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BuzzFeed does politics. Watch out, Westminster

27 January 2014

It’s startling how few young people feel aligned to a particular newspaper. Gone is the idea of ‘taking a paper’. Today, we are far more likely to use Flipboard to browse stories from hundreds of different newswires, blogs and websites. We turn to Twitter to see what people are saying about the day’s news, before logging into Facebook to share commentary on it. We care about what our friends are reading, and what the people we respect are reading. We couldn’t care less about loyalty to a publication.

The explanation for this lack of loyalty is two-fold. There is plenty to suggest that the young feel abandoned by traditional news sources. But equally, traditional news sources have struggled to keep up with the voracious appetite for ‘social news’ – stories deemed worthy of sharing.

The online media pioneer

The pioneer of social news is BuzzFeed – the site renowned for its cute pictures of cats and lists of ‘life hacks’. Up until recently, the mainstream media have tended to scorn BuzzFeed – and with good reason too. The site sometimes blurs the lines between editorial and advertising, has promoted stories that turn out to be fake, and can at times trivialize news items. But it has become increasingly hard to ignore BuzzFeed, given that its formula both draws huge audiences and monetizes them. Revenue in 2013 was estimated to be somewhere between $20 million and $40 million, and, as of this month, the company is valued at $200 million – with suggestions being made that it has the potential to become a billion dollar company. There is, it seems, money to be made in online media.

In recent months, BuzzFeed has focused efforts on more traditional forms of journalism. They have recruited a number of top reporters (a couple with Pulitzers to their name), begun to build an investigative team, launched a section for longform journalism (known as BuzzReads) and have increased their international outlook. In March last year a UK site launched with 15 staff; by November, they attracted more than 10 million unique UK users. Unsurprisingly they are currently recruiting more British staff.

As a result, a young, internet-savvy audience is rapidly accepting BuzzFeed as the equivalent of ‘the paper they take’. Loyalty to the site is high. Lured in by entertaining ‘clickbait’, the site then offers its readers more serious pieces to take stock of. They want to be the ‘news source’ for the ‘younger generation’ says COO Jon Steinberg.

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Shaping millennial minds

BuzzFeed’s real power is in its ability to shape opinion. Spend any time on the site, and you’ll come across some of the accepted assumptions BuzzFeed’s narrative rests upon: Beyoncé is a goddess; the 90s were a hallowed era; Obama is a dude. The underlying messages relate to feminism, progressive politics, liberal drugs policies, gay rights and so on, packaged up to delight youthful readers and encourage them to share articles. The site blends current affairs, culture, politics and entertainment into a potent mix that reaches a vast audience. Whether you agree or disagree with BuzzFeed’s content, it’s not hard to see that it’s a pioneer.

It’s also not hard to see why the site has considerable political clout. The average BuzzFeed reader is in their mid-20s and ripe for having their political views sculpted. The US arm of BuzzFeed Politics now has 11 staff reporters, and back in October, the UK edition appointed its own political editor. Competition for the role was stiff – with the position eventually going to City AM’s Jim Waterson – a young journalist famed for frying an egg under the Walkie Talkie skyscraper.

BuzzFeed and Westminster

‘People in Westminster are starting to view BuzzFeed as a communication tool, using the community as a way to reach 20-somethings,’ says BuzzFeed’s UK editor Luke Lewis. In 2014, they intend to ramp up their political commentary – ‘but there’s still a way to go before we’re at the same position as BuzzFeed in the US, where they have a whole team of White House reporters, and have done since the start of 2012,’ says Lewis. ‘There is an assumption that young people don’t want to read about politics, but we’ve found it’s very much a question of presentation,’ he adds.

At the moment, a handful of British politicians feature fairly regularly on the site: Boris Johnson, David Cameron, Ed Balls, Ed Miliband. It’s unsurprising that a politician like Boris – who understands so well the benefits of a well-timed stunt – has garnered so much attention. Articles such as ‘11 Film Posters Made Better By Boris Johnson’, with the strapline ‘Boris Johnson is a man of action’ are devised to appeal to a young audience. Despite its apparent triviality, a piece like this can engage young people in a way that no dry political campaigning could ever do. ‘We’re getting a substantial number of people reading political articles who wouldn’t glimpse at the politics sections of other news websites,’ says Waterson.

As well as being the subject of posts, there are examples of politicians penning their own BuzzFeed articles. In November last year, Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps wrote an article in the Community section entitled ‘12 Facts: Why Energy Bills Are Sky High, And What We Can Do About It’. The standfirst read: ‘The Labour Party want your energy bills to rise by £125. The Conservatives will help you keep warm this winter.’ The piece was based on a number of Tory press releases on energy policy, and was hardly that exciting, but it showed an engagement with the site hitherto unseen in British politics. ‘As long as contributors abide by the community guidelines they can write what they want,’ says Lewis. ‘But it’s not really what we want the BuzzFeed community to be about. It’s supposed to be fun and creative, and if people use it to advance a particular agenda, we won’t promote it ourselves.’

A question of timing?

