ON LOCATION - November, 2016
FastForward Visits BuzzFeed
Social Media and the New Age of Journalism: A Closer Look at BuzzFeed
By C.C. Clark, Matt Geffen, Katrina Horsey, Will Ogden and Campbell Slavin; from Drew, Marin Academy, Marin School of the Arts and University High Schools
How many times has this happened to you?
“Should I do my homework?”
“Hmmmmmm… I don’t know, should I?”
“I probably should…oh, how about this. I’ll just take a two-minute BuzzFeed quiz and then I can focus.”
(One hour later: still on BuzzFeed)
“What am I doing with my life?!”
Chances are you face this dilemma on a daily basis. As many a critic and user will tell you, BuzzFeed has become synonymous with the term “procrastination station.” But this news and entertainment website, which built its business model on videos of dancing animals and quizzes that determine which Game of Thrones character you’re most similar to, now counts well-established news sources like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal among its main competitors. Celeb gossip, quizzes, viral memes, and cat gifs are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the digital media behemoth that is BuzzFeed. Thanks to its meteoric rise and expansion into new media and markets, this is one of the most influential, popular, and—yes–buzz-worthy sites on the web.
On a scalding summer afternoon in New York City, Fast Forward had the opportunity to tour BuzzFeed’s Eighth Avenue headquarters. As we approached the office, the site’s iconic red logo came into view, extending out from a sharp but otherwise ordinary grey skyscraper. As soon as we entered (greeted by the lifesaving whoosh of the AC), we were submerged in the “buzzyness” of the company’s workaday world. Spiffy millennials sport the latest styles; spotless white walls are illuminated by fluorescent lights. Nearly every employee carries a beige backpack with the BuzzFeed insignia printed in the bottom right corner, and a personalized quote is written in the remaining space in black.
We were approached by Weesie Vieira, a smart, cheerful young woman who served as our tour guide. As BuzzFeed’s director of communications, Vieira is constantly in touch with the different branches of the company—the perfect person to give Fast Forward a wider lens on how BuzzFeed’s many parts convene. We began on the 12th floor.
Also known as “the buzz floor,” the 12th is dedicated to the fun stuff: celeb content, DIY tutorials, the site’s flagship “Tasty” cooking videos, etc. Here, raw ideas are brought to the table for testing; many of them have helped define BuzzFeed’s growing identity. For example, the Tasty videos began life as a simple Instagram account; today, it’s the most popular Facebook page on earth. There’s a hardworking yet playful atmosphere on this floor, with employees riding hoverboards and the Tasty studio space doubling as an actual kitchen for the 500 staff members to use freely. Jars of candy and espresso machines line each mini-kitchen, and the walls are mostly whiteboards, free for anybody to draw on. Each desk is uniquely decorated, and every computer bears a funky nametag. On this floor, creativity is tangible.
As we peeked into a studio space for celebrity interviews (complete with a life-size cardboard cutout of Queen Bey), Vieira explained the role of this branch of the company: monitoring everything “buzzing” on Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and other social media platforms, which the BuzzFeed staff then distributes to an even wider digital audience. “It’s not news that has to do with a heavy subject, but it’s something that people care about and still want to talk about…what we call social news.” This “social news” forms the core of BuzzFeed’s online traffic. One example happened earlier this year, when a girl tweeted a picture of her grandfather looking sad at a barbecue that no one attended. When the picture became an overnight Internet fixation, BuzzFeed picked up the story, and soon people all over social media were reaching out to help that grandfather feel less alone. Stories like this exemplify the BuzzFeed philosophy: a type of journalism that doesn’t necessarily encompass the most hard-hitting topics but captures a sense of humanity that resonates with people of all ages and backgrounds.
