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.”
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.”
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.