An End to Business Porn: The State of Business Writing

Business writing — outlets that cover industry, entrepreneurship, and leadership — stands at a crossroads. Do we continue to create and favor #content, countless lists, and a lack of research, or take an in-depth and critical look at those in power? I hope it’s the latter, but I fear it’s the former.

The first time I wrote for a business-centric publication was 2013. I was thrilled to be considered for an outlet that I found enlightening, a guidepost for learning more about entrepreneurship at a time when I was struggling and green. It felt fantastic, as bylines often do. I felt lucky to be in the room, and I wrote it for free.

Since that point, I have written for many business and startup-centric publications — Forbes, Entrepreneur, FastCompany, Harvard Business Review, and Inc. I had columns with some of them. From 2013 to 2016, I shared my thoughts on everything from a lack of professionalism at the office, to busy-bragging and complaining, to fearing failure and loving my own ideas, and more. It was fun.

After the 2016 election, I stopped writing about those topics. I nearly stopped writing altogether. It wasn’t all about the outcome, but I also felt that I didn’t have anything to contribute to a time of crucial national conversation. I worried that we had elected someone that embodied everything we put on a pedestal in the world of business #content — money, power, and “success in business”, despite it likely being a farce. This is the issue business outlets face — we have come to favor business porn — lists of how to be rich, how to wake up before 6am and be rich, and how to do nothing and be rich — without taking a sharp look at who we let lead.

What is “business porn”? It’s listicles, quotes from billionaires, endless lists of what you “should” be doing to be successful, and a lack of insight into American industry and a fair take on our leadership. What once was a part of the media industry became a bastardization of #content: and an obsession with driving numbers and page-views, and not thoughtful and analytic looks at technology, retail, corporations, and beyond.

With the firing of many of Buzzfeed’s staff last week, and a reliance on free labor to create some of their touchstone content like quizzes, it highlighted many of the issues I believe to come within outlets like the ones above. I’ve wanted to write this article for a long time but was afraid.

When we write about business and entrepreneurship, we glorify struggle, but we are all burnt out. Instead of being authentic, we constantly push out a highlight reel of wins before five am. For many years, I wrote for the above publications for free. I am part of the problem — for me writing was an outlet, as well as business development, but not my day job. I have likely stopped many staff writers from staying or getting the pay increases for real journalism.

If business publications do pay freelancers or outside writers, it’s meager if not insulting. A little while back I asked one of the above outlets, one that had never paid me, if and when they would for the writing I created for them, particularly since their authors are mostly old white guys. I had decided to put my foot down. The editor said “thank you for asking! we don’t!” A cheery reply to a crucial question. The wrong answer, and the wrong tone.

Business publications rely on the same free “content”, and barely writing, that the rest of the media industry is starting to see weigh on how we cover our world. I vowed never to write “business porn”. I refused, for the most part, to even write lists, only when I was in a creative rut or felt that it added something to the conversation.

Many of these business-centric publications pay based on page views, which I do not agree with. For years I declined pay versus being paid based on page views. I was in a position of privilege to make money from other avenues. One outlet I wrote for that participated in payment by page views (x amount of money per x page views) would send around a leaderboard each month. We would see, ranked, who the “top” writers were. These top writers weren’t based on insight or hard-hitting questions, it was simply a ranking of clicks. Who had the highest numbers, and who was “winning”. The publication would hold virtual seminars with their “top authors” so the rest of us could learn keywords, how to write catchier titles that would attract more clicks and other ways to “game the system” so we would get more traffic.

I stopped writing for all of these outlets, until recently when was pitching a column on sustainable fashion and the second-hand economy, a multi-billion-dollar titan of industry. It was pooh-poohed as women’s work, as anything retail or fashion-adjacent often is. There was talk of “how we do things” and your “lane”. Many buzzwords. I walked away from the conversation more concerned than excited.

The business writing landscape needs an overhaul, or we will devolve into the same content machines that crumble and fall like the layoffs and media “viral” organizations of the past few weeks. It’s time to come back to a thoughtful and thorough look at industry, and most important, our leaders. This is especially true of who we elected to office: someone who was glorified in business. The same thing might happen with Howard Schultz — glorification of wealth and status without context and critical thinking. If someone is successful in business, that must translate because that’s the pinnacle of achievement, or at least how it’s framed.

We run the risk, if we don’t delve truly into leadership — who leaders are, what they are about, with a critical and not reverential, almost god-like frame— we will end up with other scandalous leaders running rampant. We will end up with another Elizabeth Holmes. The industry covered Holmes like a revolutionary godsend, instead of looking under the hood of fraudulent claims and technology. She was rewarded with dozens of magazine covers and top speaking slots.

Truth, fact-checking, and work in journalism has always been important. It has never been more important — determining what’s real and what’s fake. This must extend to business publications, or else we will continue to add to the problem. We all want to be rich and famous (or a lot of us do), but we don’t want to do the work. It’s time to do the work, and it’s time to take a good hard look at who we let lead, and how we cover them.