What BuzzFeed's evolution says about the future of longform journalism
It’s not often that a job posting creates such a tizzy. But BuzzFeed’s search for a longform editor signifies more than just a new hire.
The announcement, which spawned headlines such as "BuzzFeed (yes, BuzzFeed) begins search for 'longform editor,' " aggravated ongoing tensions between the intersecting worlds of print and online journalism. The question became not whom would BuzzFeed hire, but how the site previously known for memes and cat photos could delve deeper into investigative, in-depth reporting.
BuzzFeed ignited that debate again when reposting a video Friday of a live suicide shown on Fox. Columbia Journalism Review intensified it when asking the Twitterverse, “Who's worse? @FoxNews for airing the suicide, or @Buzzfeed for re-posting the video just in case you missed it the first time?”
Unsurprisingly, responses came in from all across the board: against Fox, in support of BuzzFeed, and even against Columbia Journalism Review for getting “self-righteous” about it. BuzzFeed political reporter Andrew Kaczynski defended the decision on Twitter, but the scenario left many wondering how BuzzFeed would balance both hard-hitting and tabloid-style journalism.
To those journalists and readers steeped in a traditional media landscape distinguished by conventional silos of metro and feature sections, the addition of longform stories to a site that posts photos of NFL players who look like Muppets can be jarring.
But to BuzzFeed Executive Editor Doree Shafrir, who is leading the hiring search, the idea that there are “fun” posts and “other” posts is an antiquated way of thinking. Instead, BuzzFeed requires three things of each story: that it entertain, inform, and manifest itself as something people want to share with their friends.
“Almost everyone always wants to talk about this split, which I feel is sort of a false dichotomy,” Shafrir says. “Why should we take for granted that a sort of quote, unquote 'longform,' serious piece won’t be shared on social media, as if the two things can’t exist in one ecosystem? I think that’s an old frame of thinking, and we’re trying to break out of it.”
The short and long of it
The BuzzFeed staff doesn’t divide stories into quick hits or in-depth, serious or funny. And because online outlets aren’t held hostage by white space to fill, there’s more freedom in story selection, Shafrir says.
“I think to people who come here from more traditional media outlets, it’s sometimes a little scary to them because there aren’t as many explicit boundaries as there are at a local newspaper or magazine,” Shafrir says. “But that’s also what makes it exciting.”
Historically, start-up online publications were told only short stories and quick hits would perform well on the Web, says Choire Sicha, co-founder of The Awl.
“We all were told keep it short, cut up those paragraphs New York Post style, and nothing could be more than 800 words,” Sicha says. “We just finally stopped listening, and realized it was the completely opposite that was true. People wanted to read things and experience things and learn things. The Internet isn’t just for those of us who are bored at work in the afternoon and shuffling through things.”
Online readers don’t shy away from long stories, says Mark Armstrong, founder of Longreads and editorial director of save-for-later service Pocket. In fact, data, page views and experience have shown they crave the deep read. And while the source of a story clearly plays a role, a reader is going to be more concerned with whether their friend gave it a nod on Facebook than if they saw it on a prominent publication’s homepage.
“I think people are increasingly agnostic about where exactly they’re reading something or what print edition it came out in,” says Longform co-founder Aaron Lammer.
That’s not to say that name recognition and the track record of the publisher and writer aren’t still important, Armstrong says. They’re just now part of a greater equation that includes who else is recommending it and whether the reader trusts that recommender’s taste. After clicking through a “READ THIS NOW” link on a friend’s Twitter or Facebook feed, the reader is then more open to what comes next from that site.
Awl as precedent
While much has been made about BuzzFeed posting cat photos and investigative profiles on the same site, Shafrir doesn’t think readers will be too concerned with the eclectic mix.
“I think people adapt much faster than we give them credit for,” Shafrir says. “There’s no handwringing of, 'Should I read this serious, political story on BuzzFeed? They also have cat videos.' I don’t think that’s a consideration point on the part of most readers.”
While BuzzFeed’s job posting got journalists talking about the addition of longform to online-native publications, this isn’t a new concept, Lammer says. But it’s one that still takes some adjustment.
“We’re seeing a string of online-only publications that share some DNA with BuzzFeed who have started doing more and more features, whether they’re actually advertising it as a job or not,” Lammer says. “I’ve seen a lot of different publications that are ramping it up. Clearly, there’s an incentive for people.”
