The news that Business Insider raisedapproximately $7 millionshould be great news for those who follow the world of web media. Henry Blodgets 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 theres reason to be concerned about what Blodgets team has sacrificed along the way. Its 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 ofover-aggregatingfrom source material.)
Take this article, for example, which employs one of the sites characteristically amusing headlines ITS OFFICIAL: The Recession Has Created A New Lost Generation. The piece was, as of this morning, posted prominently near the top of Business Insiders home page, but its a flat-out rehash of astrong piece by the AP. So far, Business Insiders piece has attracted 4,600 views, per their stats.
The AP summarizes new Census data, which can be foundhere, 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 Insiders piece offer? By my count, the piece reprints seven datapoints from the APs article. It offers one link to the APs piece, and no link to the Census departments 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 theyd simply cut and paste the entire AP article onto their site.
Heres another example, which got 12,000 views per the sites stats. Business Insiderwrote 112 wordson a 182-wordTMZ storyon 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 players contract and information about his child support obligations.
This seems to go against thebasic principlesof 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 pieceoffers only one external link to a slideshow on greeting cards andthis piecetakes the choicest portions ofForbes rich list. And, of course, Business Insider isnt 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 Insiders coverage of its investors. Inthis post, Henry Blodget discloses that Marc Andreessen is a Business Insider investor, but theres no disclosure inmanyofthe piecesonthe sites pagededicated to Andreessen. Theres also inconsistency with respect to disclosures on the sites mentions ofKen Lerer, who also co-founded the Huffington Post.
None of this is intended to say Business Insider doesnt 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. Joes crafted the sites voice after his own. He regularly posts Wall Streetanalyst reportsthat others dont get, and hes able to provide the kind ofquick contextthat works really well for Blodgets readership. Blodget, for his part, can be a great blogger and has a particular knack foranalyzing 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 Insiders 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 Insiders 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 hasnt happened yet.
Update:Marco Armentconcurs, from the point of view of someone regularly aggregated by TBI: Business Insiders mass replication of my writing is the only downside that has ever made me reconsider my Creative Commons license, he writes.