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Summary:

It’s easy to make fun of Business Insider’s penchant for slideshows, just as it’s easy to criticize BuzzFeed for its animated GIFs — but everyone is trying to find a balance between what readers want and what they need

During a recent interview with Pando Daily founder Sarah Lacy, Business Insider co-founder Henry Blodget described slideshows and other online-media features — including animated GIFs — as ongoing experiments in what he called new forms of “native digital storytelling.” In a followup post, Pando Daily writer Hamish McKenzie takes direct aim at this idea, and argues that Business Insider doesn’t actually care about things like native storytelling, but is just “gaming the system.” But is that true? And even if it is, is that such a bad thing?

There’s no question that Business Insider’s slideshows are easy to make fun of — as McKenzie himself has done, with a post where he reproduced a BI slideshow but removed all the slides and just included the text, turning it into a kind of child-like prose poem (there’s a Tumblr blog that does the same thing with BuzzFeed, removing all of the animated GIFs, rendering it incoherent).

Slideshows are an easy target

And how could one not make fun of a slideshow like the one Blodget himself did of his otherwise totally ordinary economy-class airplane flight earlier this year, complete with photos of his knees and a breakdown of the various elements of his dinner? The jokes write themselves. One writer said Blodget should be “denied access to a keyboard for the rest of his life.”

no-surprise-the-biggest-challenge-of-long-haul-economy-class-these-days-is-the-lack-of-space-im-not-colossal-or-anything-and-even-when-i-sat-up-straight-there-wasnt-much-room-between-my-knees-and-the-seat-ahead

Blodget, however — in addition to arguing that digital media requires new formats and methods of storytelling because it is a fundamentally new medium — points out that slideshows like his and the more recent one from writer Nicholas Carlson (who detailed a trip to China with more than 75 slides) are also a big hit with readers. Blodget’s post got more than 1.4 million pageviews, and Carlson’s has racked up more than 3.5 million at last count.

McKenzie argues that Business Insider is trading credibility for pageviews in a cynical attempt to trick readers and sell them out to advertisers. As he puts it:

“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. Let’s be clear: this is Business Insider gaming the system.”

Sometimes we just want to be entertained

Instead of such cheap tricks, McKenzie points to what he says are more creative ways of expanding our idea of storytelling online, such as the interactive New York Times feature Snow Fall, Boston.com’s Big Picture, and a BuzzFeed listicle that shows Instagram photos and videos from an Al Qaeda fighter in Iraq. This isn’t a case of journalistic snobbery, the Pando writer says — it’s “a case of acknowledging publications that respect a reader’s time and intelligence.”

Grumpy Cat

Leaving aside for a moment the irony of mentioning a BuzzFeed listicle as a piece of content that “respects a reader’s time and intelligence,” one thing that bothered me about McKenzie’s piece — which makes the same kinds of criticisms of Business Insider that I have heard many times before, usually from media-industry insiders — is that it assumes all readers want only one thing: namely, longform journalism or features that are heavily designed or “serious” in some way.

Blodget may well be overstating his case when he tries to make slideshows and animated GIFs sound like some kind of elevated art form for a new millennium, but the fact that millions of people read those features or watch those GIFs or read those listicles — and share them — means they are serving a purpose. Is it a high moral purpose, the kind served by a report on child slavery? No. But it is entertaining and/or interesting, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Even serious newspapers have a comic section.

In many ways, Blodget is fighting the same battle as BuzzFeed and Gawker are, or even the Washington Post with its new Upworthy-style “Know More” feature — they are all trying to find a balance between the entertaining features that draw readers and the serious journalism that requires doing. Too much of one and you lose your credibility, and too much of the other and you become like NSFW Corp.: you have great content, but you can’t find a way to stay in business.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user TechCrunch and Grumpy Cat Inc.

  1. Great post Matthew! Spot on! If readers want slideshows and listicles and animated GIFs, then give it to them! Is journalism the only profession that chooses to ignore user demands?

