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The *real* reason BuzzFeed is doing longform journalism

Screen Shot BuzzReads

It’s to get more ad money. But their strategy is a lot more devious than you may think.

Bringing out the big guns

“Long-form (or longform) journalism” is the serious, in-depth, strongly researched article that is greater in length than can fit on one printed newspaper page (more than 1000 words). Some types of longform journalism are “narrative,” “investigative” or “creative non-fiction.” Think the New Yorker, the Watergate story, or any work that has won Pulitzers.

High-brow stuff, right?

Right. So back in 2012 when cat-video connoisseur BuzzFeed set out to hire a longform editor, the journalism world fainted from the shock. Here are some questions the traditional media shouted across the universe:

  • How could fluff media compete in a market reserved for only the biggest, oldest news media outlets?
  • What integrity does the site have to do serious reporting?
  • Who would read it? The brand’s audience is made up of Cat Ladies Who Quiz.

Two years later, the site is humming along, churning out longform journalism daily. But don’t be fooled; BuzzFeed isn’t some team of do-gooder, democracy-protecting freedom fighters out to rid the world of injustice. It’s a capitalist endeavor with an ingenious strategy to make more money.

What’s the catch?

The question isn’t if BuzzFeed can pull off longform. The question is: Why do it? Why not stick with the insanely successful stuff they’ve peddled so far?

Answer: Obviously the site wants more views. But how? First the company acknowledged a few key facts about Internet readers:

  • The quiz-and-listicle lovers also consume longform stories (these aren’t distinct audiences traditional media always assumed they are)
  • Those who enjoy the quizzes and lists are ashamed to admit they do so
  • A large contingent of people stay away from clickbait sites (and may take pride in themselves for doing so)

The challenge is getting these cohorts to – proudly – share a BuzzFeed link. From its inception, the brand’s reputation is one of pure fluff, with links like mental flatulence meant for time-wasting purposes only. If it could somehow generate a respectable reputation, then more users wouldn’t be embarrassed to share its articles. And that share, in Internet terms, is the Holy Grail.

But this is not where it ends. This is where the evil genius begins.

Like many websites, BuzzFeed banks on the “2nd Click” for the beaucoup ad revenue. The first click that comes from an original share is great, but it’s merely the beginning of a (hopefully) lengthy journey through their content jungle. The 2nd click to a related article or another section of the site are what advertisers consider the prime views. Once a reader is “down the rabbit hole,” his attention splintered enough to be grabbed by an advertisement.

"Journalism is going to survive. I just don't see how the businesses that have provided it will survive." -Clay ShirkyThe strategy

With their longform campaign, BuzzFeed is going after 2 specific audiences:

  1. College educated, middle-class users who may partake in a “What kind of cat are you?” quiz but would be ashamed to share any article that comes with a buzzfeed.com link;
  2. College educated, middle-class users who would never share a BuzzFeed link.

I consider myself in the latter camp. One of my 2014 New Year’s Resolutions was to never click on rabbit-hole bait, including links to BuzzFeed, Upworthy, SFGate, etc. If BuzzFeed produces something of worth, I’ll have to break that rule, and the site will eventually produce something of worth. Its ad earnings from cat videos will fund top-notch journalists and the libel insurance to back them up. The team will eventually win Pulitzers because they have the money, the technology and the network to go after the big guys and the big problems.

For these first few years, my friends and I will offer caveats along with any BuzzFeed share: “I don’t do clickbait sites but this article is actually pretty good.” But after a few solidly-reported, viral longform articles and some journalism awards, we’ll drop the caveats and RSS the content. And BuzzFeed will acquire the New York Times to be their “serious” division.

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Photo Credits: BuzzReads: Screen Shot, October 30, 2014, 12:18 pm EDT.

Clay Shirky Quote: Ron Mader on Flickr

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Vendors at the Online News Association 2014 Conference

tableausoftware

The Tableau Software table at the #ONA14 Midway, with Tara Walker giving a demo.

Vendor Cool Kids

While the executives of the news industry seem to be stuck pining away for the the good ol’ Girl Friday days, third party vendors are innovating the space faster than the Millennium Falcon can make the Kessel Run. Let’s take a quick look at some of the software apps and services that set up shop on the Midway at the Online News Association 2014 Conference held in Chicago in September (#ONA14).

