Buzzfeed, Foreign Policy and storytelling

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who did a double take at Foreign Policy’s list post that compared 14 photos of Vladimir Putin to 14 photos of hairless cats – in some the resemblance was uncanny. It was part of a series of posts the magazine’s staff carried on Foreign Policy’s website yesterday after they decided to ‘look at the world through BuzzFeed’s eyes for a day’. Jihadi rap and North Korea also received the Buzzfeed treatment. The short series followed an op-ed written by Buzzfeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith where he suggested that the viral web isn’t just for cats and Ryan Gosling, but instead the same techniques could be used to report on more complex issues such as the topics regularly covered by Foreign Policy.

Buzzfeed is the current wonder kid with 40 million monthly users who enjoy a mix of irreverent pop-culture lists, recipes, celebrity news, gifs and some pretty darn good political reporting. Its influence is stretching far and wide as other publishers rapidly adopt scrolling, photo-heavy, light text lists that add up to some, preferably quirky, number.

The Buzzfeed list format makes for a pleasant user experience. It’s scrollable (good for most devices), there are no click-through-page-impression-gathering galleries, minimal text means it’s perfect for weary brains and crucially the over-arching voice/tone is familiar sounding – like something your most hilarious friend might say.

I don’t think I’ve seen any format spread quite as fast as the Buzzfeed list. Of course lists existed before Buzzfeed, but it took the list and put the user first. Whether it was just a one-day experiment or not at Foreign Policy the Buzzfeed format has now truly crossed the line from the viral funny web of bunnies and childhood nostalgia to telling stories about serious topics.

There are two subtle points here. The first that serious people are using the Buzzfeed format to tell serious stories, yes as an experiment, but if it drives traffic and makes complex issues easily digestible you can be sure they’ll use it again (who doesn’t want to appeal to the demographic that gives your stories the greatest viral bounce?). The second is that with copycats (some good, some bad) springing up everywhere, how long can Buzzfeed keep its edge?

Buzzfeed, because it looked at online storytelling in a radical and different way, has perfected a powerful storytelling format, but for how long can you keep something, which is ultimately formulaic, fresh? If it can apply that different perspective again and find other new ways to tell stories and engage readers as competition heats up (as it always does on the web, and the spread of the Buzzfeed list is a great example of) they might just be able to stay ahead.

How can social media improve storytelling

Tomorrow (Thursday, 17 May) I’m co-presenting a session at the Circom Regional Conference being hosted by SVT in Malmo.

As the title of this post suggests, we’re asking: how can social media improve storytelling?

Nick Simons (NRK, ex Head of New Media BBC Scotland) and I will be asking a roomful of broadcasters from across Europe to look at that question.

However, we are keen to bring the discussion beyond the room. What are your views on the subject? Please feel free to share in the comments below or join in the conversation, live, tomorrow (2pm CET, 1pm Irish Time).

You can follow the discussion via #circom on Twitter or through this group on Facebook

News organisations and the Facebook app – is it an equal relationship?

I’m very positive about Facebook. I have been for a while now. Working for a news organisation I see how it can reach new audiences, help journalists to engage with users and drive web traffic back to base.

In the past few weeks some of the world’s biggest news organisations have announced they’ve teamed up with Facebook to produce apps, which live within the social network’s walled garden.

This has obvious advantages for Facebook, which gets to keep its users on its site for even longer. It might also, eventually, be a good deal too for the user who gets to read content without being diverted to a third-party site (especially useful on mobile devices!). But thinking about this long-term, if it gains traction and users like it, news organisations may dig themselves into a bit of a hole.

What I can’t figure out here is how the news organisations are measuring success. Jump ahead a few years and assume the idea is massively successful, Facebook has become the place not only to find news but also to consume it, where is the benefit for the news organisation? People won’t need to come to news organisations’ websites for community either, they’ll have that on Facebook and (within reason) will be able to say more than they could on any news site in the world.

At best, news organisations will gain new audience and advertising revenue but the audience will be  loyal to a Facebook/news organisation partnership not to the news organisation itself. If for any reason the partnership were to break up, where would those readers go? In my opinion, if they have become accustomed to finding and consuming news within Facebook, it’s unlikely they’ll follow the news organisation out of the walled garden.

To me it seems like a more unequal relationship than it should be. I understand that news organisations are working with a behemoth, but are we not jumping the gun and surrendering. Do we need to do this right now or can’t we maintain the fairly successful strategy of collaborating with Facebook to guide its users to our content outside the garden? I’m sure news organisations think these apps are targeted at users who currently don’t consume content on their websites, but if the existing tools of sharing and linking are not achieving this I am doubtful an app will be that much more successful and instead will likely attract their current audience.

Perhaps I’m missing something (I know I haven’t discussed the new ‘read’ function etc, but while interesting, the greater value accrues to Facebook not the news organisation)? I am in favour of making news organisations as social as possible but within the context of building sustainable businesses.

I would love to hear more from news organisations about the long-term gains for THEM in such a partnership and how they see this developing.


Journalists and smart phones – a good combination

Move over backpack journalism we have entered the era of pocket journalism!

News organisations have been using material gathered on mobile phones for some time now, but mostly it has been photos or videos shot by ‘citizen’ journalists.

However more organisations are equipping their staff journalists with better phones to capture material from the field quickly.

In this interesting article over at Poynter, Damon Kiesow talks to Ventura County Star’s Visuals Editor Ray Meese about using the iPhone to break news.

The paper last year purchased six iPhone 3Gs for the staff and trained much of the newsroom in basic video and audio capture, editing and transmission. Meese said the best approach to making this work is simply to lead by example. “Just go out and do it. If you do that one or two times people see the result and see (the video) on the website 30 minutes after the event happens.” That’s what gets people to buy-in to the concept, he says.

Meese elaborates on the kit being used alongside the iPhone:

-Two different battery boosters (the Mophie Juice Pack Air and the Griffin PowerBlock Reserve)
– The Owle Bubo, which lets you attach an external microphone, a cold shoe, a tripod or an interchangeable lense
-Xshot case, which has a tripod adapter

Software (apps)
-PhotoGene for still photos
-ReelDirector for editing video
-ITimelapse for editing video
-Pixelpipe for transferring content (currently unavailable)

So you might need big pockets in many ways for that lot, but as Meese points out smart phones are being improved all the time and many of the items you have to add on or need for improved performance may be integrated into future models.

He goes as far as saying that it is feasible that a smart phone could eventually replace a still camera, video camera and audio recorder. I agree with that.

Now for the results.

Here are some videos recently shot by journalists at the Ventura County Star. They don’t indicate on their site, which videos are shot using an iPhone but after watching a few I’d say these two probably were:

‘Bear rescued from tree in Oxnard’ Video by Staff Reporter Adam Foxman (great part at about 1.40 – easy to see why this has good ratings)

‘Two people injured in Oxnard house fire’ Video by Staff Reporter Adam Foxman

What strikes me about both of these videos is even though the quality is akin to that of any footage taken on a good mobile phone these were produced with a journalist’s eye.

I think the Ventura County Star shows the opportunities that lie in pairing journalists with new technology.

Visual Editor Meese will be taking part in a webinar next month (17 June) called ‘Tools for Mobile Journalists’.

Putting the 17 June in my diary and downloading new apps,