THE BUZZFEED INFLUENCE
Interview With Craig Silverman
Editor of BuzzFeed Canada
When BuzzFeed launched a decade ago with a heady mixture of click-bait, quizzes, and heavy doses of celebrity photos & gossip, it was roundly dismissed as the scourge of journalism. While traditional news outlets continued to publish long newspaper stories online, the founders of BuzzFeed targeted the viral ethos of social media and the desire for quick, snack-sized info-tainment. BuzzFeed also understood the demographics of the burgeoning social media audience – tweens, teens and young adults interested in content that didn’t look, feel, or read like traditional news. They were enormously successful. Their quizzes were inescapable on Facebook, as were the headlines all of which seemed to end with the phrase “….and you won’t believe what happened next!”
Fast forward a decade, traditional news sites are trying to capture viral lightning in a bottle and BuzzFeed is now covering traditional news. But in the turbulent wake of BuzzFeed’s arrival, a generation of young people grew up believing that entertainment and gossip was news and the listicle, the optimum news format. It left newspapers scrambling for readers, and advertisers only too willing to go where the eyeballs were going. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, went from social networks full of pictures of food or pets to “news feeds”, and BuzzFeed was a key part of that news diet.
So here we are, 10 years later, and all news media are sharecroppers to Facebook and youth are getting their world news from “friends” and family. Read on as we assess the impact of BuzzFeed on the #BrandofMe generation and continue #askingthehardquestions
Craig Silverman Interview Transcript - here
THE BUZZFEED GENERATION: EVALUATING YOUNG PEOPLE’S MEDIA DIET IN A BUZZFEED HEAVY WORLD
Ignore the decorations on the walls. BuzzFeed Canada isn’t sorry.
Black catchphrases written across yellow circles adorn the company’s downtown Toronto offices. Some are phrases associated with the company’s list-heavy, click friendly content: “OMG,” “LOL.” Others, “eh?” or “sorry,” are meant to reflect Canadian identity.
But Craig Silverman, editor of BuzzFeed Canada, which launched in June 2015, has no apologies about bringing the “buzz” style to Canadian pop culture, and, yes, news. Make no mistake. Even when covering the same events as traditional or “legacy” outlets, BuzzFeed has a distinct style: few words, lots of photos and short videos. The goal is to move people through information – even a series of photos - quickly in an understandable and memorable way. He counts the decision to describe the fraud trial of former Canadian senator Mike Duffy by using characters from Game of Thrones as an example of how BuzzFeed makes complicated topics accessible.
That anecdote captures a shift happening at the company, and in culture. A generation of young people grew up believing that BuzzFeed’s staple product, cute, quirky and gossipy content, was news – and now one of the major players responsible for creating that belief is trying to re-brand itself as a trusted news organization.
Silverman, who, before joining BuzzFeed, exposed errors in news reporting, admits the recognition will take time. “The company didn’t start out as a journalistic organization,” he says. It started nearly a decade ago, and news has only entered into its strategy in the last three or four years. There are good reasons why BuzzFeed and “serious journalism” aren’t usually mentioned together. It began as a place to read about popular online content, a place full of celebrity gossip, photos, quizzes and headlines enticing readers with the promise that “they wouldn’t believe what happened next”. Readers – and advertisers followed. BuzzFeed claims to attract more than 200 million unique views monthly.
For many of those users – Generation Z, Gen Next….millenials - BuzzFeed’s not “old” or “new” media. It just is. It’s all they’ve known and ever will.
The time for apologies and excuses is over. Now it’s time for an explanation.
New sources of information
According to data released in November 2015 by Neilsen, a global information and measurement company, young people aged 15-20 get their news mainly through social media. For this Global Generational Lifestyle survey, 30,000 respondents in 60 countries were polled online about their habits and values, including how they preferred to access news. Globally, 53 per cent ranked television news as their preferred source. The only generation that didn’t was “Generation Z”, the 15 to 20 year olds.
This matters. News is created differently for online, especially social media platforms. In previous generations, editors assigned stories to reporters, or reporters pitched ideas to their editors. Stories were chosen based on relevance to readers in a particular location at a particular time. Digital communication dismantles barriers of time and place – anyone can get news from anywhere at any time – and share it instantly with a global audience.
This has left newspapers, traditionally the news reporting and gathering engines of a community, struggling for relevance. These were the institutions tasked with grassroots, local reporting. “Nobody has filled in that role effectively,” says Silverman. “BuzzFeed isn’t doing local reporting in small cities and towns. While we cover certain topics, newspapers had a role in society that has certainly started to erode. I think that is a challenge right now.”
It’s not the only one. The digital revolution has disrupted the traditional relationship between editors, reporters and the audience. People can easily add information and opinion to news in a public way, as breaking stories happen.