The vendors showed some cool stuff, mostly focused on one of my great loves, measurement and statistical reporting. A weird note: their swag was… traditional; I’ll get to that in a minute. Big powerhouses like Gannett and Tribune were there, but so were Google Glass and Oculus Rift, wowing non-techies. I’ve seen both technologies before so I didn’t put any time at those tables. (Plus, call me paranoid – or perhaps just female – but I’m not rendering myself blind to my in-real-life crowded surroundings. Oculus Rift’s demo was right in the middle of the exhibition floor. Yeah. No.)

Admittedly, I was quite shocked at the low level of tech knowledge and presentation at the conference. I expected something along the lines of a podcamp at least. Sure, they can’t all be sys admin conferences but jeez. I wrote out my frustrations in another post, where I let rip my full cynical-techie disdain (“Get off your high horse” probably wasn’t necessary), but for now let’s flip that cynicism over and present what seems like a dearth of tech leadership in news industry’s c-suites as a golden opportunity for disruption.

Here is a short video (made with a young ONA intern wielding Google Glass) showcasing some of the more innovative vendors on the ONA Midway:

midwayIn the video, in order:

Roost
Lingofy
Market Wired
Tableau Software
Chartbeat
Legacy.com
Rivet News Radio
Findthebest
VoteTocracy
EveryBlock
Disqus
Newsbound
Parse.ly
Sourcefabric

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Coolness Factor

Here’s where I talk about the swag.

Here’s a little techie hint: The vendors and the swag are a good tone/temperature indicator of any conference. The gifts vendors present say a lot about what the vendors think of attendees. The vendors at #ONA14 assumed that all the attendees wore fedoras with “Press” badges stuck in the brim and wrote copious notes using ink and paper. For a lot less money they could’ve handed out USB sticks, like the Knight Foundation did, or iPhone chargers like Tribune. Nope. It was all tote bags and wirebound hardcover notebooks. Some toys were thrown in there, and that reeks of “tech conference” but the toys weren’t too innovative or tech-traditional. Not one propeller beanie among them (you’d be surprised how fast these go).

Paper Paraphenalia

Bobbi Booker and I with the Roost guys

Bobbi Booker and I with the Roost guys, whom I tried to convince to move their startup to Philly rather than NYC

I collected printed info from as many vendors as possible. The handouts put forth the best picture the vendor wants to share. I’ll be putting all of it in a binder to share at an upcoming ONA Philly event. It will give people an idea of which companies populated the Midway.

MORE VENDORS

Any vendors from #ONA14 reading this and want to get in on the fun? You can always leave a comment with a link back to your site. The Midway was indeed a fun place and filled with wild and crazy guys. MuckRack won me over with sheer spirit(s), so I started a page there. I spent a whole evening at the Museum drinking with and trying to convince the Roost guys to move their start-up to Philly instead of NYC. And AFP – I know you’re out there, you insane people – I love you guys and I want to attend every conference AFP is sponsoring.

Anyway, I spent time talking with almost every vendor and I got a sense that although traditional news places may be slow to turn the ship, there are major rumblings beneath the surface. Things are imploding, exploding, and taking over. It’s only a matter of time – less than 12 parsecs for sure – when we’ll see those ad revenues go up and online will finally be earning more than print ever did.

Want to know more insider tips about attending conferences? See my post on LinkedIn: 5 Reasons Why I Talk to Vendors at Conferences (and You Should Too)

Were you at ONA14? Let me know in the comments.

PressHat

My best Girl Friday impression at the dotPress table

 

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Photo Credit: Tableau Software pic courtesy of Tableau Software on Flickr. Edited by Christine Cavalier

YouTube video by ONA Newsroom on Youtube

Remaining photos: Christine Cavalier

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Updated ONA Attendees Breakdown

The Online News Association sent out an updated list of attendees after the conference held in September (ONA14). My analysis on the pre-conference list was popular with speakers and sponsors. Some used the data in presentations and others quoted it to attendees and their staffers back at work.

