basic principles of fair use — it diminishes the source article, and neither piece is transformative or adds any new information. But both posts certainly bring up issues of fairness. A minimum of effort could have added links to related stories on these pieces. With a little bit more effort the writer could have made observations about the larger context of these stories.

There are, of course, other examples — this piece offers only one external link to a slideshow on greeting cards and this piece takes the choicest portions of Forbes‘ rich list. And, of course, Business Insider isn’t alone in the practice of repurposing content for no other reason then keeping pageviews. But surely, in each case, Business Insider is actually keeping us one click away from interesting, original coverage, not bringing us closer to it or informing us about it.

There are also a  number of sticky disclosure issues with Business Insider’s coverage of its investors. In this post, Henry Blodget discloses that Marc Andreessen is a Business Insider investor, but there’s no disclosure in many of the pieces on the site’s page dedicated to Andreessen. There’s also inconsistency with respect to disclosures on the site’s mentions of Ken Lerer, who also co-founded the Huffington Post.

None of this is intended to say Business Insider doesn’t do some very smart web journalism. Joe Weisenthal, in particular, appears to work inhuman hours and is one of the smartest and most prolific voices in business journalism. Joe’s crafted the site’s voice after his own. He regularly posts Wall Street analyst reports that others don’t get, and he’s able to provide the kind of quick context that works really well for Blodget’s readership. Blodget, for his part, can be a great blogger and has a particular knack for analyzing failures.

So why does Business Insider risk undermining all that highly original, distinctive content for what appear to be roughly 18,000 article views? When media companies are asked to grow at a meteoric pace — and Comscore indicates that Business Insider’s unique visitors have nearly doubled this year — the line between original content and borderline theft gets awful blurry. The editorial mission quickly transforms from “What can I link to?” to “How much can I take?”

To be fair, Business Insider’s more prominent pieces are often its most original. But journalists and readers should be very worried when fast-growth media companies determine the standards for distinguishing between citation and theft.

One would hope readers and advertisers would eventually catch on to the kind of lazy lifting that would earn middle school students an F. But that hasn’t happened yet.

Update: Marco Arment concurs, from the point of view of someone regularly aggregated by TBI: “Business Insider’s mass replication of my writing is the only downside that has ever made me reconsider my Creative Commons license,” he writes.

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