“Anybody can throw up a blog or a website and start putting up information there,” says Silverman when describing how the news landscape has changed. “The orderly universe of a vast majority of people watching one newscast a night doesn’t necessarily exist anymore.”
This can change the focus of coverage in subtle, but important, ways. When a gunman shot and killed Canadian reservist Nathan Cirillo on Parliament Hill in October 2014, the response on social media helped focus much of the reporting on the victim, not the shooter. “That decision used to be up to a handful of editors and producers, who got to decide what was important,” says John Stackhouse, former editor-in-chief at The Globe and Mail who describes social media’s role in covering the shooting in his 2015 book Mass Disruption: Thirty Years on the Front Lines of a Media Revolution. “That power is now in all our hands.”
New sources of power
Editorial power isn’t shared equally, however. Advanced metrics allow media organizations to see how many times a story is viewed, and from where; how many times an item is “shared” or “liked,” and even how much of an article has been read. News organizations have a mandate to report on the world around them. As more human activity moves to the digital sphere, this means tracking stories on and offline. News organizations want people to read their content, and not the competition. They want to be the best. They want clicks. This means recognizing that the best way to make a story get attention is to ensure it gets a lot of prominence on Facebook, says Silverman.
Stories drawing the most traffic, however, may not be the most important ones. Sometimes, the algorithms that track what people are interested in, or what they should be interested in, completely miss the mark. Algorithms aren’t all-knowing; they can’t necessarily judge the cultural importance of developing stories. Take the riots that broke out in Ferguson, Mo. in August 2014, after Michael Brown, an African-American teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer. Those news stories didn’t register in Facebook news feeds “because its algorithms didn’t catch the political and social significance,” Stackhouse notes in an email to the kidsmediacentre.
Dangers of shallow diving
What algorithms try to reflect – keenly - is an item’s personal significance.
“The interesting thing about what makes something go viral,” says Silverman, “is it has nothing to do with algorithms and everything to do with humanity.”
People share things they have a strong emotional reaction to, whether it is disgust or pleasure. They also are more likely to share content that reflects what they already believe. This has been true since before the rise of the Internet. There may not be a difference between BuzzFeed having cat videos and political news and a traditional newspaper running horoscopes. “I call it a blend of the popular with the profound,” says Stackhouse. “As humans, we have a range of interests and curiosities when we look at our phones, and smart news organizations try to meet a good chunk of that range.”
In the digital landscape at its worst, people could fabricate content to reinforce political views, says Silverman. This can drive traffic to sites that are deliberately publishing false information. On the less dangerous end of the spectrum are BuzzFeed quizzes appealing to human needs for acceptance and defined identity. Views, and shares, are almost guaranteed. Deep thought isn’t required to understand the stories. Both may be popular, but neither is journalism.
Depth, context, and verifiable facts are what make journalism unique. News organizations – both “old” and “new” – are quick to praise investigative reporting that exposes injustices, abuses of power and contributes to positive social change. They’re also quick to note such work is time-consuming and expensive. Digital media can do this type of reporting, but it tends to thrive on the quick, the quirky and the inexpensive.
Survival in deep waters
It’s unclear if younger users of BuzzFeed – those who have only known digital content – can recognize the difference between information created for clicks and serious reporting. While online news companies work to establish credibility, consumers need to be wise about the information they’re accessing. Educators and parents need to model this wisdom and teach children how to be media literate. Audiences today need to ask the same questions they needed to before the digital era, says Stackhouse. This includes asking about where information comes from, who the sources of information are, and to note how different organizations report on the same events.
The digital environment magnifies these needs. The people who share items on social media aren’t usually the people who create the items, says Silverman. Often, sites re-purpose information instead of creating their own. “It can be a fun game to try and follow back all the links to where something came from,” he says.
Because people are attracted to information that reinforces their worldviews, it’s also important to intentionally read sources written from various perspectives, says Silverman. Reading information that confirms what people already believe creates a positive feeling, he says. But it can make people vulnerable to hoaxes, so it’s important to read widely – including sources with which one may disagree. “It’s not a comfortable experience, but it’s a really important thing for people to do,” he says.
Adults need to model this behaviour. This means not just asking youth where they get their information from – especially during important news events – but also looking at the news sources they discover, says Stackhouse. For younger audiences, creating and sharing news is just as important as the news items themselves.
The media landscape online has irreversibly changed. Short and quick versus long and detailed. Facts and reporting versus opinion and observation. There’s no easy equilibrium when it comes to online journalism. But the traits that make good reporting and reporters remain. “There’s no replacing the insatiable mind of a great reporter,” says Stackhouse, “the kind who never seems satisfied with an answer and always wants to know more, and then has the enterprise to find ways to find out what others don’t want revealed.”
Nothing can replace the mind of a good consumer, either, regardless of where they access information.