A case study in disruption: Buzzfeed and Australian political news

Nick IngramStrategy2 Comments

This month we all suddenly realised that the the internet had been disrupting infidelity right under our noses. The Ashley Madison hack brought that site into the public glare for all the wrong reasons (although it’s hard to imagine a right reason to bring that site to the fore).

So, if the models underpinning traditional infidelity can be disrupted by the internet, is there any business model that’s safe?

Cue NBC and BuzzFeed

As I’ve said before, disruption is a big issue facing a lot of my clients. So, in the month when NBC announced a $200m investment in BuzzFeed, it seems like a good idea to look at BuzzFeed in detail. In particular, I want to riff on an interview done with Mark di Stefano, BuzzFeed’s Australian Politics editor, from last week’s “Download this show“.

BuzzFeed is disrupting Australian political journalism because of a single key insight

As you listen to di Stefano on the podcast, it’s clear that BuzzFeed has landed on a single key insight to guide all their actions.

BuzzFeed have asked the right question. They’ve clearly asked themselves: What can journalism look like in an on-line world?

And their single answer is as depressing as it is effective. For BuzzFeed  sharing is everything. In an on-line world, a story is nothing if it isn’t shared on social media.

Di Stefano is unabashedly clear about this:

“We just constantly think, what are the stories in politics that are going to make people put it on their facebook wall?”

I suspect that everything BuzzFeed is doing to disrupt journalism follows from this single insight. For BuzzFeed, it isn’t journalism unless it’s compulsively shareable.

So, what are the implications of that single insight? How does BuzzFeed do political journalism in light of the rule that sharing is everything? Let me answer that in typical BuzzFeed style. There are four “rules of disruptive journalism” for every BuzzFeed reporter:

1. Break the nexus between reader and participant

Forget thinking of your readers as “readers” They have to be active participants. And that doesn’t mean setting up a comments section, like old media houses do on-line. In a BuzzFeed world the reader is a key participant, source and shaper of the news. BuzzFeed reacts to the internet and makes stories from what is already creating interest. To quote di Stefano:

“fresh exclusive stories are everywhere, you just have to actually go out there in a humble way with your hands out and tell the internet “Hey, what’s going on?””

For a BuzzFeed political journalist, you’re as likely to find the story on-line as in Parliament.

And the internet rewards that. Suddenly, the readers are participants – they’ve been in on the story already – and so they are already engaged. Therefore, of course, when it’s published they’re going to share the story.

The Mark Latham twitter story is a case in point. To hear di Stefano tell it, that story came to him from the interest already being generated on-line. So, when he takes that interest and does some investigation, and writes about how he does it (“show your working” as di Stefano says) then, of course, the internet will reward that. This is not a “social media campaign”. This is engaging your readers and bringing them behind the curtain.

You can see this approach in the story tonight about Operation Fortitude in Melbourne. As you read the story: “The Border Force just had one of those days when everything went wrong“, you can see that most of it is simply a “storify” of tweets from ordinary people (and admittedly some journalists).

2. Find the emotion

No-one is going to share a story unless it touches an emotion. Again di Stefano is unabashedly open:

“Every buzzfeed post should be tied to an emotion.”

And BuzzFeed will make it easy for you. They’ll make it easier for you to feel that emotion by tying the story to one of the “BuzzFeed badges”.

BuzzFeed_Badges

In a BuzzFeed world, where journalism is all about sharing, journalism has to become all about emotion.

3. Let data tell you what your best headline should be

Test everything – but especially test your headlines. If your aim is to maximise sharing, you have to draw people in. And the best way to do that is to get the best headline you can.

To summarise di Stefano, when a story first goes out, it is being “A/B tested” for the first two hours. Every reader is randomly assigned to a page with one of four possible headlines. Readers’ behaviour is monitored. The most engaged and shared headline is the one that is then put in place after two hours.

For a company that sees emotions as so important, BuzzFeed certainly understands data as well.

4. Only do the stories where you can “win”

It’s quite clear that if journalism in the on-line world is all about sharing, then you shouldn’t be doing the stories that everyone else is. Di Stefano talks about being “emancipated” at BuzzFeed from doing the “process story”. The internet “rewards fresh exclusives”. So:

“We only go after stories where we can win.”

Forget about being a newspaper of record. As a start-up media company, focus on only doing content that will be shared.

Is there any hope?

Well if this is the future of political journalism in this country, I think it’s right to ask whether there is any hope. Hopefully, not everyone adopts the BuzzFeed model. And you wonder how many players like BuzzFeed the market will support. I guess it will be interesting to see whether BuzzFeed is actually disrupting the news, or have they just found a “Blue Ocean” niche?

 

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Oh, and here’s the interview in full:

2 Comments on “A case study in disruption: Buzzfeed and Australian political news”

  1. Thanks for highlighting this, Nick. Sounds like there will be a lucrative market in “re-cycled” or “crowd” news. It will be influential, it will amplify populist trends, and it could drain money out of the generation of front-line and investigative journalism. A few years ago I came across a quote from a well-known social researcher, Philip Selznick, who, in 1957, wrote that: …”the maintenance of social values depends on the autonomy of elites.” The word “elite” won’t go down well, but put differently: Crowds may offer wisdom 80% of the time, but could the other 20% be folly? The crowds did not identify the global warming threat in the 80s and 90s when the “elite” scientists did. Populist trends since then have generally not backed those “elite” insights. There would be similar analogies from the fields of social justice, economics, nutrition, and so on. Which leads to the question: what countering trend could we invent or support to ensure that we are feeding this Buzzfeed mill a diet rich in fresh truth and veggies?

    1. Nick Ingram

      Great insight Tudor. Sites like The Conversation are clearly trying to bring some of that “elite” thinking from universities into the mainstream – but that website isn’t exactly getting the traffic that BuzzFeed is. I love the idea of the autonomy of the elites. Although it does sound a lot like Plato’s philosopher kings.

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