'British media has not done a very good job of business journalism' – Business Insider

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

'British media has not done a very good job of business journalism' – Business Insider

“More British people get their business news from Business Insider UK than from the Financial Times,” says Jim Edwards, making a pretty startling claim for a brand which, as he admits himself, remains largely unknown to great swathes of the British public.

Calling up internal and Google analytics on his computer, he rattles off the traffic numbers for September 2016: “6.4m uniques, 51m page views, 10.7m visits”.

Then he turns to Comscore figures (which rate BI at a lower 4m uniques), to compare his site to more established business news providers, noting that both the Economist and the FT reach “less than a million” with their subscription-based services and City AM has “200,000 uniques” . “It’s between us and Forbes but most months we are number one,” he says.

Edwards joined BI in 2011 as an Englishman in New York and became its founding UK editor when the BI figurehead Henry Blodget made London his first foreign outpost in November 2014.

In those two years BI has grown from Edwards and six colleagues to a team of almost 50. It is planning further expansion and looking to move out of its base alongside the tech startups that inhabit London’s Shoreditch High Street, and move into what will be its fifth UK office.

Taking on traditional media

The reason it is thriving, Edwards believes, is that mainstream British business news coverage had fallen into a “traditional, ritualised” approach, leaving a gaping opportunity for BI, which is governed by Blodget’s own watchwords: “smart, helpful, accurate, fearless, fast, fun”.

Edwards states it baldly. “The traditional British media has not done a very good job in terms of business journalism,” he says, and while he concedes that the FT is “very good” he points out that it is “behind a paywall and the newspaper circulation is microscopic”.

As for the rest of the business news market, they are simply out of step with the audience. The BBC, he says, “is a fine organisation [but] its business coverage is shallow”. The public broadcaster is uncomfortable with a subject it regards as “slightly grubby” and is terrified of producing content that might “sound like a press release”. BI, by contrast, sees business stories as “human drama with money attached”.

In their ritual-driven mindset, legacy media business desks obsess over a few listed British companies with high public profile, such as Whitbread or Ladbrokes, he says. “We tried that initially. [We said] ‘Let’s cover these British companies that are publicly-traded’. And there’s no audience for it.”

Edwards has even had to set aside his personal “obsession” with the fortunes of Ocado (he discloses in his BI author’s profile that he is a shareholder). “No one will click on my Ocado stories – it has become a joke in the office. The audience is in the dozens.”

Instead, BI goes where the interest is: with relentless pieces on the minutiae of Brexit, the falling pound, and the future of the housing market. It realised that British business media was not covering fintech (financial technology), even though London leads the world in that sector, and BI UK has hired two specialist writers on the subject.

“Our model is pretty simple,” says Edwards with a laugh. “We hire people; we try to get them to do the most interesting stories possible; when lots of people read the stories it creates lots of ad impressions; we monetise the ad impressions; the more money we make, the more people we can hire and the virtuous cycle begins again.”

Except this simple approach is being reviewed by Blodget in an attempt to gauge interest in a subscription model. This sounds like a notable change in direction for a news brand that has grown inexorably through the free access model since Blodget launched it in 2009 from a New York office so cramped that he had to get out of his chair whenever a FedEx delivery arrived.

Blodget is a former Wall Street analyst who was banned from the industry and fined $4m after a securities fraud investigation that followed the burst of the dotcom bubble. He reemerged as a high-profile writer and blogger, before co-founding BI with Kevin Ryan, a serial entrepreneur.

A year ago, BI – which now has a staff of 400 – was sold to the German media company Axel Springer for an eye-watering $442m, but Blodget remains as CEO. “We’re very optimistic about subscriptions,” he remarked to Advertising Age in an interview last month.

"It's always going to be free"

Julian Childs, managing director of BI for the UK and Europe, plays down the significance of this subscription trial, which is limited to a portion of BI’s American audience. “This is just another area we are experimenting in to see how our users are changing and what they are prepared to do and what their needs are,” he says.

