Business Insider and Financial Press Sensationalism

Henry Blodget & Co. stroke the id of the Internet

What business press readers always lacked but never really needed was a tabloid sensationalist to hype up mundane markets and business news. Who would have ever thought Henry Blodget would be the guy to fill this void?

There are a couple of things to expect when reading Business Insider or Blodget’s tweets: ALL CAPS. Words like “scariest,” “startling,” “doomed.” Headlines that tells you “Here’s why X is happening.” Stock photos. Lots and lots and lots of pithy posts, some of which stretch the truth.

Like Blodget this morning on Twitter:

Horrible jobs report shocks market, stocks tank

Translation: Jobs report much weaker than expected, stocks edge down 0.3 percent.

Or this post, which is headlined “After Fights With Obama, Steve Schwarzman Is Leaving America”:

It’s no secret that Schwarzman is not a fan of how Obama is running the country right now, so now, he’s leaving behind in the dust.

He’s going to Europe - temporarily.

Why? A few reasons.

One, in case you haven’t been following his opinions, he’s said that he disagrees with the country’s use of mark-to-market accounting, and with Obama’s high taxes.

Juicy story, huh? But it’s based on a sober Reuters report that mentions none of these supposed reasons. Here’s its lede:

Blackstone Group’s (BX.N) chief executive Stephen Schwarzman will temporarily move to Europe for a few months, as the private equity firm grows increasingly global, a source familiar with the matter said on Thursday.

Schwarzman has spent more than half this year overseas, and the move is to help him manage the travel demands of running a company which has offices and investments around the world, while bridging Asian and U.S. time zones the source said.

Oh. Is that it? Business Insider has zero information that the move is at all political. So its piece is misleading to the point of being false.

Then there’s the less-problematic sensationalism (meaning, actually true), like this headline:

CHART OF THE DAY: The Scariest Jobs Chart Ever Is Now Really Scary Again

BI has lots of posts about what “the truth” really is. Like this:

Here’s The Truth About The Future Of The Media Industry

Go back in time a decade and imagine a future hellscape where “The Truth” comes in PowerPoint-esque slideshow form, and then weep for the future of journalism.

And, not coincidentally, there are the ultimate Hamster Wheel posts like “Bank Of America Selling Accelerates, As Fears Spread That It’s In The Wikileaks Crosshairs,” which consisted of three paragraphs on how BofA stock was down 1.7 percent on a rumor. Hey, you can’t say the sensationalist formula doesn’t work: That post, which probably took about five minutes from conception to publication, got 10,000 pageviews and thirty-six comments.

To give you an idea of the assembly line over there, let’s count some bylines. This morning Joe Weisenthal has written twenty posts between 4:27 a.m. and 11:12 a.m. Oop—make that twenty-one. By the time I publish this post, that number will surely be higher.

Don’t get me wrong. I actually like a lot of stuff Business Insider does. Like, for instance Weisenthal’s “Scariest Jobs Chart Ever” post. I haven’t seen that in, say, the august Wall Street Journal (which isn’t quite as august as it was pre-Murdoch). Nor have I seen anything as revealing as “15 Mind-Blowing Facts About Wealth And Inequality In America” in the buttoned-down Washington Post. We get more insight about our economy from these two posts than we would from reading most business sections for weeks.

And you can’t not like Blodget himself, who’s a funny, self-aware guy and a helluva good sport. Even Eliot Spitzer likes him these days. Check out this good Bloomberg BusinessWeek profile.

But the problem with sensationalism, of course, is that it feeds on itself. It’s hard to grab people’s attention when you’re always grabbing people’s attention. And you end up misleading people and undermining your credibility by saying stuff like “Horrible jobs report shocks market, stocks tank,” when stocks aren’t really tanking at all. There’s something about the ultra-Darwinian nature of the Web, with its brutal economics, that makes this stuff all the more tempting. When a click’s worth virtually nothing, you’ve got to get an awful lot of them to make ends meet. You do that by using superlatives, all caps, silly slideshows about “15 Ways Justin Bieber Is Taking Over The World , girlie pics, etc.

My colleague Felix Salmon, over at his main gig at Reuters, got at this in writing about Nick Denton’s new Gawker strategy the other day:

The CPM game, then, is looking increasingly like a race to the bottom, where publishers desperately try every trick in the book to boost their pageviews and ad impressions, just to compensate for the fact that their revenues per page are very small. The results — sensationalism, salaciousness, and slideshows — only serve to further erode the value of the sites in the eyes of advertisers, and put ever more downward pressure on those CPMs. It’s a vicious cycle, and Denton has decided that now is the time to break it: no longer does he want to deal with advertisers looking idiotically at clickthrough rates. “Clickthroughs,” he writes, “are an indicator of the blindness, senility or idiocy of readers rather than the effectiveness of the ads.”

(Speaking of Salmon, he gets his own BI headline today for criticizing their photo selection.)

If Gawker is trying to get off this treadmill, for crying out loud, then maybe there’s hope for us all. I wouldn’t bet on it.

In the meantime, I was thinking about what the ultimate generic Business Insider post would be. Something like “Here’s the truth about our startling CHART OF THE DAY that caused the SCARIEST market panic ever.”

But if you’re looking for the ultimate Henry Blodget tweet, there’s no way to improve on this one:

And don’t miss video of turkey chicks headed for beak-amputation machine who slip off conveyor belt and get squished

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,