You may associate BuzzFeed with cat videos, listicles and quizzes, but the cross-platform, global network is marking its territory as a dominant media news organisation, reaching 60 per cent of the world’s 18-25 year olds.
In fact, one in five of all articles shared by young people on social media originate from BuzzFeed, and its popular entertainment content is enabling it to engage people in news and in-depth investigations, explained Tom Warren and Richard Holmes, investigative reporters at BuzzFeed, speaking at the CIJ Summer Conference today (28 June).
“True, when you’ve spent two years working on something and you’ve even been rehoused because the Russian intelligence agencies are after you, it can be a bit disheartening when ‘Am I a toilet brush?’ is also trending,” said Holmes.
“But it’s an ecosystem,” explained Warren. “People go from animal videos to us - you come for the cats, but you get some fantastic investigative journalism.”
And the reporters at BuzzFeed’s Investigations Unit are certainly not worried about being different - they’ve even told stories through GIFs, or what they named ‘Instagifs’, to grab the attention of their mobile-savvy audience, and are experimenting with new story formats, including using maps and interactives.
Their main, collaborative team pieces regularly get over 500, 000 monthly views, and their recent four-part investigation ‘From Russia With Blood’, which looked into 14 Russian-linked deaths on British soil, topped two million.
“People do not engage anymore, they are deserting traditional media in droves and believing bullshit, so anything we can do to get people in the news, we should,” said Warren, who explained that the Investigations Unit was ring-fenced in the latest BuzzFeed job cuts.
The team have 20 reporters working on investigations around the globe, focused on producing stories with deep impact, from exposing a rogue Chicago police officer who framed 51 people for murder to how RBS crushed British business for profit.
Warren explained journalists at the network have the freedom to work on their stories for as long as they need, individually or collaboratively, as they’re unconstrained by editorial bias, space, print deadlines or reader prejudice.
“We have one thing that other publishers don’t have - time,” said Tom Warren, explaining that the reporters have previously spent two years on a story, and are able to fly to meet with sources the same week if needed.
“You go out there, meet them for dinner and you invest that time. It’s old school - saying that, I understand the pressure that most news organisations are under, I’ve been there myself.
“When we launch on a project, we make a spreadsheet with two to three hundred people that might know about it, while also building relationships with people in the long term. We don’t want someone taking a document to the BBC, we want them coming to us personally.”
BuzzFeed’s work culture, Warren explained, aims to encourage the journalists to bring their own stories to the table, find their own sources, and take the lead on their investigations, but often work as a transatlantic team.
“We want to celebrate reporters at every level - this is a craft, and we work with them to help them get the lead byline on a story,” he said.
Investigations, often ignited through FOI requests and data scraping, have proved to be a powerful revenue source for the publisher, who have been picked up by publishers and movie makers.
“People will share stories that make them feel something - shock, anger, upset,” said Holmes.
“The most shared stories we do are between three and ten thousand words - it’s not true that millennials have the attention span of a goldfish.
“People will share your work if you generate great impact. We see things that are wrong and want to do something.”