Vieira links the social “buzz” journalism of the 12th floor to the development of BuzzFeed’s international presence. The company is in 11 international markets, including Brazil, New Zealand, Germany, France, Spain, Mexico, and Japan. (There’s also BuzzFeed Español, which covers Latin American countries outside Mexico and Brazil.) Expanding to these markets is a gradual, calculated process that incorporates different facets of the company’s brand: “They’re still in the early stages where they have four or five people in those offices that are doing the lists and doing the fun stuff. As they continue to build an audience, then we start bringing in news reporters.” There are many aspects that differentiate BuzzFeed in each market, with media optimized for both the kind of content different cultures are interested in and their primary medium for accessing it. For example, BuzzFeed France doesn’t showcase as many dumb cat videos as their American counterpart, because French culture reveres cats. In Brazil, Internet content is primarily accessed on cell phones, so BuzzFeed Brazil’s articles and pages are tailored to a predominantly mobile audience.
Optimizing BuzzFeed for other cultures doesn’t stop there. “The Paris shootings were a big realization for us,” said Vieira. “Most of our team was there doing social news and buzz content. We had to really try to use them like stringers, sending them out in the streets to interview people and find families of the victims. None of them really had experience doing that before.” The experience paved the way for a greater accent on translation. With each language and culture comes a different set of metaphors, idioms, and sentence structure, so the company developed an on-staff translation team that reinterprets every article and list so non-American markets can better understand and enjoy the content. Thus began BuzzFeed’s journey from a workplace diversion to a distributor of weightier, event-centered journalism. BuzzFeed recently finished second behind The New Yorker in a Columbia Journalism Review ranking of user/reader trust, a sign of how far the site has come.
As our tour came to a close, Vieira discussed the company’s plans to expand even further. “We’re investing in how people are going to be consuming media in the next five, ten, fifteen, twenty years,” she said, referring to the media companies that are choosing to invest in BuzzFeed’s future instead of forming competing distribution services. (NBCUniversal’s $200 million investment is especially worth noting.) BuzzFeed is also shifting away from simply acquiring website clicks and focusing more on providing content on as many different types of media as possible. “When you go to a lot of news organizations, they find a young a person and say ‘You’re going to do social media for us,’ but they don’t really get that it’s more than scheduling tweets and posts,” says Vieira. “Our people here are specialists.” BuzzFeed’s team searches and interacts with their respective social media platforms, keeping a close watch over the flow of user feedback and trending content. 50 percent of BuzzFeed’s audience is 18-34 years old, most of them female; but as the company enters new markets and media, their audience can only broaden.
Business is such a revolving door, you have to keep relationships with people... When the time comes that you need a source on something, or you want to bounce something off of someone or get them to go on background with you about a topic, you have those relationships. It’s really, really important.
For Vieira, though, the site’s success isn’t measured in numbers; it’s how much of a positive impact it has on people’s lives. “We did a week of mental health coverage. We’re not doctors. Our mental health coverage is not ‘take this medicine’ or whatever. It was, like, here’s ways to feel good about yourself today. Here’s how to help a friend who’s feeling sad. Real-life content that people can engage with.” Hundreds of emails flooded in, thanking BuzzFeed’s staff for bringing these issues to a wider audience and for helping them with their own struggles and the struggles of friends and loved ones. Another example of BuzzFeed’s mission to make a difference is their creation of the BuzzFeed Open Lab, a technology center based in San Francisco. Featuring demos and hands-on learning opportunities in the fields of robotics, VR, drones, and more, this lab is available to the general public. BuzzFeed CEO and founder Jonah Perreti believes that technology and the opportunities it represents should be accessible to all: another example of BuzzFeed venturing into areas other media and entertainment outlets haven’t explored.
“Business is such a revolving door, you have to keep relationships with people,” said Vieira. “When the time comes that you need a source on something, or you want to bounce something off of someone or get them to go on background with you about a topic, you have those relationships. It’s really, really important.” Thanks to her, as well as all of the other BuzzFeed employees who allowed us to see their workplace, we witnessed the collaboration, ingenuity, and open-mindedness that go into running one of the most popular websites in the world.
How’s that for procrastination station?