Having met quite a few people at ONA14, I can safely say this list is not comprehensive. Names are missing, especially those of staff at the sponsor tables on the Midway. Some numbers:

  • Original List N=1617
  • Updated List N=1863 (8 of which were in the original list but not on the final list. We can assume these 8 people registered for the conference but never checked in to receive their badges).
  • Difference of N=246

Here are the distributions of careers-by-gender from the updated list:

Self-reported job titles among the female participants:

69 Students (7%), 67 Academics (7%), 65 Producers (7%), 212 Executives (23%), 18 Developers (2%), 245 Editors (26%)m 88 Journalists (10%), 161 Managers (17%). Estimated. All female ONA14 attendees

Final count of attendees, female, by job title.

Self-reported job titles among the male participants:

MaleONAFinal2

Final count of attendes, male, by job title

 

What can we deduce from the data and this chart?

  • The news industry appears uncommitted to hiring or sending developers to continuing-ed type conferences.
  • The “managers” and “editors” categories vary widely in actual job duties.
  • The “editors” include web editors and many editors are also writers of some sort. Indeed, many jobs in journalism are mash-ups.
  • Gender inequality in the “Executive” and other categories is painfully obvious.

Please add your own observations in the comments.

This Wednesday, October 29th, 2014, I’ll be speaking at ONAPhilly’s “ONA Takeaway night” on at 7pm at The Pen and Pencil Club in Philadelphia, PA. A bunch of attendees will be sharing knowledge of the conference. See you there.

 

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Hopping the train: women’s careers derailed

Moms with kids don't get to ride

Moms with kids don’t get to ride

Don’t get old

When “The Basket Case” Allison said “When you get older, your heart dies” in the Breakfast Club, my young self vowed to never let that happen. 30 years later, I’ve only succeeded in putting it off. Perhaps its the onset of a mid-life crisis or it’s all the fuss over Renée Zellweger’s face, but something in me has changed. It’s like a big train jumped the rails and barreled into my afternoon tea. “Silly me,” I’d say to my traumatized guests, “I forgot to mention this train. Canape?”

Ms. Zellweger, beloved portrayer of every-woman Bridget Jones, apparently committed a crime against humanity by getting her eyelids done. My friend and fellow writer Jill Ivey said Zellweger “Jennifer Grey-ed” herself, referring to a nose job that rendered Ms. Grey unrecognizable. Ms. Zellweger responded to her many critics by saying her career had become “not realistically sustainable” and that she is “living a different, happy, more fulfilling life and [she’s] thrilled that perhaps it shows.” God forbid we age or transform our career focus. My heart’s dying alright, but not from old age. It’s letting go of that last glimmer of hope my own career will turn out the way I was taught to expect.ReneeZellweger

Ms. Zellweger and I are not alone on this ride. Our peers, the ne’er-to-be-classified Generation X, are moving into salad-and-sandwich days. 47% of “middle-aged” (that’s the older Xers and younger Boomers) are simultaneously raising kids and caring for aging parents. On top of that we Xers are stuck in our lower paying, lower management jobs. It seems the Baby Boomers, especially those in professional positions, are working until they drop dead (35% don’t retire by age 65. The other 65% retire but most find other paying work). Silent Generation poster boy Warren Buffet is 81 and he’s still going into the office. At this rate, we Xers aren’t getting promoted until the year 2030.

Leave no man behind

Ah, but not all career trains are running on the same track, are they? In an October 2, 2014 article by Susan S. LaMotte at Time Magazine nicely demonstrated the sin of omission of women in talks about the GenX workforce: “…the average age of an S&P 1500 CEO is 50. And they’re already leading the majority of growing companies: 68% of Inc. 500 CEOs are Gen Xers.” Ms. LaMotte forgot to mention “male.” We women, the daughters of revolutionaries, have watched our careers be left to languish at the station. “Women today hold less than 20% of leadership positions in corporate America. Just 5% of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are women,” reported Palo Alto software CEO Sabrina Parsons in an October 20th article at Business Insider. Our careers have missed the train.

Like many GenX moms, I’m a casualty of the Mommy Wars. Not the Mommy Wars the media portrays as a moral fight between working and stay-at-home moms. Having been on both sides of that, I can tell you that battlefield is imaginary. The true Mommy War, the real one corporate America doesn’t want you to see, is the pervasive and consistent derailing of female careers using a devastating system of discriminatory laws, corporate hand-holding and senatorial cronyism. Unlike our counterparts in other Western nations, American moms are often permanently forced off the corporate rungs when we procreate or mother children. And as more women delay childbearing in order to engineer a stronger career line at work, increasing numbers of us need fertility help. For those of you uninitiated into the hidden health crisis of our time: fertility treatments are, amongst numerous other things, time-consuming. Many women who struggle with infertility have to severely change their jobs or quit them in order to keep up with treatments.

