This isn’t clickbait: You shouldn’t hate BuzzFeed but should think more about the media

This isn’t clickbait: You shouldn’t hate BuzzFeed but should think more about the media

“Isn’t that journalism now? Just embedding a bunch of tweets from someone famous or notable and some reactions from normal people?”

A friend put that question to me recently and I can’t really disagree with the assessment at first blush.

Scrabbling up social media posts has become one of the dominant modes of pushing clicks in the commodity news business. Sites find things that well-known people have said online and spin them up into stories, which at their core are about nothing.

How many amazing responses from celebrities to dumb questions can we see (in GIF form and otherwise)?

At what point will we finally be so collectively bored of ‘200 times [insert celebrity] was perfect‘ that the number of clicks driven to those ‘stories’ becomes low enough for them to die the silent death of ‘viral’ content gone stale? Because right now, those formats seems pretty resilient.

The easy slam in the modern media landscape is to roll your eyes at BuzzFeed and write off the arguably over-valued publisher as a net negative. But that’s a lazy assessment of its influence.

On the one hand, BuzzFeed has had a long history of ethical missteps – advertising influence seeping into editorial, images and other elements poorly credited over and over again and the tyranny of the cheap list article.

On the other, it employs some incredible feature writers and people like BuzzFeed UK’s Tom Phillips, who is brilliant at finding new ways to tell stories online and a whip smart satirist.*

From Tom Philips' "25 Things That Will Definitely Happen In The General Election Campaign"
From Tom Phillips’ “25 Things That Will Definitely Happen In The General Election Campaign”

Behind-the-scenes, BuzzFeed has built a content management system (CMS) and other editorial tools that are the envy of many journalists labouring at older organizations still grokking how to make WordPress sit up and beg or stuck with legacy custom systems that are clunkier than a Ford Pinto.

Pinto crash test (from Reddit<a href='https://index.co/company/reddit' data-index='' target='_blank' class='idc-hasIcon'></a>, obviously…)
Pinto crash test (from Reddit, obviously…)

On the infrastructure side, BuzzFeed’s tech team have mastered dealing with huge traffic. In terms of creativity, the company’s designers and editors have essentially pushed a new vocabulary of how to tell stories on the Web.

This might sound like a job application – it’s not. I’ve spent far too much time on Twitter attacking things I don’t like about BuzzFeed to ever get past its ‘no haters’ policy. I’m a hater from the old school.

But, the frequent implication that it or other new venture-cash powered outfits like Vox Media – home of the titular explainer site and our rivals The Verge and Recode – aren’t really creating interesting, exciting new ways of doing journalism is false. Then again…

Vox.com's important Zayn from One Direction explainer
Vox.com’s important Zayn from One Direction explainer

All the new players (and most of the old) have their problems and tedious tropes they fall into repeating. We do here too.

The biggest failing in media is being horrendously smug about your place in the world. All journalists and editors are guilty of that, myself included. And here comes a (terrible) humblebrag to illustrate that:

I was offered the chance to interview for a job at BuzzFeed UK when the company’s expansion into Britain was just beginning and I failed to take it. I regret that, not so much because I want that job now, but because it was a missed opportunity to get more insight into how that company does business.

One of the biggest things that comes up when discussing the modern media is “clickbait.” I’ve seen plenty of accusations under articles I’ve written that a headline or even the entire thing was clickbait.

If I – or anyone here – has ever written ‘clickbait’, we’ve failed. Believe me, we spend a lot of time in our editorial chat debating to ensure that doesn’t happen.

An entertaining or provocative headline isn’t clickbait, a story that fails to deliver on the headline’s promise is clickbait. A story that was written because the writer was thirsty for clicks more than interested in writing about the topic is clickbait.

Coming back to the question that I kicked off this meander through modern media with – “What is modern journalism?” – here’s my answer:

Journalism is what it has always been – telling stories that matter to people, highlighting things that people who don’t have the time to pay such close attention wouldn’t have otherwise seen, saying things that powerful people (and in our case that means big tech corporations) don’t want to hear.

Everything else is either entertainment or just outright noise.

Read next: Content is a vile word

*Note: I consider Tom a friend. I can’t be sure he’d say the same about me. 

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