BuzzFeed plans to approach LGBT coverage with ‘same kind of intensity as politics’

BuzzFeed has made a number of hires lately in an effort to become the “leading publication in the country” for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender coverage, BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith said in a phone call with Poynter.

In the last month, BuzzFeed has hired former Chicago Phoenix Editor-in-Chief Tony Merevick as a breaking news reporter, former Politico reporter J. Lester Feder to “travel the world writing about marriage,” as Smith puts it, and brought on former Village Voice reporter Steven Thrasher as a contributing editor.

Chris Geidner, who anchored the publication’s coverage of gay marriage earlier this year, will be BuzzFeed’s legal editor, and Saeed Jones and Sarah Karlan are editor and associate editor, respectively, of its LGBT vertical, which mixes humorous coverage alongside entertainment coverage and hard news.

LGBT coverage is “a space we’ve always cared a lot about,” Smith said. “Marriage, for instance, is something that our core 18-35 audience cares a lot about. What we’re doing now is just deepening and broadening that.”

The marriage story, Jones said by phone, is but one example of a LGBT story that resonates with readers whether they’re bound together by a common identity or not. Jones said another story BuzzFeed has gone after is the 2014 Winter Olympics, which will take place in Sochi, Russia, a country that recently instituted an anti-gay “propaganda” law and where LGBT people frequently face violence.

“This is also a story about human rights and international organizations and diplomacy,” Jones said. It intersects with the war in Syria as well: “All of these dramatic factors are coming together.”

Russian police officers detain a gay rights activist in Moscow on Sept. 25. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

LGBT coverage at most mainstream publications “is sort of a niche, or it’s essentially like a second-tier thing,” Smith said. “We see it as an absolute front-burner area to go after with the same kind of intensity as politics. Maybe animals, even. I think in our marriage coverage, we see these as some of the most important stories in the world.”

“I’m not sure most mainstream outlets see it that way,” he added.

“That’s a sea change,” Edward Alwood said when I read him that quote. Alwood is a Quinnipiac University professor who wrote the 1996 book “Straight News,” a history of how mainstream media has covered gay news.

“Think back to the New York Times, even in the early ’70s, for that matter, and the other major newspapers, they would never have made a statement like that,” Alwood said. “They would never have thought the gay angle on any of those stories you named would have mattered at all.”

About BuzzFeed, Alwood said, “it seems to me that they are in a similar situation to the gay press back in the ’60s — they’re aware that credibility is a very tenuous thing — it’s not that hard to get but it’s easy to lose. Apparently they’re hiring people who are very aware of that.”

The early gay press, he said, built credibility among readers by adopting ethical standards, and it eventually moved away from advocacy toward a more mainstream model — with the result that mainstream outlets began plumbing it for stories and eventually competing with it.

Alwood said that when he lived in Washington, D.C., in the early ’70s, he and others would “make a beeline” to pick up the Washington Blade from distribution points on Fridays. “There was a hunger and an excitement among people to see what the news was,” he said. “That’s gone. There’s a feeling now among people that if something big has happened, they’re going to hear about it one way or another.”

Smith says gay papers have “have all the struggles that every print publication in the country has, but come out of great traditions.” The gay blogosphere is a “very vital piece of the Internet,” he said, adding that he was particularly fascinated with it when he was a blogger at Politico and before that, The New York Observer. The main difference between LGBT publications and BuzzFeed, he said, is that “I don’t think they’re in the business of hiring reporters and sending them to South Africa,” as BuzzFeed plans to do with Feder.(In an email to Poynter after this piece was published, Washington Blade Editor Kevin Naff said his paper has sent reporters to Colombia, Argentina and Israel in the past year.)

“We have the resources of a serious news organization to go after some of this stuff,” he said. If Geidner or Merevick miss breaking big stories, he said, “I’m going to be very upset.”

Jones said BuzzFeed will devote a lot of resources to covering transgender issues as well. Such content “often doesn’t make it into the broader conversation for members of the LGBT community,” he said. “These aren’t LGBT stories, this is news.”

He grew up in North Texas, he said, where “there weren’t actual physical places I could connect with mentors in the gay community.” The social Web has flattened the distance between LGBT people, he said. Before the social Web, it’d be “hard to see how we could cover or be aware of what’s going on in Sochi so tangibly as we are now.”

BuzzFeed does in its LGBT what it people there refer to as “identity content” (think “24 Signs You Went To Catholic School” or “19 Puns That Only Desis Will Understand“) even in its LGBT vertical, which Smith says has an “overlay of identity.” Lily Hiott-Millis, for instance, has written about “What It’s Like Dating As A Femme Lesbian” and Karlan has written pieces like “13 Mistakes From Your First Time At A Lesbian Bar.”

LGBT coverage encompasses such pieces, as well as music, entertainment and hard news, Jones said. “I would argue that all of that content is equal because it’s all part of readers’ experiences,” he said. “It’s fun to be able to switch things up.” The biggest question for him is quality: “No matter what form the content takes we do the best we can to make sure it’s excellent.”

“The thing is, all of our reporters cover this stuff,” Smith said. “It’s not a ghetto. … These are stories we all cover.”

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