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.

37 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

What kind of ethics are you expecting from a guy who advised clients to buy stocks he believed to be bad investments? The bar has been set pretty low now, for just about every kind of behavior and performance metric in the nation, so I think you’re expecting too much.

In any case, is that 12 million visitors per month really 12 million page views? If so, how much ad revenue could they possible generate? If advertisers are interested in reaching the gullible (I guess they usually are), then maybe BI’s readers are worth reaching, so let’s say they get 2 cents a page view, for all the ads on each page. That’s $240K per month in ad revenue. Not a whole lot for a staff of 60, but maybe the investors are thinking they will make it up in volume.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

Do you have any idea about the Greek debt maturity schedule?

I am curious when these instruments come due.

Posted by MSwizzle | Report as abusive

Ken G’s comment (re: Blodget’s lack of ethics) should be clearly and distinctly stated in your piece, Felix.

It is the core of why Blodget’s BI does what you’ve outlined–rips off content from other sites with hardly any attribution and no value addition.

This unethicality is the core of Blodget, and thus the core of any business that he starts.

Posted by Aesthete | Report as abusive

And may I add, Felix, that I don’t read BI. I read your blog daily, and am very pleased with Counterparties.

Posted by Aesthete | Report as abusive

I’m sorry Ryan, I addressed Felix in my posts, but failed to closely read the posts author. Please accept my apology.

Posted by Aesthete | Report as abusive

KenG_CA, actually I expect journalists to be factually accurate and have at least a rudimentary handle on the topic being reported and on that measure any website would truly be hard pressed to be worse than the mainstream players such as Bloomberg – who seem to have taken a nosedive since taking over Businessweek – Reuters, FT and NYT.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

One one would hope venture capitalists would eventually catch on to the kind of lazy click-whoring that would earn middle school students an F. But that hasn’t happened yet.

Posted by johnhhaskell | Report as abusive

Honestly, not one scantily clad hot babe picture tied to a story of hot female wall street bankers striping to make ends meet to illustrate your point… We need pictures!!!

Posted by fresnodan | Report as abusive

As long as page views remain the coin of the realm, aggregation and even restating old news will continue to draw financial backing. I thought eyeballs were thoroughly discredited as a means of measuring value over a decade ago, but I guess I’m wrong.

And KenG, insofar as most people remember Henry Blodget today, it’s as someone who was prominent in the dotcom boom. Few around today remember the crash and burn. He has pretty much rehabilitated his image.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

This article assumes people read the news on other sites or care. The news and specifically the AP is commodity. The reason BI has to post these items is because their community of their site demands it. They have comments, funny comments and regulars who make what would otherwise be stilted boring AP news stories, interesting and funny. This is the same reason Huffington Post succeeded. Its about the community around the news. Without the stories (that nearly every news site will have) BI cannot deliver what it’s community craves – more content.

Blodget has the right idea – create the New York Post, for business news. It works. The headlines are funny. They make you laugh and read the comments on the stories. The articles in and of themselves I can read anywhere. I go to BI because of the voice and community.

As soon as traditional news sites understand this, the sooner they can get out in front.

Posted by laurent1056 | Report as abusive

Felix, the Aggregator/content farm issue is … well, it is what it is. Henry’s a relatively small player and therefore a relatively unimportant piece of this puzzle.

AOL, of course, is the worst offender ( http://answerguy.com/2011/02/04/aol-cont ent-farm-search-engine-optimization/ ), but let’s face it; big numbers a redistribution are what’s driving this debate.

Posted by virtualvip | Report as abusive

I fully agree with this article and have decided to cancel all Business Insider newsletter subscriptions which was the main reason for my visits (curious headlines but light on content).

And now that I know that they scrape and steal from people like Marco (and even use his name by posting it as if he is a BI author), that in my book is unethical. Bye bye Business Insider.

