“Most things on the Web are too long,” said BuzzFeed’s Editor in Chief Ben Smith in an interview in which he detailed the problems facing traditional media (surprise!) and the ways in which BuzzFeed is taking what has worked for its fluff pieces and applying it to more serious journalism.
The news site has been hiring reporters and editors by the dozen ever since Smith became editor in chief back in 2012, and the change in content is obvious: Just this morning, BuzzFeed featured a story on the revenge violence occurring in Israel in the aftermath of the kidnap and murder of three Israeli teens, including original content from a BuzzFeed reporter who was present at the assault of a 22-year-old Palestinian youth.
A serious story of serious violence with serious reporting from the Middle East? BuzzFeed is shifting from a tech company focused on Instagram pictures of cats to a news room interested in actual journalism and making a difference. It is taking the lessons it has learned from its past–people like scrolling, people like images and videos, people like social media–and attempting to innovate by including serious pieces without the restrictions of the conventional format.
Though it will apparently not lose its quirkiness.
I think mostly everybody, except sociopaths, cares about cute animals and most people want to know what’s going on in the world. I think you don’t get stupider when you go pat the animal as it walks by. We don’t view it as we want to bake some spinach into the brownies. We feel like most of our readers want to know what’s going on in the world, but also more people are going to read about Beyoncé than about advances in transgender rights anywhere.
Smith understands that serious reporting is important, but also that the digital age has made us consumers of media tidbits like never before, and that capturing reader attention requires some sort of synthesis.
And he made it clear that tradition for its own sake makes little sense:
One challenge is figuring out what replaces the wire story as the way breaking news gets communicated because no one reads wire stories, no one shares wire stories. The form was created for this very specific reason that has to do with newspapers, and cutting from the bottom. It’s this very wooden form. You put nine things in the first sentence, you summarize the story in the second sentence, then you have a random quote that restates, not as eloquently, the thing you just said. Then you have a paragraph that tells you things you already knew, and then you just have everything else in order of importance. That’s a weird way to tell a story.
Does BuzzFeed have a future in journalism? Is it making us too accepting of flashy images and gifs? Comments welcome on whether digital age media can maintain the gravity of past news sources, or whether this blending is ultimately a poor substitute for more “serious” pieces.