Thoughts on Business Insider

CNN journalist Tanzina Vega went on a tweetstorm this morning about the state of journalism, based on some thoughts about the CNN Money story this week about why so many people have left Business Insider over the last few months. A few of her tweets are below:

I used to work at Business Insider. I quit after 10 months. The first three months were great. There was seltzer on tap, and whiskey tastings on Wednesdays and lots of smart, young, enthusiastic people around me. During the second three months the pressure to get more traffic and write a higher number of posts per day ramped up.

The last four months, I remember mostly tense meetings about how I wasn’t hitting my goals — five posts per day and one million unique visitors per month. I remember riding the elevator downstairs in the afternoons, hoping that no one would see me crying until I hit the front door and made a left from Fifth Avenue onto 21st Street. I cried a lot while pacing back and forth on 21st street in the summer of 2015. My anxiety got so bad I thought about quitting with no plan. It took my mother, my boyfriend, and my therapist together to convince me to stick around until I found something new.

I never came close to hitting my goals, despite the fact that I became something of a hot take machine, churning out opinions day after day. Some of them took off and got what was seen as an adequate amount of traffic. Some didn’t. A lot of them I’m actually quite proud of, probably only because I took some time to think through them. That was good for individual pieces, but bad for my job.

As Tanzina says in her tweetstorm, it takes quite a bit of thought to come up with a coherent opinion. I don’t have five opinions per day. I have maybe one. So I’d try to hit my post goal with other kinds of stories. An economic data point here and there. A reblog of an interesting article from someone else. Nothing quite got enough traffic.

The pro-labor rights econ nerd in me has at times been really angry with BI for how much content they try to squeeze out of writers. But the truth is I knew what I was getting into when I joined. I left a pretty cushy job at Reuters for Business Insider because both there and at a previous job I’d gotten the critique that I didn’t produce copy fast enough. At Reuters, looking back, that criticism was nine months into my career as a financial journalist. I wasn’t fast enough because I was still learning my beat, and I was taking the time to make sure what I was writing was correct. But I took it to heart, and I got a job at BI because I knew that people were required to churn out a ton of copy every day. I wanted to learn how to be Joe Weisenthal. I expected it to be hard, but to ultimately give me another tool in my journalist toolbox.

What I didn’t expect was that I found it impossible to adapt. Business Insider is one of the only things I’ve ever done where I failed, despite my best efforts. My problem is my brain doesn’t work the way that it needs to work in order to succeed in that kind of environment. I either spend five seconds on a subject — I read, I think of one thought, I tweet it, and I move on — or I spend somewhere between five hours and five days really thinking through something. I am either intensely focused or completely unfocused.

To succeed at BI, you have to be good at the middle ground, where you can read something, spend 30 minutes putting together a summary, maybe add another thought or two, hit publish, and then be immediately ready to start again. That’s how you get to five stories or more a day. I am not good at that kind of thinking. I suck at it. I need at least two hours after I published a piece to mentally recover and start over. Writing isn’t like physical labor. You can’t always just finish one task and move on to the next. At least I can’t.

In the many meetings I had to talk about my lack of traffic, I often got asked why I could tweet so much, but post so little. I didn’t know. I’ve thought about it a lot over the last year, and realized that summarizing takes a lot of mental effort effort for me. I am not great at thinking linearly. I skip a lot of steps in logic when reaching for new thoughts worthy of publishing. When you write, you have to add all of those steps back in if you expect your reader to follow you. I have high expectations for my written work. It lives on the internet (and more accurately, in my search results) forever!

When you tweet, you just post what you think and move on. Nobody cares if you delete a dumb thought. It’s not important if my thoughts are incoherent. Plus, there’s a reasonable expectation that my followers already have a lot of the context that they need, so I don’t have to stop and explain. As a result, I kept tweeting, probably tweeted even more, as my BI output suffered.

On top of all of this, I was tasked with writing opinion. There’s no way to write opinion on the internet without a heavy dose of self confidence. (There is a reason that so many opinion columnists are white men.) But with each meeting about how I was not fulfilling expectations, my self-confidence sunk lower. My output fell, there were more meetings. There was more crying on 21st Street. I got very depressed.

In a way, BI is the extreme version of what every news organization now expects of its journalists: fast copy with a broad appeal that’s turned in without much need for editing. There are people, lots of people, who are pretty good at that. Those people do really well at BI. Quite a few made a lot of money in the sale to Axel Springer. (Joe Weisenthal is the ultimate example of this, although I think he is faster and smarter and works harder than everyone at this particular kind of writing, so it’s hard to compare anyone else to him.)

I did not do well at BI. I got spit out the other end, and am not the only one. In a way, it ended up being a good thing. It sped up the time it took me to realize that I am bad at the click game, and that means I probably don’t want to be a journalist forever. I spent the last year and a half giving a lot of thought to what’s next (and omfg I am so excited about it!).