How BuzzFeed News compares to the BBC: Inside two very different newsrooms

Andy Dangerfield / Photograph: BuzzFeed/Matt Tucker

Take your pick between two of the many exits at London’s Oxford Circus station, walk a few minutes, and you have the tale of two very different newsrooms.

A brisk five minutes walk up Regent Street sits Europe’s largest live dedicated news space. At New Broadcasting House, the majority of the BBC’s 2,000-odd journalists deliver news on two 24-hour channels, national TV and radio bulletins, as well as online and in dozens of languages for the BBC World Service.

If you choose instead to stroll a few minutes south of Oxford Circus, you reach BuzzFeed’s slightly more modest, but by no means less exciting newsroom, which accommodates around 40 news journalists, plus other content creators and commercial teams comprising the rest of the steadily expanding team of more than 100 staff.

Almost exactly a year ago, after almost a decade at the BBC, I started walking south rather than north from the Tube station, to start my new job at BuzzFeed.

The two experiences couldn't be more different.

‘The pit’, as it is endearingly known at the BBC, is where most journalists sit in its newsroom, and can be watched from above by visitors on tours, a little bit like middle-class monkeys at a zoo. That’s not to say the journalists behave like our primate cousins – on the whole, they’re very experienced, clever, kind people – just the ‘watch through glass while keeping the noise down so you don’t disturb’ viewing experience is a little zoo-like.

The BBC newsroom itself is loud and bustling. Most journalists have a broadcasting background, and hence aren’t afraid to scream and shout to get something on air that second.

The BuzzFeed newsroom is full of exceptionally talented young journalists but can be far less noisy than the BBC, as most communication – from the sharing of gifs to breaking news – takes place on messaging system Slack. I nearly spat out my coffee the first time a millennial colleague joked they’d just had a rare IRL (In Real Life) conversation as opposed to Slack meeting.

That’s not to say there aren’t lively moments – we’ve had visits from the likes of internet meme sensation Grumpy Cat, and the band Busted, who got their former-teenage fans humming along to a few of their hits.

And there are some meetings – the 9am news meeting is a great forum for everyone to contribute ideas for original treatments of stories. But there are far fewer meetings, which allows BuzzFeed News to be more nimble, as its reporters have more freedom to just get on and experiment with their ideas.

We had just a handful of meetings before we delivered our four-hour EU Referendum Townhall Facebook live show which involved leaders including David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon taking questions from a studio audience, attracting more than 7 million viewers.

The meetings were relaxed and focussed on discussing only the essential points that needed to be actioned. The decision on what name to give the whole thing was made in a matter of seconds. I imagine similar decisions at the BBC would involve meetings dragging on for hours, if not days.

Our live sentiment tracker, where the Facebook audience could respond to say whether they loved or hated what the politicians were saying, was created by one of our smart developers in an afternoon. Such technology at the BBC would take weeks, months or years to be signed off.

The BBC is of course principally funded by licence fee payers, so needs to justify the content it gives away for free on social platforms.

BuzzFeed News doesn’t have that problem and realised a few years ago that rather than demanding referrals back to its own website, it could get billions more eyeballs on its content by delivering it where its audience already is: on social channels. It’s never looked back. It experiments with new ideas – from Snapchat stories to Instragram lives – and learns, adapts and tailors its content to each emerging social platform.

BBC News must cover the entire waterfront of the news agenda so many of the stories on its website are by necessity rewritten newswire copy. This breadth can sometimes seem like it comes at the expense of original reporting.

At BuzzFeed UK, we don't have to cover every live story, we can pick and choose the ones we can add value to by finding an original line or doing it in an innovative way. We know who our core audience are – millennials – and we tell stories they care about, in innovative ways, in a tone that’s appealing to them.

At the BBC, there are some great social journalists but there are still a fair few who don’t really see the point – some of them have never really bothered with Twitter. At BuzzFeed, every journalist is a social journalist. They live on social platforms, are constantly participating in trending conversations and are first to spot viral content.

Of course there are many good reasons why the BBC takes longer to adapt. It’s a gargantosaur of an organisation – tremendous, yet more weathered and slothlike –arguably because if it makes a mistake, it has a more established reputation to lose.

But while the BBC defends that, the likes of BuzzFeed News will continue to surprise many of its naysayers – last year we had global impact with our investigations into tennis match fixing, fake news, and the human cost of fast fashion. In 2017, we’ll no doubt surprise a few more.

Andy Dangerfield is UK social media editor of BuzzFeed News. He tweets @andydangerfield

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