BuzzFeed to Fleet Street – 'We're figuring out the future of journalism'

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Stencil-painted onto the wall above Janine Gibson's desk, directly over where she has proudly placed her Pulitzer Prize for journalism, is the typically BuzzFeed slogan: "Risk it, for a biscuit."

You can almost hear noses wrinkling at the Guardian, where Gibson and colleagues won the Pulitzer for coverage of the Edward Snowden leaks in 2013, before she took up her role as BuzzFeed UK editor-in-chief last September.

"People are very sceptical about BuzzFeed, they think we are just for children or just [about] cats," she admits, from beneath a picture of a giant chocolate Bourbon (whereas offices at BuzzFeed New York are named after moggies, the apparently tea-loving London bureau has workspaces dedicated to Hobnobs, Teacakes and the like).

But that scepticism is fast fading. In recent months, following a succession of scoops over match-fixing in tennis, the children's charity scandal at KidsCo, and the failings of the National Crime Agency (NCA), BuzzFeed News UK finds itself regularly featured on prestige outlets from the Radio 4 Today programme to the Andrew Marr Show. Its unrivalled reach among the millennial audience is the reason why David Cameron will tomorrow give BuzzFeed News an exclusive streamed interview on Facebook Live as he reaches out to the young voters ahead of the EU Referendum.

Gibson, who quit as editor of the Guardian online when Kath Viner beat her to the editor-in-chief's chair, says her job is to make BuzzFeed into a "consistent top tier, scoop-getting, disruptive, serious investigative part of people's lives".

Plenty of older news organisations would love to see the rapidly-expanding BuzzFeed stumble. The Financial Times recently reported that the upstart failed to reach internal revenue targets (it still made $170m in 2015) and CNN claimed this meant the company would turn away from expensive news production to focus on entertainment.

Gibson's office is smack outside the London Palladium but she sees "absolutely no evidence" to support such a theory. "I love the investment and commitment to investigative journalism, to international journalism and doing stories that matter," she insists. "It's not put on, it's not insincere, it's utterly motivated by building a great media company."

She believes a fissure has opened up in the news business, dividing consumers born before or after 1981. "There is a watershed of media that people over 35 read and media that people under 35 read." BuzzFeed, she admits, enjoys a "massive, massive advantage" over traditional rivals by not trying to cover the entire waterfront of news and instead "really focusing" on issues that matter to its young audience; discrimination, rent prices, changing use of social media.

“You need as many allies as possible”

Whereas modern journalists elsewhere often feel too thinly spread, there's a palpable sense of opportunity within BuzzFeed's London newsroom.

Reporters, Gibson claims, are not treated like churnalism galley slaves. "It's a fundamental mistake that people make about BuzzFeed that we are all about getting traffic. If an article is shared by relatively fewer people but really speaks to them, that's incredibly important to us," she says. "It's absolutely not about getting on a treadmill and doing seven stories a day."

Shares are more important than raw page views. "BuzzFeed journalists, editors and video-makers study relentlessly what will cause their audience to share their content. We don't deal in big round numbers, we deal in metrics of sharing," says the editor-in-chief. "The key to the success of news is working out how to marry those learnings with more traditional journalistic skills of running down a story, finding out who's doing a bad thing and trying to cover it up."

Her idea of a "healthy newsroom" combines "a mix of very experienced people who know what they're doing and extremely hungry people who didn't learn any rules and don't know they're breaking them".

BuzzFeed's fondness for sharing extends to its own scoops. It has seen the benefit of conferring its youthful kudos on older news brands (such as the BBC) by partnering on big stories. "When you are trying to do big investigative stories, often with big powerful targets, you need as many allies as possible," says Gibson, who experienced a global partnership strategy on the Snowden story. "We have to amplify each other's efforts if we want to change things and have impact."

Heidi Blake, BuzzFeed News UK's investigations editor, presides over one of the best-resourced investigative units in British journalism. Blake reports to New York-based Mark Schoofs (another Pulitzer winner) but has a team of three London colleagues (former BBC Panorama producer Jane Bradley, Tom Warren, a recruit from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and Richard Holmes, investigations assistant). "The project we are all engaged in is building BuzzFeed into a major serious news brand that people trust, and feel is a vehicle if they are whistle-blowers with stories to tell," says Blake.

Warren, who has a nerdy fascination for court documents, exposed the NCA's long-term use of illegal warrants for conducting raids. Bradley deployed her doorstep charms to probe the recruitment of British jihadis. But the unit's biggest hit was The Tennis Racket, revealing the corrupting influence of gambling syndicates on the sport. Blake worked closely on the story with BuzzFeed's US-based data journalist John Templon, and latterly with BBC investigative reporter Simon Cox.

The relationship with the BBC helped ensure the scoop went global. "It was a genuine journalistic partnership but for us it was very helpful to have the BBC's platform to project the story from," says Blake. "The BBC is very keen to reach the BuzzFeed audience of under-35s... so it was mutually quite helpful."

BuzzFeed UK's head of promoting stories across social media, Andy Dangerfield, arrived from BBC Breaking four months ago. The differences from BBC culture are "quite stark", he says. "At the BBC they're still chasing referrals back to their own website, whereas at BuzzFeed we understand that you can reach a far wider audience through social [media platforms] and it doesn't matter where they see it... on Facebook, on Pinterest or Snapchat."

Everyone in the newsroom is looking at stories with a view to "whether they can do a Vine on that, or whether it will work on Facebook Live", he says. "Every journalist is a social journalist here."

The thing that excites him most about BuzzFeed is that the biggest demographic in its Facebook audience is females under 25. "That's the most desirable audience for politicians and big media organisations," he says. "Everyone wants that audience!"

Deputy news editor Elizabeth Pears is adamant that BuzzFeed does not simply aggregate stories reported elsewhere. "If we can't add something, what's the point?" asks Pears, who joined from black British newspaper The Voice. Clickbait is also verboten. "We wouldn't have a headline that doesn't deliver in the main story – it's really important for us to be credible."

But it's also clear that the news desk is keen on fun content – "stories that are going to be enjoyable or make people smile".

“Funny, different, exclusive”

Unlike traditional newsrooms, BuzzFeed's strategy pinpoints subjects that matter to young readers. Sara Spary arrived from retail magazine the Grocer and covers youthful consumer stories, such as the failure of Zara to match promises to stock larger sizes. Aisha Gani, who joined from the Guardian, brings insights into issues that matter to young British Muslims.

If anyone can judge the progress of BuzzFeed News UK, it's probably political editor Jim Waterson. He was appointed in the days when the newsroom was "nine of us in a box room" (it has expanded to 120 UK staff, with 76 in editorial) and has had to overcome the "sniffy" attitude of the House of Commons authorities.

Now the prime minister wants BuzzFeed's audience.

Waterson's three watchwords for a story are "funny, different, exclusive" – he won't write the same news as the rest of the political lobby. "It's quite a niche, odd set of skills you need to combine here," he says. "But when it hits the spot, it really hits the spot... it goes viral and you watch it spread."

BuzzFeed doesn't just exploit social media platforms, it also reports on how they're being used. Rossalyn Warren, who has an unorthodox reporting background in working for non-profit organisations, spends "a good chunk of my time dredging through parts of the Internet that would not be looked at by other reporters".

Whereas many tech journalists embraced live streaming (Periscope, Facebook Live etc) with unbridled enthusiasm, she was looking for the dark side of the new platform – and discovered it was being used for filming rape. "A big part of my beat is the negative side of what's happening online," she says.

She communicates with a wide network of online activists and is "very wary" of the need to identify sources. "I verify and I fact-check. Someone can say they are whoever they want to be online."

The white-washed BuzzFeed newsroom is decorated with the brand's yellow circle symbols – "OMG", "WIN", "WTF" – denoting the website's distinctive "like" buttons. It's a culture that has become familiar – especially to millennials – since Jonah Peretti founded BuzzFeed in 2006. In the US, the website alone has 80 million unique visitors a month – and three-quarters of BuzzFeed's content is published elsewhere, across myriad social platforms.

In London, Patrick Strudwick has been one of its most successful hires. As LGBT editor (covering stories on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities), he is a symbol of what makes BuzzFeed's newsroom quite different from those of Fleet Street.

He is also quite angry.

"What is extraordinary is that my job is the first and only job in a UK mainstream news outlet that is LGBT specific," he says, describing the lack of interest in the beat elsewhere as "a disgrace".

Strudwick, despite previously enjoying success on national newspapers, has "contempt" for the stance of impecunious and "institutionally homophobic" Fleet Street towards a "dream readership", with often high levels of disposable income.

He benefits from this. "What it means is that people come to me with stories that would never go to a mainstream newspaper." A recent scoop highlighted the plight of British gay man Marco BulmerRizzi, after Australian officials refused to recognise his marriage when his husband died on their honeymoon.

BuzzFeed, by contrast with the press, is tapping into "a global civil rights movement in full swing" and "the majority" of the audience for LGBT stories is heterosexual. "There are underlying themes of injustice, inequality and love," says Strudwick. "If Fleet Street editors could see the traffic... they might start to think about things differently."

Heidi Blake, the investigations chief, is another Fleet Street veteran, having previously worked at the Daily Telegraph and as part of the Sunday Times Insight Team that exposed World Cup corruption. BuzzFeed's newsroom is "the best" she's worked in – even when her sleuthing takes place alongside less serious colleagues seeking viral hits on Facebook Live (the NYC office landed the most-watched video on the platform by bursting a water melon with rubber bands).

"People are wearing big smiles all the time, everyone's really excited about what they're doing," she says. "There's a real genuine sense that we might just be figuring out the future of journalism over here."

The News Business column is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian Burrell on Twitter @iburrell

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