10 Digital Journalism Tips from Business Insider’s Top Editors

Earlier this month, in a Manhattan hotel conference room, a student journalist admitted being nervous about an upcoming business reporting internship.  “I’m going to be blunt,” she said.  “I’m 20.  I don’t know about the Stock Exchange.  I’ve never even done my own taxes.”

She asked the featured speakers seated at the front of the room– Business Insider Executive Editor Joe Weisenthal and Deputy Editor Nicholas Carlson— what resources she should check out to learn about the financial world.

Weisenthal responded immediately with a smile: “Start reading Business Insider.”

A bit more than four years after its launch (and six years after the launch of its smaller predecessor Silicon Alley Insider), BI has become one of the boldest business news sites in the world. Its coverage base has expanded from tech and Wall Street to areas such as politics, retail, advertising, sports, science, and military and defense.  It boasts roughly 100 staffers and 25 million monthly unique visitors (though Compete.com pegs uniques at 3.8 million last October). Amid jabs at its editorial and aggregation practices, it is regularly held up as a digital news success story — with hopes its profits will match its web hits in the years to come.

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As 24/7 Wall St. shared last summer, “Operators of traditional sites are left to wonder if they have to copy some of BI’s editorial tactics and give up decades-old values or be trampled by BI as it scrambles to increase its audience and expand into new operations. . . . BI has given readers what few sites do– almost no reason to go elsewhere to get information.”

During the recent Spring National College Media Convention staged by the College Media Association (CMA), Weisenthal and Carlson, two of BI’s chief operators, shared advice with student attendees about web writing, audience building, social media mechanics, and a few old-school journalism fundamentals.

I moderated the pair’s session. Its title: “How to Succeed at Business Insider– and Digital Journalism– By Really Trying.”  Below is a top 10 sampling of their tips and perspectives.

1. A WHOLE SUITE OF STORIES

The most cogent, repeated point made by both editors throughout the session: In the digital sphere, standalone articles should be treated as an increasingly rare species. Instead, focus on information streams, ever-flowing.

“We don’t really think of things we put up as ‘an article,'” said Carlson. “It’s a bit of information conveyed to people. One of my old colleagues used to say that the last sentence of your last post is the first sentence of your next post. Because by the time you reach the end you sort of come to a cliff, ‘Oh I have another thought on this and I’m just going to put it in the next post.’ In a way, it does sort of become a narrative. For sure, I think [that’s] the attraction of reading something at Business Insider. . . . It’s a live medium where the narrative is always coming out with the next thing.”

Weisenthal is often reminded how differently digital outlets such as BI work when it comes time to submit content for awards.  “They have the journalism competitions where they invite people to apply and they always say, ‘Submit your top three posts for consideration that you’re most proud of’ or something like that,” he said. “And I can never come up with the stuff. I don’t think I have a single great post last year that I’m really proud of. Everything I write is part of this bigger stream.”

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He pointed to his real-time blanket coverage of the monthly U.S. jobs report as an example. “If you follow me on Jobs Day, within like 20 minutes of the report coming out, I have a summary posted,” he said. “Then I have another post singling out one detail I thought was interesting. I have another post saying what it might mean for interest rates and fed policy. I have another post talking about the political dimensions and so forth. I’m proud of the fact that it’s this whole suite of stories.”

2. GET IN PEOPLE’S FACE

The mobile and online arenas perpetuate a browse-and-pick routine in which readers stumble across content through a variety of sites, apps, and social media. Simply slapping stories onto a homepage and expecting exposure is almost sickeningly out of touch. Every single story or info stream must be marketed individually and repeatedly, through their headlines and the work of writers and editors to promote them.

“There’s always this ongoing competition,” Weisenthal said. “You have to sell every piece. And we really want to be read. We really want to stand out. We really want every story that we write to get in people’s face. I just think that’s, in general, a really good attitude to have. You want to be the one who controls the conversation.”

3. HOW YOU SHOULD TELL READERS YOU’RE EXCITED

In the ongoing digital content conversation and competition, the most important salesmen are headlines. To shape quality headers, according to Weisenthal and Carlson, start by dropping the journalese.

As Weisenthal shared, “A phenomenon that we see a lot is someone will be like ‘Check out this crazy slam dunk of some guy doing a 360’ or ‘Check out this crazy chart of the price of gold skyrocketing.’ And that’s a great thing. You tell your friend that, and then they’ll put it on the site and [the headline] will be like ‘Gold rises 25 percent in two weeks,’ which is not nearly as exciting. It’s like, ‘Why didn’t you sell it like you just told me on IM?’ How you tell your friend something you’re excited about, that’s how you should tell your readers you’re excited about it.”

So simply put, what should go into a digital news headline? Carlson advised keeping the focus on “the most exciting part of the story, why the story matters, the stakes, the gist, and why anybody is talking about it.”

A sampling of headlines topping recent posts by Carlson and Weisenthal: “The Best Move For Cyprus Might Be To Hold A Gun To Its Own Head”; “Everyone Betting Against The Yen Is Having A Bad Day”; “Here’s Shaq Making Chris Christie Look Incredibly Tiny”; “A Startup Rejected Facebook’s Acquisition Bid, And Now Facebook Is Choking It To Death”; “We Talked To A Mailbox Investor Shortly After It Sold, And He Said: ‘Holy S—! These Guys Actually Did It!'”; “Someone Paid $10,000 To Say The Line ‘Your Check, Sir’ In The Veronica Mars Movie”; “For The First Time In Ages, Apple’s Stock Is Starting To Perform Well”; and “In One Chart You’ll See Why Nothing’s Getting Fixed In Europe.”

4. NOT ALL THAT DIFFERENT FROM IM

Along with selling the excitement, the BI editors stressed the importance of making your suite of stories conversational— and not a word longer than they have to be.

As Carlson confirmed about BI’s editorial style, “What we do is not all that different from Instant Messenger. Except instead of talking to one person you’re talking to everyone who comes to BusinessInsider.com. It’s just very conversational. You write it with the same clarity that you write an IM. I’m just trying to talk to you. That’s how I’m going to write it. The ideas are not going to be super-simple ideas, but the language is not laborious to get through. Short just happens to be a lot easier to digest than long.”

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5. A REALLY GOOD AMBITION TO HAVE

Carlson said one of the core traits of most successful BI staffers is simple, unswayed ambition. As he explained, “They don’t wait for someone to tell them to start having ambitious ideas. They kind of just have them and then pursue them. . . . It’s a competitive spirit of wanting to win and wanting to have your career do really well and actually going after it– instead of being passive about it and seeing what great assignment someone’s going to give you.”

Weisenthal doubled down on those words of wisdom, stressing, “That sort of hunger to know something and to establish yourself as someone who makes people say, ‘Yes, they’re awesome on this subject’ is a really good ambition to have.”

To read the rest, click here or on the screenshot below.

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