Apple, Facebook and other “progressive” companies who offer to freeze our eggs are simply sending women down a route of distraction. We need to push for better, more sane benefits, like flexible hours and a wider variety of daycare options, including bringing newborns and infants to work. FMLA benefits should be extended for both parents and men need to carry more of the burden of the missed time at work. It’s time we blew the whistle on the war against equal pay and working moms.

ladywithticketHobo-ing it

Like Zellweger, I’m trying to get back on board with my career after some time away. After a decade out on my own (and finally with the youngest kid in school full time), I can’t seem to hop back on the train. Even if I could manage to sneak a ride, I would have to leave everything and everyone else behind. Could I find an office nearby with flexible hours that allowed me to work from home after 3:30pm, or a salary, perhaps not at my previous job (sys admin) level but enough that I don’t despise myself for stepping off the ladder 10 years ago? Would my coworkers realize I haven’t been “sitting at home eating bonbons?” Doubtful. For the record, I’ve been active in early adopter circles, blogging, consulting, attending conferences –sometimes funded by fellowships–, taking continuing ed classes, learning new coding skills, building a decent brand online, speaking at tech conferences, getting articles published and holding leadership positions with fiduciary responsibilities in my community. I’m so much more employable than I was as a cocky techie 15 years ago. I’m older, better, wiser. But as a Mommy War casualty I’m being left for dead, like 38.5% of unemployed or workforce-absent women aged 25-55

We have to do what we can to get women to stay on that career track. Men seem to get at least 3 tickets to ride, but we only get one. Once we step off, we’re left back at the station. It’s time we shoved open those doors and took our seats.

In the meantime, any of you ladies care for tea? I’ll invite Ms. Zellweger.

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Photo Credits: Screenshot of Ms. Zellweger obtained October 22, 2014.
Train and platform: Simon Yeo on Flickr
Woman with ticket: Tom Page on Flickr
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The trouble with news…

The trouble with the news industry is it’s been disillusioned for at least a century.

3 ASSUMPTIONS

Firstly let us say that survey data sucks. People always lie to themselves and then in turn lie to researchers.

Secondly let’s say that people lied about their level of current events knowledge. If you asked a person in the 1950s if they watched the news and read the newspaper, they wouldn’t have dared say, “You know, not really. I have the TV on in the background during dinner and I scan the headlines in the morning, but I wouldn’t say I truly absorb anything.” But that was the reality. Sure, they got the newspaper delivered to their door everyday but that was “just what you do” back then. If someone wanted to seem particularly astute, they’d subscribe to numerous print newspapers and magazines.

The order of the pages read was also a thing. My mother tells the story of my father chastising her for always reading the comics page first. It wasn’t something “intelligent” people did, apparently. I found some talk about this online in a forum. The posters were anonymously admitting they read the (print) newspaper from back to front, all giving their “reasons” for doing so: I’m a sports nut. I’m left-handed. It was as if they weren’t permitted to read the paper in any manner they pleased.

Thirdly let’s say that these conventions are gone. I don’t recall helping my kids with a “current events” assignment in school (we’d have to go BUY a newspaper if clipping one was required). I don’t hear chatter on the street or in the grocery line about the front page of the newspaper. People seem to be less aghast if someone admits to being in the dark about some news item or another. We all have so much information coming at us, it is understandable if one has missed the latest update on some world event or another. To think, they used to teach children in school how to “stay current” and “engage in informed conversation” on current events! It’s almost laughable.

So now that we have this plain fact –the news industry sees itself as far more important in everyday lives than in is – let us move on to the new role news is taking now. The picture, as I see it, is far, far better than what news has been previously and what the industry fears it is becoming.

old newspaper color ad for "post toasties" cereal

by danzil raines on Flickr

SYSTEMS THINKING

What happens – just judging by your own life – when you have too many choices? Let’s take the famous cereal aisle example. SOOOOO many brands. Say you’re new to the country, new to cereal, and your family wants to start eating it. What do you do?

