Scrolling through Facebook for about one minute brought me pictures from friends’ Thursday night out, the realization that I had forgotten three birthdays this week, and five BuzzFeed articles. BuzzFeed describes itself as a social news and entertainment site that provides both original reporting and viral content, and the site itself seems to mimic the viral nature of its articles. In a memo released by founder and CEO of BuzzFeed, Jonah Peretti, he explained that the media company reached a record of 85 million unique visitors in August of 2013, as compared to The New York Times 17 million unique viewers in July 2013, and is eight times the size they were two years ago. The site’s monthly averages have nearly tripled in only 24 months (2). And although the site is relatively known mostly for its gifs and multitude of “listicles”, which I will discuss later on, BuzzFeed is further making a foray into the shaky territories of hard-hitting journalism. After hiring veteran reporters like John Stanton and controversial reporters like Michael Stone to begin a deeper focus on news, BuzzFeed hired former Spin magazine chief Steve Kandell to make the unexpected leap towards longform journalism (4). So far, the longform posts have been getting substantial views around the 115,000 mark, and BuzzFeed is breaking more and more stories, such as the Corey Booker scandal (5). In this post I’ll show how issues journalists are facing with online news, outlined in “Making Online News: The Ethnography of New Media Production,” are being answered, many times successfully, by the phenomenon of BuzzFeed.
ISSUE 1 – QUALITY VS. SPEED
In Jody Brannon’s piece in “Making Online News,” she conducts analytical and qualitative research in the online departments of USA Today, NPR, and ABC News to determine the obstacles of multimedia journalism. A common obstacle she comes across is the online writers coming up with quality content that people want to read with the “time constraints of a 24/7 medium, (9)” BuzzFeed confronts this problem through the structure in which it funnels content. “The homepage of the site is powered by an algorithm that monitors 120 million uniques of partner audience that include Time, Aol News, TMZ, Life, and many more. When the BuzzFeed algorithm determines a piece of content on one of these sites to be “going viral” it triggers the story and flows it into rotation on a set of reserved units on BuzzFeed.com,” (1). The yellow slots on the homepage and a majority of the thumbnails come from their partner pool’s viral content; however, the algorithm is also applied to content uploaded by BuzzFeed staff as well as users’ own articles, allowing any viral post to be highlighted. With content flowing from three sources, partner pool, BuzzFeed staff, and users, and an algorithm constantly triggering and highlighting the most popular, the site is able to maintain the “constraints of the 24/7 medium.” Yet, quality is also addressed within the structure. “We inject editorial into this process. Our team of editors monitors all triggering content, post its own content, and experiments with ideas. The team looks at data and uses its unique expertise to help decide what is published into the non-yellow slots on the home page flow,” (1). BuzzFeed, described by the Wall Street Journal as “a people heavy business,” is reliant upon the “expertise” of its staff to maintain a certain quality amongst all the technology (7). In this way, the site is able to balance quality and speed.
ISSUE 2 – PRESENTATION
Brannon also discusses a common mistake on the part of journalists is simply dumping repurposed or traditionally written content online, or “shoveling” as Brannon refers to it, instead of uniquely presenting the story for the interactive format. With time constraints and a lack of technological understanding amongst the journalists she interviewed, Brannon explained that “they appeared to be mired in a cut-and-paste rush” and not making use of the tools at their disposal (9). BuzzFeed avoids this mistake with two main features that promote the viral goal; it’s innately appealing “listicles” and wide spectrum of article subjects that vary in gravity.
Listicles are simply lists on a specific topic, such as the “35 Happiest Moments in Animal History.” “Most BuzzFeed listicles are tailored to be shared amongst a micro-targeted online population,” (8). For example, an article such as “40 Signs You Went to Berkley” only applies to a very small percentage of the country, but the post was able to go viral with 22,000 Facebook likes and 137,000 total views in less than 48 hours because of the strong kinship and identification felt by the targeted network. Reuters editor Chadwick Matlin, who calls this strategy “demolisticles,” explained that these posts “play on a reader’s most basic identity – race, hometown, age, marital status, etc – to narrate an experience that is guaranteed to resonate in some way.” Furthermore, the presentation of the lists themselves is easy to read for the increasingly on-the-go targeted reader base (8).
What BuzzFeed has interestingly begun to do with its listicles is apply this viral goldmine to news stories as well. With stories like, “The Government Shutdown is Basically ‘Arrested Development,’” BuzzFeed comically uses memes and quotes from the show “Arrested Development” to discuss a far-reaching political event. There is a seemingly party in the front, business in the back approach wherein readers are drawn to the site by more fluff pieces and are provided an easy transition to more hard-hitting articles. However, critics see the success of this presentation model and doubt BuzzFeed’s plans to bring more longform articles to the site. Executive Director Doree Shafrir explains that at the heart of both the content as well as the presentation the site aims to “entertain, inform, and manifest itself as something people want to share with their friends,” and they will adapt these tenets to the longform stories as well (6).
ISSUE 3 – THE TRANSITION BETWEEN GATEKEEPING AND GATEWATCHING
In Axel Bruns’s piece in “Making Online News,” he discusses perhaps the most deeply-rooted issue facing news organization’s transition to multimedia: the adherence to the traditional news process of gatekeeping. This process involves three stages of “news gathering only by staff journalists, closed editorial hierarchy, and editorial selection of letters/calls to be made public,” and is based on a time when the newshole was scarce and strictly finite with only a certain amount of column space or an expensive broadcast timeslot. Now, the internet offers boundless space for almost anyone to be a citizen journalist and readers are becoming increasingly used to this bombardment of information and opinion. Thus, Bruns argues the process is now gatewatching, a term he defines as “observing the many gates through which a steady stream of information passes from sources, and of highlighting from this stream that information which is of most relevance to one’s own personal interests or to the interests of one’s wider community,” (9).
BuzzFeed’s strategy clearly aligns with Bruns’s gatewatcher news process. He explains the process as, “gatewatching of news sources open to all users, submission of gatewatched stories open to all users, instant publishing or collaborative editing of stories, and [the cyclical] discussion and commentary open to all users,” (9). In BuzzFeed there is the viral detecting algorithm that gatewatches all news sources, the submission of news from the large and varying pool of sources, the technological and human editing of highlighted sources, and the discussion open to all users through its innate sharing presentation. In this way, BuzzFeed becomes the ultimate gatewatcher of the news through its algorithm whilst providing the perfect environment for its readers to enact personal gatewatching through social media. “According to ComScore, 35 percent of BuzzFeed’s audience originates via mobile device, with an estimated 50 percent of its monthly viewers through social media,” (2). Shafrir explained that when sifting through the torrent of voices and news sources online, a reader is much more likely to click on something a friend puts on their Twitter or Facebook feed (6). With the viral and social oriented approach, BuzzFeed has taken advantage of the societal shift towards gatewatching and has developed the technology to provide you as a public watcher with the much needed binoculars to watch the gate.
While they then watch you.
Watching cat gifs.
(9) Paterson, Chris A., and David Domingo. Making Online News: The Ethnography of New Media Production. New York: Peter Lang, 2008. Print.