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  2. Angry about click bait Friday, November 29, 2013

    Who says readers WANT sideshows and listicles?

    When I open a link and it directs me to a slideshow, I not only don’t go further, I immediately leave a comment letting the publisher know that I’m not going further and that their clickbait effort loses. And I’m not alone.

    If a web publisher doesn’t put it down in a single article, or at the very least provide a “Show All” link on the first page, I’m not going any further. I’ve got enough people trying to lead me by the nose during the workday; I refuse to let some schmuck drag me around some self-important web slideshow.

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  3. business insider, and now buzzfeed, are proof that aversion therapy works …. i NEVER click on a link for either one of them .. too burned in their early days …

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  4. Back in the day, there were these things called newspapers, and magazines. They often contained long sections dedicated to content of dubious hard news value. They went by names like “Special Sections,” or “the Home section,” or “the Travel section,” and their main reason for existing was to create opportunities to sell advertising in them. If creating specialized content to attract advertising amounts to “gaming the system” then publishers have been gaming the system for eons.

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    1. Totally agree, Paul.

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      1. Dorian Benkoil Monday, December 2, 2013

        And, as users above note, they are free to not click — just as I am free to not watch news scream/talk programs I don’t like, reality TV that bores me, song-singing contests I find a waste of time, read pointless articles in my local newspapers and more.

        If I may make an analogy: We could say equally that a certain level of restaurant shouldn’t offer sugary soft drinks or your local gym shouldn’t sell candy. But if these sell, can you fault the business for boosting their profits? (True, these aren’t the so-called fourth and fifth estates, but nutrition and health literally are matters of life and death.)

        The consumer does have free choice.

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  5. Bjornson Bernales Friday, November 29, 2013

    Although I don’t have enough stats to show, but I believe many readers are now preferring slideshows, listicles and GIF’s.

    Do you think Forbes, Business Insider, Mashable and even Huffpost would stop showing slideshows if they haven’t served its purpose? Heck, even Yahoo is doing it.

    The pageview stat is an indicator that slideshows and listicles and even GIF’s are effective in driving more readers and sticking them within the site.

    For a reader’s view, I prefer the slideshows. Yes, I also read long-form contents but honestly, I can’t help but yawn when I’m in the middle of a 1,000-2,000 word article.

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  6. > There’s no question that Business Insider’s slideshows are easy to make fun of …

    Actually, the thing about BI to make fun of is its insane use of headliners such as:

    10 things this and that
    the 8 best things
    25 worst things to do

    Paul Graham of Y-Combinator correctly has expressed disdain for stupid finite lists like this.

    On top of that, Blodgett is a drama queen with his bellowing extravagant voice i.e., “we’re all screwed” , who has nothing better to do since he’s been banned for life from the securities industry by another top notch guy, Saint Eliott Spitzer who has set a great example as a role model for kids via DC Madam. What the world needs more of are good people, entrepreneurs who take calculated risks and do things to make the world a better place and can mentor others, raising the rest of the world up, not more Murdoch-like rags like Business Insider. Please GigaOm, no need to write more articles about your Business Insider fetish.

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  7. Scott M. Fulton III Monday, December 2, 2013

    I believe this whole article may be completely beside the point. Modern Web design gives a server any number of new and even elegant means to deliver slideshows, without the need to reload the page with each slide and register a new hit each time. And throughout my career, I’ve been given reason to sincerely believe that the reason many sites deliver slideshows is not because the readers are clamoring for oh, so many great slideshows, but rather that there’s quotas to be met and the articles alone aren’t meeting them. (In fairness, this excuse has also been applied to multi-page articles.)

    If there is nothing wrong with slideshows — a point which I will concede — then a site should expedite the means to deliver them in a manner that best suits the reader. And I believe that manner does not involve reload, reload, reload, reload, reload.

    SF3

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