There are plenty of ways to approach this problem, and most people use a combination of solutions. Here are some:

  • Ask others for recommendations
  • Systematically try one-by-one
  • Shop at stores that carry fewer brands
  • Don’t eat cereal (give up/abstain)
  • Join a “cereal-of-the-month” club so you can sample a few brands
  • Whittle down a list of acceptable ingredients, then search for cereals that comply

Nowadays, information is the cereal. Everyday we are an immigrant in the cereal aisle. Even without consciously realizing it, we form habits and practices that help us deal with the onslaught of choices. Most of us make routines. Me, I check email and Twitter first thing (that’s why you see most of my retweets in the morning hours. My stream shares news early). Later on in the day, I scan FB for headlines my friends shared. My husband checks the sports scores and articles while he eats his morning cereal (Frosted Flakes, if you’re wondering) and scans headlines at lunch. I’m sure you have your own way of finding news.

Here’s the rub: most of us are consuming WAAAAAAAAAAAY more news than we ever did (this increase in consumption also includes those types that got a daily newspaper delivered to their door). Yet, now we lie by saying we don’t spend that much time online, that we don’t partake in the news cycle. It’s become a bad thing to be obsessed with turns of events (because that means we spend too much time online, which is considered an anti-social habit).

So although we are consuming more information we are loath to admit to it.

NEWS TO DOS

The news industry would do themselves a favor if they ate a box of RealityChex. People don’t see news as a daily need, and they have shown they won’t pay much (if at all) to gather it. People are lying to themselves, of course, because news is becoming more and more part of their everyday flow. Nevertheless, they don’t believe news is a commodity they need to pay for. They may never see it as such, as there are many other avenues through which to get updates.

Like the beginnings of all product launches, perhaps a bit of user education is in order. New cereals include “how-tos” in commercials (e.g., shown with pouring milk or made with hot water). Perhaps news outlets should consider an education arm. “How to start your day well” or some crap like that. I’m sure the Positive Psychology types would kill for a chance to work with news outlets to develop a “well-being” department.

Ad dollars. Ah, the almighty ad dollars. The concept is this: News orgs had the market cornered on ad dollars. There was plenty of money in print ads. The Internet killed print. Where’d the money go? To YouTubers and bloggers? Perhaps. I don’t particularly know where it went but I do know this: Where there are eyes, there are ads. My guess is Facebook is getting the lion’s share of that chunk of cheese. News orgs should be charging Facebook for its users’ license to post links.

I know this sounds backwards: Facebook paying the Philadelphia Inquirer a license fee? WTF? Well, news, photos, writing, is all Intellectual Property, and license fees are paid for such things. Facebook relies on users’ eyes being present for ads. The sharing of news items is a BIG traffic draw for FB. (In fact, I spoke to a FB rep recently – off the record – and he said the Pew estimates of # of users and # of users who share/find news items via the social network service were astoundingly low. (Pew estimated 64% of the US population admits to using Facebook and of those 62%, 30% admit to gathering news there). LOW. News is driving Facebook participation. Participation would go down if links were blocked. The NYT saw this in action when they erected a paywall. What would FB be willing to pay in license/subscription fees to news outlets if the users weren’t permitted to share links? Also, another social network would come along soon enough that was willing to pay the fees.

Internet Service Providers could also be tasked with distribution of news. “Free Philadelphia Inquirer [online] subscription with any new Comcast account!” <- offers like this will get the news industry back into the public’s good graces. After all, newspapers were kept quite cheap back in the day, so if you hadn’t read the paper back then it was seen as completely unacceptable. Even a bum could scrape together the 3 pennies.

STEPS for the NEWS INDUSTRY TO CONSIDER:

  1. Get off your high horse.
  2. Stop panicking. The news is in its best position ever.
  3. Make news ubiquitous and cheap for users first (using B2B sub models).
  4. Set up human-filtered news packages that are customizable for the users (make “news personality” profiles and hire curators to fill the day’s paper with headlines).
  5. Commit to caring for the whole person. News isn’t cereal; It isn’t just breakfast. It is information itself. Take up the task of filling a person’s information needs, on all emotional and mental levels.

 

When it floods, people seek dry land for safety. They don’t stop drinking water. We are in a flood of information. We need filters and ways of living. The ad and subscription money is out there. The news industry just hasn’t kept up with current events.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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