Posted by Supertino | Report as abusive

And don’t forget the photos for their slideshows, which they troll Flickr and other sites for, claiming to have no media budget to pay photographers yet boasting in the headline of the post you link to, “A Huge Thank-You To IVP And RRE For Giving Us A Boatload Of Money”

Posted by akuban | Report as abusive

I find BI to be an invaluable compendium of news and information that is exactly what I’m looking for in an era of information overload.

BI curates a wide range of sources and provides links to the original sources. This is modern journalism in the Information Age. Get over it.

By the way, impugning Henry Blodget’s integrity will get you nowhere. He may have over-reached during the dot com bubble but is no more guilty than Michael Milken was back in the 1980′s.

Henry is an authoritative reliable source and appreciate his work and his opinions greatly.

Posted by MBretzfield | Report as abusive

MBretzfield, Blodget got into trouble exactly because shilling for crappy dot.coms bothered him. Without that questioning he would have got off like every single person on CNBC, Meeker etc.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

I love BI & go there several times a day. I dont come to Reuters even once a day. Instead of complaining about it like a cry-baby I suggest Reuters compete with them by understanding their main value proposition. The main reasons I visit BI are:

1. BI summarizes the key facts of an article down to a few bullet points, and reduces the time I have to spend reading long winding, poorly written articles

2. It provides me an up to the minute summary brought together from WSJ, NY Times, Reuters, and a slew of other sites

3. I like the community & the comments which can sometimes be quite insightful (not always)

4. I often like the analysis that Henry provides. I dont think the original analysis from the other authors on the site is equally good, but if it were I would spend much more time reading their articles too.

Posted by BlueKai | Report as abusive

For all those standing up for Blodget’s integrity, tell me how you would feel if you paid Merrill Lynch for advice on investing in stocks, and they told you to buy stocks that internally they said were garbage? Because that is what Blodget paid a $2 million fine and gave back $2 million in profits for, not to mention agreeing to a permanent ban from the securities industry.

If that’s your definition of integrity, then you’ve set the bar really low.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

No surprise. It’s the same way he (and others) wrote equity research reports . . . cut and paste here, grab a quote there. I know it & go there. It’s readable & topical – I get the linkbait, I get the stealing . . . he just got $7 mln more in funding, so it must be working. Blame USA Today, MTV and an over-A.D.D.-ization of a lazy society. He’s smart enough to game it & make $$ — he’s a Wall Street veteran.

Posted by TecNo | Report as abusive

KenG_CA, he was writing institutional research. Fund managers don’t pay for research, hence why analysts were remunerated based on the amount they prostituted themselves to IB. Anyone who thought ratemypoo.com was worth 100bn based on a research note deserved to be separated from their cash. Weird no one was bitching when those stocks were climbing.

BlueKai, why would Reuters compete when they can get paid by genocidal dictators like Kim Jeong Il to regurgitate their lies and photoshop pictures from the Middle East whilst getting their “journalists” to fabricate quotes, that is when they are not writing pieces on finance that are just laughably incorrect. Reuters makes most of their money selling products to the wholesale financial markets. Their quote unquote journalism is just there for the ride.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

I can’t fault people for trying to get attention and earn a living and grow a business. Until somebody comes up with some kind of micropayments system that works, the internet media revolves around getting traffic. That being said, BusinessInsider’s analysis is usually much better than some other of the bigger tech media. I have frequently emailed BusinessInsider staff and have found them to be significantly more articulate, attentive, and empathic than other media I have chatted with. Given the stunts that companies pull to try and get attention (viral marketing stunts or videos, using the companies listed at http://buyfacebookfansreviews.com to buy Facebook fans, or even flat out publishing untrue stories that they know are false, what BusinessInsider does to try and get more traffic is really, really tame and I don’t think they should be harshly criticized. That being said, keeping an eye on them and monitoring how they conduct themselves to keep them honest is very legitimate and a good idea.

Posted by AgentEOrange | Report as abusive

Danny, why do you cut him so much slack? He was pushing stocks he said internally were garbage. Are you saying his job demanded that, so he shouldn’t be held accountable, or to any kind of standard?