Cynicism abounds. Certain stories have made serious points: a comparison of Ukip and Monster Raving Loony policies; Dan Knowles’s accessible piece about housing prices. Others have failed, including a vapid LibDem posting entitled ‘10 Reasons Why Mary From “Sherlock” Should Stick With The Lib Dems‘. Overall, BuzzFeed UK’s political coverage in recent months could hardly be called extensive. Some expected the political arm to have made bigger waves by now, but there is still a long way to go before it can really rival the established political heavyweights.

But perhaps it is just a question of timing. With the 2015 election on the horizon, BuzzFeed UK is gearing up to play an important role in shaping how millennials view British politics. Over in the US, both the Republicans and the Democrats have begun to incorporate BuzzFeed style tactics into their campaigning. The likelihood is that British parties may well have to adopt them too, if they want any hope of getting a ‘like’ from the younger electorate.

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  • pearlsandoysters

    I guess that Buzz feed is a clear cut example of info-entertainment, which seems to be on the rise. The only danger is that the lines are so blurred that no one (apart from the top management) knows where exactly the edition stands on key issues. It’s an easy way to shape the views/opinions without actually disclosing them explicitly. In my humble opinion, it’s much more delight to read editions that say what they stand for, even if you don’t share their outlook.

  • awakenmedia

    30) Classical Greek

    30 ) Κλασική Ελληνική

    12 . Muni Sutta .

    Η Sage .

    207 Με την οικειότητα προκύπτουν φόβο και σε ένα νοικοκυριό να προκύψουν defilements ,
    Επομένως, ο σοφός δεν επιθυμεί νοικοκυριό και καμία οικειότητα .
    208 . Αν κάποιος ξεριζώνει το γεννήθηκαν , δεν ενθαρρύνουν και να στηρίξουν την born1
    Αυτό είναι το φασκόμηλο περιπλανιέται μόνος του , είδε την κατευναστεί κατάσταση του σοφού
    209 . Η εκτίμηση του πλούτου με τους σπόρους της αμέλειας , δεν αυξάνονται τα συνημμένα τους
    Ότι το φασκόμηλο είδε την καταστροφή της γέννησης , της λογικής σκέψης διαλυθεί , δεν έχει καμία αμφιβολία .
    210 . Γνωρίζοντας όλα settlements2 και δεν επιθυμεί ένα μόνο από αυτά ,
    Αυτό είναι το φασκόμηλο που δεν είναι άπληστοι , ο ίδιος δεν προχωρήσει , αλλά διασχίζει .
    211 . Ο σοφός , γνωρίζοντας και την υπέρβαση τα πάντα , να μην λερώνεται από το τίποτα,
    Δίνοντας τα πάντα απελευθερώνεται με την καταστροφή του πόθο
    Ο σοφός λένε , αυτός είναι ο σοφός .
    212 . Με τη σοφία που κινούνται , ενάρετος , συμπυκνώθηκε και συνδέονται με jhànas προσεγμένη ,
    Κυκλοφόρησε από ομόλογα , επιθυμίες, και το βέλος που τράβηξε , ο σοφός λένε , αυτός είναι ο σοφός .
    213 . Η επιμελής φασκόμηλο περιπλανιέται μόνος του δεν αισθάνεται , κατηγόρησε ή εξήρε ,
    Όπως και το λιοντάρι όχι ανακατεμένο με ήχους , όπως ο αέρας δεν έχει
    πιαστεί σε μια καθαρή , όπως το λωτό που δεν λερώνεται από το νερό
    Οδηγεί άλλους να καταλάβουν το υψηλότερο , ο σοφός λένε ότι είναι ο σοφός .
    214 . Τα λόγια των άλλων που διαπερνούν ακριβώς στην καρδιά , είναι σαν ένα μετά εδραιωθεί σταθερά στο νερό .
    Ότι η απληστία δωρεάν μία με διανοητικές ικανότητες ηρέμησε και συμπυκνώνεται , ο σοφός ας πούμε είναι ένας σοφός .
    215 . Εδραιωθεί , όπως το λεωφορείο , που έχει ένα απλό μάθημα
    Απεχθάνεται demeritorious ενέργειες , και είναι σε επιφυλακή για σωστό και το λάθος ,
    Ο σοφός λένε ότι είναι ένας σοφός .
    216öot κάνει κανένα κακό εν γνώσει του , ακόμη και στη μέση των παιδιών είναι ένας σοφός , αλήθεια στη λέξη ,
    Δεν είναι θυμωμένος , δεν διεγείρουν την οργή του άλλου , ο σοφός λένε ότι είναι ένας σοφός .
    217 . Είτε παίρνει τις πρώτες μπουκιές του φαγητού , στη μέση ή το τελευταίο είναι ευχάριστα υποστηρίζεται ,
    Δεν είναι συνδεδεμένο , δεν σκέφτονται πολύ , ούτε μειώσω αυτή την τροφή.
    218 . Περιπλάνηση μακριά από τη σεξουαλικότητα , καθώς και δωρεάν τέτοιων συνδέσεων όταν είναι μικρά,
    Και τώρα αφαιρεθεί και μακριά από τοξικές ουσίες και η αμέλεια , ο σοφός λένε ότι είναι ένας σοφός .
    219 .
    Γνωρίζοντας τον κόσμο μέσα από την υψηλότερη view3 έχοντας διασχίσει τις πλημμύρες
    και ο ωκεανός
Τα ομόλογα κόψουν , μη διάσπασης και επιθυμίες, ο σοφός
    λένε ότι είναι ένας σοφός .
    220 . Αυτά τα δύο δεν μπορούν να συγκριθούν , η μία προσδεμένη σε
    Διδασκαλία και τηρώντας σε αυτό ,
Και τα καλά εξημέρωσε ιδιοκτήτη αφιερωμένο
    στη σύζυγό του και όχι εγωιστική ,
Ένας νοικοκύρης δεν περιορίζεται για
    πληγώνει τα έμβια όντα . Το φασκόμηλο προστατεύει συνεχώς τη ζωή της ζωής
    τα πράγματα .
    221 . Η ταχύτητα του παγωνιού ποτέ δεν θα καλύψει τη διαφορά με αυτό
Ομοίως , ο ιδιοκτήτης δεν μπορεί να φτάσει μέχρι το bhikkhu , ο
    επιτυγχάνει Jhana στο δάσος .