Sites such as The Morning News, Gawker, The Verge and Grantland all provide readers with a variety of story types and lengths. But the leading example in this type of story combination is The Awl. Lammer, Armstrong and Shafrir all praised the 3-and-a-half-year-old site as an example of balancing quick hits with substantial stories.
Creating that balance wasn’t a conscious decision, Sicha says. Instead, it grew out of a desire to provide a place for length and intensity that writers weren’t finding elsewhere.
“I wish I could say we had a strategy, but we did see people could digest and people could retain the information and people could share these stories,” Sicha says. “We definitely saw there were positive effects, but we weren’t thinking like, ‘Yay, let’s chase that.’ It just sort of happened organically.”
'Maybe longform features are actually a good gateway drug'
So if BuzzFeed isn’t the first site to branch out into such a range of stories, why the interest in their hiring enterprise?
To Lammer, it has to do with BuzzFeed’s status as a shorthand reference for any kind of page-view based journalism.
“Maybe it’s because of the emphasis they’ve put on cat features, but, whether they like it or not, they’ve become sort of the face of a certain kind of website,” Lammer says. “So when they announce this position, people are interested.”
But this interest might be representative of a greater realization in the minds of traditional longform publications, Sicha says.
“People are finally realizing that BuzzFeed is going to eat their lunch, which maybe they didn’t see coming,” Sicha says. “Let’s not forget that like seven or eight years ago, people turned up their noses at the Internet, and reasonably so in many ways. But I think there’s still a lingering thing where they’re like, ‘The Internet’s so cheap and cheesy and they don’t know to report.’ There’s still some of that baggage.”
And that baggage makes BuzzFeed’s foray into the land of longform – traditionally held by magazine writers and newspaper barons – a little hard to swallow for legacy outlets, Sicha says.
But from an operating standpoint, it just makes sense. Shafrir says the editors at BuzzFeed saw how well readers were reacting to a few of the longer stories the site had published, such as her own 7,000-word story on night terrors that brought in more than 100,000 views in two weeks. And the stories are generating a whole new audience BuzzFeed hasn’t seen before.
While the common conception says a publication would churn out quick hits to drive traffic and funding to support the meatier, longer pieces, that doesn’t quite hold true for BuzzFeed, Lammer says. After all, the site already exists just fine based on the shorter pieces and pop culture references. The reality, Lammer says, is there is an intrinsic value within longer pieces. And it comes down to acquiring a new audience.
“Maybe longform features are actually a good gateway drug to quick hits rather than vice versa,” Lammer says. “A lot of people who might not have come across BuzzFeed before might see a feature because it gets passed around a different way or through a friend. I can certainly tell you my parents don’t know what BuzzFeed is, but I can see BuzzFeed doing features that I would e-mail them. But I would never send my parents a cat video.”
Longform stories also have a much greater shelf life, Armstrong says. After a story is posted on Longreads, Armstrong often sees readers sharing the story on social media days, weeks, months, even years after the initial publication.
“People get excited when they've read something that really moves them, and they want to be that story's biggest cheerleader,” Armstrong says. “If a reader is spending 25 minutes with something your publication has created, that's ultimately a very good thing.”
As for what types of longform stories BuzzFeed is looking to do, the door is wide open, Shafrir says.
“I think that stories with some sort of emotional core tend to resonate with people more,” Shafrir says. “That leaves a lot of room. I could also see us breaking some sort of big investigative story, maybe on the politics desk. I really don’t think there’s a limit to the types of story we have the capacity to do.”
An understanding of that unlimited capacity and an inherent intellectual curiosity will be crucial in whomever BuzzFeed hires as its first longform editor, Shafrir says.
“I don’t think the person we are trying to hire for exists yet in the form we are trying to hire them,” Shafrir says. “That’s just by virtue of how journalism has evolved.”
While Shafrir says she doesn’t pay much attention to the opinions of other media outlets, she does understand how BuzzFeed’s atypical approach and the changing media landscape could be unsettling.
“If you worked all your life in print, I could imagine that it would be scary to see these changes going on and you don’t know how you’re going to fit into this new media ecosystem,” Shafrir says.
“The sort of natural reaction is to sort of lash out and criticize and say it’s not real journalism or its not professional or whatever. I don’t really pay attention to that stuff. I understand it. I feel bad that people sort of don’t want to evolve, but that’s why I’m at BuzzFeed and not a local print newspaper.”