BuzzFeed comes not to bury newspapers, but to improve on them

By Ben Smith
September 6
The Observer

The ‘unbundling’ of news is good for readers and for print journalism too

At many newspapers, the most important half hour (if you’re lucky) of the day is spent in a sober meeting, fighting over which stories will appear, and where, in the paper. This is how editors tell you what’s important in the world. And this is what newspaper people can find so frustrating about the new social web.

Even as a new generation of news outlets invests in serious journalism, that great central bundle of information, entertainment, service and editorial judgment that was the newspaper continues to fly apart. Editors who used to assume they’d have the readers’ attention on, at least, the front page of their website now realise that the average reader sees a story in the hectic flow of a social feed on a phone, jammed up against memes, recipes, photos and articles from the competition – over which you have no control.

Former Guardian editor Peter Preston expressed his disquiet at this recently in these pages, even while acknowledging that BuzzFeed has invested seriously in, for instance, sending a talented reporter to cover ebola in Liberia. The “rub”, Preston wrote, is that “the whole point of such aspirational net operation is that it does need to be comprehensive. Newspapers, after all, have to provide a bit of everything: news, weather, TV, finance, sport, crosswords, the lot”.

This inconvenience is, in fact, the “unbundling” of the package that used to be dropped on your doorstep. The collapse of that bundle is not a decision we made at BuzzFeed. It’s a fact of a new internet in which social platforms have emerged as central channels. Readers now have a massive array of choices on where to find the best global and local news and the best sports or entertainment coverage. A New York Times reader who cares about cricket need not wait on the Times’s paper-thin coverage; an Observer reader who loves baseball (looking at you, Ed Miliband) need no longer despair.

Editors may find this frustrating, but it’s hard to see why readers should mind. It is liberating to read the first and smartest reporting, regardless of where it comes from, and to check one analysis or opinion against another. This unbundling is something that people who care about reporting should celebrate. As the web has shifted towards social and mobile consumption, news inhabits an intensely competitive environment with an obvious consequence: do what you can do extremely well. Don’t publish filler.

This frees reporters, for whom writing a dull follow-up to the competition was never much fun anyway, to spend their time advancing some stories with original reporting and finding novel ways to tell others. Great reporting, writing, editing now have to work to find their audiences, and to be shared on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and other platforms. At BuzzFeed, we have reorganised our newsroom to allow different teams more focus in order to keep doing focused work in each of these spaces.

And yet there is a lingering sense in some quarters that high-quality journalism and entertainment aren’t enough. The news business is supposed, in what seems to be an ethical sense, to be the business of assembling comprehensive bundles. And here is a second, deeper, question that I don’t find as easy to dismiss. This is the question of where the unbundling of news leaves a traditional function of newspapers, which is telling their readers how to think.

This is an ethical question, not a practical one. The bundle, Mr Preston and others suggest, had moral value beyond readers’ simple preference. Great publications – the Times, Guardian, Observer, Wall Street Journal, Sun – have always used that bundle to present a coherent worldview, at times to a fault, and to create not just informed readers but fellow travellers who drew their ideology and identity from the publication. That is far harder to do in the unbundled world, in which we strain to do stories that will break through your Twitter and Facebook feeds, below the update from your sibling and above the sports scores. But there are signs that the unbundling may be followed by a rebundling.

BuzzFeed and other new organisations are investing heavily in journalism and reaching a scale where we will be able to cover far more than we ever thought possible. A shift toward apps will provide some readers a more unified set of content again.

And so editors like me are wrestling with two questions: can we put the bundle back together? And should we?

Ben Smith is editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed

Read more, here: