BuzzFeed: Cute cats and hard news? There’s room for both as site seeks to refresh itself

The Media Column: People want to work for BuzzFeed. They see the way it’s growing

"We are not trying to escape the cats, the animals and the lists,” says Lisa Tozzi, a former news-desk editor at The New York Times as she defends what has been the signature content of BuzzFeed, the phenomenally successful news and entertainment site where she recently chose to ply her trade.

I am speaking to Tozzi in one of the meeting rooms in BuzzFeed’s large new premises in the prestigious “Tiffany Building” on Fifth Avenue in New York. The room, like the others that flank BuzzFeed’s newsroom, is named after one of the cats that – through their feline feats and photogenic qualities – have helped to establish the popularity of the site.

There is the Winston Bananas room, dedicated to a moggy with an extraordinary downturned mouth, and I am sitting in a space dedicated to the “NoNoNoNo Cat” that I later observe on a YouTube clip that has had more than 10 million views. It was an experience I doubt I will ever forget. Look it up.

“The cats, the animals and the lists are great things about this organisation and we do them very well and the audience likes them,” Tozzi says. “It’s more like, in addition to this entertainment content that we do better than anyone else, we are also going to do hard news better than anyone else.”

Shortly afterwards, and still sitting in the “NoNoNoNo Cat Room”, I find myself talking on the phone to the award-winning investigative reporter Mark Schoofs, one of BuzzFeed’s most important recruits. Schoofs won a Pulitzer Prize for an eight-part report on the Aids crisis in Africa, published in The Village Voice, and went on to work for 11 years at the Wall Street Journal before heading to ProPublica, the highly-respected and philanthropy-funded organisation which produces investigative journalism in the public interest. Now he is at BuzzFeed, a site that was last week running headlines such as “The 27 Most Comforting Feelings In The Whole Wide World”.

He shows no sign of embarrassment. There is a common thread running through BuzzFeed’s content, he says, from its list-based entertainment stories to the 10,000 word investigative pieces that he is overseeing. The skill is in identifying the right stories and presenting them in an attractive manner.

“People think that we can turn some dial and everything will go wild on Twitter and Facebook – that’s not true. The trick is that there is no trick. It’s actually human beings who decide whether they like something enough that they will share it, whether that’s a cat video or an investigative report. You can’t lay it out like a legal brief.”

The very appointment of Schoofs in October was a clear signal of BuzzFeed’s commitment to becoming a serious news provider. He is currently assembling a team of six experienced investigative reporters.

BuzzFeed was hatched in 2006 as an idea of Jonah Peretti, co-founder of The Huffington Post. The move beyond identifying cute internet content that might go viral began two years ago when Peretti brought in Ben Smith from Politico (which reports on America’s political corridors of power) to build a newsroom.

Schoofs says the growing reputation of BuzzFeed’s political, business and foreign reporting teams has helped him to hire top investigative talent from traditional news organisations. He admits he was “worried” that people would not make the switch. “I’m no longer worried about that at all. People want to work for BuzzFeed. They see the scale of its readership, the way it’s growing and the seriousness of the news on many different levels and want to be a part of it.”

He has brought in Aram Roston, a former CNN and NBC News investigative reporter who wrote a book on the Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi called The Man Who Pushed America to War. Schoofs has hired Ken Bensinger from The Los Angeles Times and Alex Campbell from The Indianapolis Star, both of whom have track records in exposing political and corporate corruption.

Schoofs has no doubt that long-form journalism can thrive online, citing “Sixty Words And A War Without End”, an 11,000-word BuzzFeed piece by Gregory Johnsen on the authorisation for US military intervention in Afghanistan. “We know – because we can track this – that almost half of the people made it to 85 per cent of the way or further. They spent 22 minutes on that story which in internet time is an aeon. People read long stuff if it’s well written.” BuzzFeed has a dedicated “Longform” section on its website.

It is also extending its foreign coverage under Miriam Elder (former Moscow bureau chief for The Guardian), and recently hired Paul Hamilos from The Guardian’s foreign desk. It has reporters in Ukraine and the Middle East.

Across New York, in the trendy Brooklyn neighbourhood of Williamsburg, another youth-orientated media brand, Vice, is also expanding its foreign reporting footprint. It hired film-maker Ben Anderson, who made the Holidays in the Axis of Evil series for the BBC. Its reporter Simon Ostrovsky flew to Crimea and the traditional outlets CNN and NSNBC took his footage. Vice made its early reputation by highlighting fashion faux pas as a street-wise free magazine. In its “Bear Room” studio it has a stuffed bear that was shot in the making of a film in Greenland and now provides an unorthodox backdrop. This is not news as Dan Rather would know it.

While Vice is growing its reputation for documentary film-making (and attracting older viewers and partnering with established broadcasters), Tozzi and Schoofs indicate that BuzzFeed (which has a video unit in LA) will focus primarily on text and photos.

In a fascinating presentation on the future of news at the Shift 2014 conference in London last week, Jason Seiken, the reforming editor-in-chief at The Daily Telegraph, showcased drone journalism (flying cameras) and scoffed at BuzzFeed for not being in the serious news game. He showed a BuzzFeed headline: “Man In A Banana Suit At Large After Attacking A Man In A Gorilla Suit.”

Tozzi talks proudly of how BuzzFeed has become known for coverage of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual transsexual) stories and for tackling the scourge of “rape culture” on American college campuses. She says these subjects are “big issues for our readers, who are largely 18 to 34-year-olds”.

Meanwhile, older news organisations chase young readers online with youthful entertainment content and present it alongside more serious stories while trying to maintain their brand values. It’s a tough balancing act. But they should be encouraged that BuzzFeed, which admittedly has no long-standing news reputation to lose, believes that cute cats and dogs and serious investigations can live happily side by side.

Listeners expect ‘Today’ excellence

One of the problems the BBC has in implementing its cost savings programme is that each time it proposes a cut the audience for that service rises up in protest.

Well, as a Radio 4 listener I’m going to speak up for the Today programme. Mike Thomson, the only dedicated foreign correspondent on BBC Radio’s principal news show, is being moved on, meaning Today will have to compete with the BBC’s other services for the services of the newsroom foreign correspondents. It’s one of six on-air reporter roles being lost on Today to make room for new multimedia jobs.

BBC-hating sections of the press will welcome this as a sensible economy. I think it’s a pity. Thomson is a class act. He recently won Radio Story of the Year at the Foreign Press Awards for exposing human trafficking in the Sinai. A year earlier he won News Journalist of the Year at the Sony radio awards for his reporting on the terrifying Lord’s Resistance Army militia in Central Africa and on the orphans of Kabul.

Tim Luckhurst, professor of journalism at the University of Kent and the author of a biography of the Today programme, said the BBC was making a mistake. “Radio 4 audiences do not want to hear three versions of the same story on Today, the six o’clock TV news on BBC1 and the 10 o’clock news on BBC1,” he said. “They want to hear a Today reporter reporting exclusively for Britain’s flagship programme.”

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