The approach is similar to one pioneered by the New York Times and now adopted by the Atlantic, whereby readers using adblockers are told to switch them off by “white-listing” the BI website, or to register for a subscription.

Edwards defends the stance. “The logic of the ad blocker is ‘I don’t want to be forced to look at your ads’. But from our point of view… the transaction is transparent – we will give you our best product for free, all we ask of you is to tolerate some ads,” he says, adding that “we are a business not a charity”. He expects that BI will ultimately use a “light” paywall that allows some paying subscribers access to the full BI archive and an ad-free reading experience, but where most users continue to use the ad-supported open service. “It’s always going to be free, we are never going to do what the FT has done,” he says. “We have made a good business out of being free.”

Part of the reason why BI has prospered in the UK is cultural, he believes. American media has a different approach to business news, because Americans have a different approach to business. “The percentage of adults in Britain who own stock is a fraction of what it is in America so in Britain you don’t have that built-in level of people who are sensitive to what the markets are doing.”

This might suggest the British audience for business news is limited. But BI had over 2 million British readers before it even launched here, and the traffic growth since has justified Blodget’s decision.

BI, known for a conversational tone of voice, reminiscent of the trading floor and quick to deploy a sporting metaphor, has succeeded in reaching a relatively young British audience which has grown up with American media sources. According to Childs, a window has opened for a new kind of business news in Britain. “We are seeing the business landscape change dramatically as the digital generation becomes part of the boardroom,” he says. “We are writing in a different style and tone that is more conversational for a generation who are consuming huge amounts of content from many different places.”

Video is becoming central to BI in both its editorial and commercial output. Edwards has a team of four in a video unit led by Joe Daunt, recruited from the Daily Telegraph. “It doesn't make any sense to describe the story in text if theres a piece of video that does it better,” says the editor. Childs oversees BI Studios, which produces branded video content for clients such as Oracle. Both video units are set to grow next year.

BI has a long way to go. Edwards still describes it as a “challenger brand” and admits that “a huge percentage of the population isn't yet very familiar with Business Insider”.

Growth ambitions

He plans expansion in political coverage, which he also thinks is covered in a formulaic way by established British media. He has hired two specialist journalists but admits “we literally have to sit down with 650 MPs and introduce ourselves”. BI has no political leanings, he says. “It’s part of our brand and equity with readers that we will not endorse a political candidate or party.”

Sports business have also been identified as an editorial growth area, partly to meet the overlap between interest in investing and gambling. “Britain has a very strong betting culture and it’s obvious to us that a lot of readers who are reading sports stories on our site are doing so because they’re looking for some sort of edge that will help them decide how to bet.”

Ownership by Axel Springer has brought BI certain advantages of scale. Being part of the same media group as Bild has enabled it to share some of the German mass tabloid’s developing expertise in 360-video, and to syndicate Bild interviews with world leaders, such as Vladimir Putin.

Axel Springer has helped BI expand rapidly across Europe, launching bespoke operations in Germany, Poland, Sweden and the Netherlands. It has enabled BI UK to stand back from its former European obligations and cater to a “pure British audience”, he says. “If you are an advertiser and want to reach [British people] looking at British business news then we have a highly segregated audience for that because of the way we’ve arranged our geographic redirect.”

This approach of British-stories-for-British-readers and a withdrawal from pan-European coverage chimes nicely with BI UK’s favourite editorial topic. But in contrast to the boundless optimism Edwards displays for his fast-growing website, Brexit is a topic that fills him with gloom. “Nothing good will come of this,” he says. “There is no aspect of Brexit that is going to make life in Britain better.”

But most importantly for BI as a whole, the backing of its powerful German owner has dispelled the notion that the site is a “fly-by-night operation," says Edwards.

“We had a lot of haters just waiting for us to run out of money and the Axel Springer acquisition was a big signal to the rest of the world that Business Insider is a permanent fixture on the news landscape.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

Photography by Harshil Shah - Flickr

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