And ML doesn’t just give that research to their institutional customers, they give it to all of their clients who ask for it. It’s easy for you to dismiss those analysts notes, because you seem to work in that industry, but for somebody who who spends most of their time running their business and relies on “professionals” for financial advice, they’re going to listen to guys like Blodget, because after all, they work for a big Wall St. firm.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

“Over-aggregation,” “user-generated content, and “content farms” are all symptoms of the same disease: the strategy of relying on filler material and SEO instead of building an editorial product with long-term value. Sometimes the strategy works (as it did for Arianna Huffington), and sometimes it doesn’t. But it shouldn’t be surprising that startups and their backers give short shrift to editorial considerations when they’re going for the big score.

Posted by Durant_Imboden | Report as abusive

Why would you be suppressed of over-aggregation from Business Insider. This is a business that is founded/run by Henry Blodget. He regularly gives advice to folks and start-ups, talks about his accomplishments such as being one of the top traders/analysts in his day, but never mentions that he was banned from the securities business for life!

Posted by JimGoodman | Report as abusive

Henry Blodget is doing what the economics of the online media ecosystem demands. The reality is that a pageview is a pageview no matter if you spent a day going to interview someone then writing the article.

A pageview is a pageview no matter if the content is original.

We have no mechanism to distinguish quality journalism from the rest, and then reward the one that’s done the work.

I blame Google for depressing the value of advertising to a level where it can still make money while media producers struggle.

If you don’t need to produce original content but can just point to it you have a huge advantage over those that have to pay journalists, editors, photographers, receptionists, office landlords, pension plans, healthcare, and donuts.

Just point to it, rephrase the content, you’ll save huge amounts on your costs of doing business.

And there’s not much money there, the value of a pageview keeps dropping, you need to generate ever larger volumes.

In 2010 Business Insider made a profit of just over $2,000. That’s on revenue of about $5 million, This is not a high profit margin business.

It’s impressive that Business Insider managed to raise this kind of money.

I would question if the money is from sources that see a benefit from Business Insider covering their investments in startups, industry, or sector because the economics of a new media company in today’s world is very unattractive compared with other investments.

Posted by Foremski | Report as abusive

JimGoodman, when did he say he was one of the top traders and in his day he WAS one of the top analysts.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

Very late to this topic but I’ll add my 2 cents that outstanding aggration is at least as valuable, if not MORE valuable than outstanding original content generation.

Aggration of well written inciteful content by lesser known writers can help THE BEST FINANCE BLOGGER ON THE WEB to move from a great, but not widely read portfolio.com, to one of the globes Tier-1 news and information resoures like Reuters.

Posted by y2kurtus | Report as abusive

Please, y2kurtus, you’ll just encourage him.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

Doesn’t Techmeme do something similar. It aggregates content, reorganizes it into lists of “search results” and gets those pages indexed on Google, which often out-rank the original content.

I wonder, how much of Techmeme’s content is direct vs from Google, and should Techmeme be redistributing its content to Google anyway…?

Posted by Saminal | Report as abusive

Regarding Marco Arment’s update at the end — it doesn’t seem that BusinessInsider is relying on the permissions he granted with a CC BY license on his blog at all. Google the following

site:articles.businessinsider.com “click here to continue reading at”

and you see lots of similarly replicated articles from sites that aren’t offering any CC license.

If they are intending to rely on the CC license Marco offered, they should fully comply with it — they haven’t provided license notice which 4(a) of creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/lega lcode requires, and they would seem to have problems with 4(b) as well which says “You may not implicitly or explicitly assert or imply any connection with, sponsorship or endorsement by the Original Author, Licensor and/or Attribution Parties, as appropriate, of You or Your use of the Work, without the separate, express prior written permission of the Original Author, Licensor and/or Attribution Parties.”

Posted by MikeLinksvayer | Report as abusive

“In an advertising supported business, a pageview is a pageview, original or not.”

That’s why journalists like Ryan should write for user-paid publications. There are plenty to chose from and they need good quality writing

Posted by GregGolebiewski | Report as abusive

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