With 'Only Clinton Emails,' BuzzFeed brings a distributed approach to politics coverage

"Only Clinton Emails," a new Twitter account from BuzzFeed Politics, curates and highlights the most interesting excerpts from the Hillary Clinton email dump. (Screenshot)
"Only Clinton Emails," a new Twitter account from BuzzFeed Politics, curates and highlights the most interesting excerpts from the Hillary Clinton email dumps. (Screenshot)

When a judge ordered the State Department to release a trove of emails from Hillary Clinton in dribs and drabs earlier this year, he fated U.S. news outlets for months of repetitive coverage.

By now, a clear pattern for the Clinton email story has been established: Every time a new batch of emails is released, reporters dutifully troll through the correspondences and file story after story summarizing their contents. The resulting articles have been a diverse mix of fluffy news, serious analysis and somewhat haphazard roundups (a recent article touched on the subjects of gefilte fish and the former Secretary of State's TV preferences).

But the familiar drumbeat of stories took a turn overnight as BuzzFeed debuted a new reporting organ devoted exclusively to Clinton email coverage. "Only Clinton Emails," a Twitter account that has already surpassed 4,000 followers, has a stated mission of surfacing "the most important, strangest, and funniest emails from the Clinton email document releases" by sharing strategically highlighted screenshots and links to the missives.

Twitter seems a conducive medium for Clinton email coverage, which relies on curating scraps of funny, offbeat and genuinely newsworthy minutiae found in each message. Not all missives to and from Clinton's account are news, but Twitter allows BuzzFeed to atomize this massive, ongoing story and relate each tidbit in 140-character bursts.

The distributed approach adds several dimensions to the Clinton email story that tend to get lost in the deluge of articles published with each successive email dump. By establishing a timeline made up of time-stamped tweets, "Only Clinton Emails" lends continuity to the story that is difficult to follow with each monthly disclosure. It also serves as a kind of litmus test for which stories ought to be covered, allowing BuzzFeed to gauge reader interest in which emails bear further reporting by evaluating reader responses.

The other upside to adopting this approach is that it allows BuzzFeed to create an interactive hub for parsing the emails, enabling the outlet to cultivate a community of readers who can share and analyze the most newsworthy developments in the story. Although the emails are destined to be scrutinized by every news outlet with a political bent, establishing a Twitter account might allow BuzzFeed to influence the conversation on the social Web as it develops.

That conversation was among the reason BuzzFeed established the account, said Katherine Miller, BuzzFeed News' political editor.

"The idea was actually pretty practical," she said in an email. "The conversation surrounding these emails is mostly happening on Twitter, and we want to go where the conversation is. Also, it’s sort of a pain to manage a long, updating post on the email releases — which is usually unfocused anyway, and who wants to read that?"

Since multiple reporters are tweeting about the email dump simultaneously, the Twitter account saves time that would otherwise be spent compiling a story.

"The documents aren’t exclusive, and many political reporters are working through them at the same time and tweeting, so our thought to just take the boring post out of the equation," Miller wrote. "This is simpler, and also the best format — and if there’s other stuff (besides the email thing) to cover this way, we’ll do that, too."

It stands to reason that a social approach toward the story would come from BuzzFeed, which has long embraced various social channels as storytelling tools. When the Web giant announced a massive influx of capital last summer, some of the money was earmarked for a new "distributed" division that would create content exclusively for social media. Since then, BuzzFeed has launched BFF, a series of social accounts that make and spread shareable content.

That emphasis on distributed content has gradually become a staple at BuzzFeed. Earlier this year, BuzzFeed launched a Twitter account, Cocoa Butter, dedicated to "making fun stuff for and about brown folks." The social model has also come to define the approach of BuzzFeed Food, which has been one of the most successful video publishers on Facebook. And BuzzFeed comics, which debuted on Twitter early last year, mostly features social-only content.

BuzzFeed Politics intends to go beyond Twitter when necessary, however. Miller adds that her team will continue to write longer stories on the Clinton emails when opportunities for more in-depth reporting present themselves.

"We’ll keep writing stories about the emails where there are stories to do — like, a one-shot email that’s funny or interesting, or analysis, or using them for other reporting," Miller wrote.

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.


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