Clicky Business Insider to double down on ‘long-form’ with ‘hundreds of thousands’ in investment

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Henry Blodget. ()
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For the most part, Business Insider is seen as a pithy must-read for tech and finance junkies, who flock to the six-year-old website for its steady stream of micro-scoops, marathon slideshows and light-speed aggregation that arguably outstrips just about all of its rivals in the digital-media arms race.

But on occasion, Business Insider has also pursued thoroughly-reported investigations and narrative features, like a deep dive on the founding of Facebook, a behind-the-scenes portrait of Groupon and "The True Story Of The Great Marijuana Crash of 2011."

You can expect to start seeing more of those types of stories on a regular basis.

Business Insider plans to invest "hundreds of thousands of dollars" revving up its long-form content, founder and editor-in-chief Henry Blodget told Capital.

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A chunk of that money will go toward hiring an editor whose job will be "to decide the best frequency, length, and approach of these stories, as well as the time and resources invested in each one," said Blodget over email. The rest will be poured into a freelance budget, as Business Insider will be commissioning outside writers and reporters in addition to assigning long-form stories to staff.

"There's a hunger for these kinds of stories," said Blodget. "But we've just now reached the scale where we can dedicate significant resources to this."

Business Insider is spreading its wings as other digital interlopers have also been stealing some of traditional media's thunder when it comes to producing long, thoughtful, narrative journalism. The Huffington Post won a Pulitzer for one such series, about wounded Afghanistan war veterans, last year. Multi-thousand-word features have become a regular part of Gawker Media's mix. And Buzzfeed raised eyebrows this same time last year when it began scouting for a position similar to the one Business Insider is now looking to fill: "longform editor."

"I think that Business Insider, Buzzfeed, Gawker Media, Huffington Post, and others are just now beginning to show what successful digital journalism organizations can ultimately become," said Blodget. "We aren't limited to one form of storytelling."

For a publication whose business model relies on big traffic numbers (more than 23 million monthly uniques, Blodget revealed earlier this year) and CPM-based revenues, time-consuming long-form productions might not be the most effective use of resources. An exhaustive, nearly 25,000-word "unauthorized biography" of Yahoo! chief Marissa Mayer by longtime Business Insider writer Nicholas Carlson drew "hundreds of thousands of readers worldwide," said Blodget. At the same time, it took six months to pull off, "so on a narrow financial basis, it probably wasn't a home run," he said.

But Blodget countered, "There are many other business benefits to stories like these, with the most important being that readers love them." Carlson's piece, for instance, generated significant buzz in tech and media circles, which would seem to make it a better way to raise your profile than, say, "What 25 Celebrities Were Like In High School."

Gatekeepers have taken notice: During a recent public appearance, Wall Street Journal managing editor Gerard Baker applauded the Mayer feature, saying that Business Insider is "doing very good journalism" amid all the link-bait that keeps its lights on.

The site's long-form gamble also suggests that Business Insider is professionalizing. When this reporter worked there for six months in 2010, it was a small and nimble shop that lacked the vigorous oversight of a traditional newsroom. These days, running on roughly $18 million in venture capital since 2007, the full-time editorial staff has grown to 68, including more journalists from traditional reporting backgrounds. And while Business Insider hasn't sacrificed speed, its editing structure has become more formalized.

Still, there will no doubt be skepticism about whether Business Insider can consistently and successfully execute lengthy, magazine- or newspaper-quality reports. Overall, the site's content still has a certain unpolished quality, which keeps a target on its back.

"Why would anyone pay attention to [Business Insider] when there are outfits like Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal out there that are staffed by highly experienced professionals and dedicated to publishing breaking news fast, but are also concerned about accuracy?," a recent column in SF Weekly argued. "You'd have to ask them."

Blodget acknowledged the critics while admitting there's room for improvement.

"There will always be skeptics," he said. "If we got a dollar every time someone said we were screwed, we'd never need another revenue stream. In terms of overall quality and polish, we've made great progress over the last several years. We obviously can still get better, and we will."