  • pigou_a

    “BuzzFeed’s real power is in its ability to shape opinion.”

    A you sure? Isn’t it just that BuzzFeed actually reflects millennials’ opinions?

    I’m not convinced it’s really a journalist’s job to “shape opinion”. Isn’t it more to report facts in a interesting and engaging way, and to earn readers’ trust through accuracy and insight?

    Funnily enough, Daniel Knowles is one of the few British journalists who can do that. Could you imagine many other British journalists writing:

    “I love the census. I really do. Tells us as much about modern Britain as any number of newspaper columns, documentaries, history books.”

    Needless to say, it was not a surprise when Daniel Knowles left the Daily Telegraph for the Economist.

    • Craig Bauer Melson

      Its not journalism; its social news- a v different thing.

  • HookesLaw

    ‘have struggled to keep up with the voracious appetite for ‘social news’’ — you clearly he not seen the rubbish in the on line Daily Mail.

    Such ‘news’ is barely worth reporting its no surprise that those who bother to take an interest it have no time for anything more serious.

  • Alexsandr

    i havent bought printed media except for a specialist magazine for years.
    and I have never paid to go through a paywall
    why should I?
    printed media will be gone soon. thats why leveson was so vacuous.

    • pigou_a

      I agree, Leveson was so odd. Why did they care so much about a dying industry? It was equivalent to having a huge enquiry about the coal mines in 1994.

      Similarly, I’ve only paid for one newspaper in years, a copy of the Guardian, effectively a charitable donation in support of their Snowden coverage.

      I don’t understand what the legacy news organisations offer. They’re not accurate, they’re rarely first to a story, they just troll their audiences for page impressions or reprint party political PR.

      The disappointing thing is they’re not even trying. They appear content to be consigned to history.

      How can professional journalists not understand that it’s quite a big problem when “I read it in the Daily Mail” becomes a euphemism for, well. just Google it.

      • Colonel Mustard

        “Why did they care so much about a dying industry? It was equivalent to having a huge inquiry about the coal mines in 1994.”

        Because by using the print industry as an ‘out of control’ scapegoat they have set the stage for controlling the blogosphere. The Common Purpose appointed ‘guardians’ of press integrity won’t be made redundant when the print press disappears. Like all empires built within the over mighty state they will merely extend their remit and zero in on new targets.

        The pattern will be the same as it has been for everything else in the last twenty odd years. First big up a ‘problem’ or ‘issue’ – lots of ‘reports’ with unchallenged conclusions based on the most tenuous tripe to whip up some hysteria, then a moral crusade, perhaps an inquiry and a petition. If there are a few ‘victims’ so much the better. It won’t matter that the signatures on the petition are a tiny minority of the population because there will be some high profile cheerleaders and plenty of media coverage. Once the ‘something must be done’ bandwagon starts rolling it never stops.

  • callingallcomets

    Ah….don’t you just love it when the Speccie gets down with the kids? We knew that a lot of it was written by sixth formers (Isabel, Seb etc)….now we have Lara reporting from Year Nine…..

  • asalord You know it makes sense.

  • 2trueblue

    The Buzz Feed generation. Remind me, we had 13yrs of Blair, Brown, Balls, BBC and continual vacuous ‘One liners”, and look where it got us. If the young can only deal with one liner Buzz Feeds then we do them a great injustice. I know that they were educated by the Blair regime but they are not vacuous. From the description of how the Buss Feed is upskilling their staff are having to meet higher requirements.

    • ohforheavensake

      Remind me. How much in the way of serious politics would you find in the Sun? Or the Star? Or (although it purports to be different) The Daily Mail?

  • Ricky Strong

    I used to read a certain paper but then Murdoch happened.

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