Based on the second floor of a grand building in the middle of London's famous jewellery district, Hatton Garden, the Buzzfeed office is everything I expected it to be and more: wooden floors, glass doors, bright colours, casual clothes, large and shiny new computers and quirky ornaments set on bare brick walls.
They even have pop music blaring out across the editorial area when I arrive. Editor Luke Lewis, 34, who previously worked in music journalism and sits among his staff, assures me they only play it during the afternoon… but it's 11.30am when I arrive.
- April 19, 2016
- April 7, 2016
- March 31, 2016
Buzzfeed was launched in the United States in 2006. Last year, it moved into the UK and went to Australia soon afterwards.
Worldwide, it claims to attract an average of 130m monthly unique users, with a peak of around 160m. This figure, more than Mail Online and CNN, recently prompted Sir Howard Stringer in a report for the BBC to suggest that the corporation should look to Buzzfeed for inspiration online.
In the UK, Buzzfeed claims to have attracted 15m unique users in June, making it bigger than the Express, Star and Evening Standard websites. The UK staff upload 30 to 40 stories a day, but British homepage can also take its pick of up to 500 articles a day which appear on Buzzfeed globally.
While most news websites rely on search engine optimisation (SEO) for much of their traffic, Buzzfeed gets most of its readers from social media.
Buzzfeed employs around 500 people across the world, including 190 in editorial positions.
It currently has 23 editorial staff in the UK, after launching with three last year. And this number will rise to 30 by the end of the year.
At a time when most journalism operations are shedding staff and shrinking, Buzzfeed is a media success story. But is it journalism (recent headlines include 'How Much Of A Bellend Are You?' and '19 Intensely Annoying Boner Problems')?
LL: Yeah. Absolutely. There’s two sides to what we do. There’s the news side and there’s the entertainment side. And the lists and quizzes, they’re on the entertainment side. But absolutely they’re still journalism.
And you can make some really hard-hitting points using a list. There’s nothing lightweight about a list per se.
One of the most highly shared articles we’ve done recently was 15 facts that prove the insanity of Britain’s housing market. And it was really kind of a polemic by this guy Daniel Knowles, who writes for The Economist.
And I think that had far more impact for the fact it was in a blow-by-blow list than it would have done if it hadn't been. Because that’s his specialist subject, housing. And he’s written about that stuff endlessly for The Economist and he said he never had that much pick-up, he never got much feedback from it… But when you put it in that format there’s a certain magic to it.
Is this approach dumbing down news? And if so, does that matter?
No, I don’t think it is.
I think it’s in the tabloid tradition of making information as accessible and impactful as possible. And thinking a lot about the visual presentation, I think that’s really key.
But then there is this journalistic idea that the pinnacle of what you could possibly do is write a 10,000-word feature… you can write a list or indeed a quiz that is hard-hitting, powerful, changes people’s minds about things.
Do you enjoy working online rather than in print (Lewis previously worked at Kerrang and Q magazines before moving to be editor of NME.com)?
I just can’t imagine working in print. I think it’s far more rewarding for one thing [working online]. Because you just have constant evidence of how your work is doing. There are so many metrics to look at and that’s really, really addictive. So once you’re used to that, it’s difficult to imagine life without it.
I met a guy from the Daily Mail, a print reporter, and I said how do you measure the success of what you’ve done at the end of the day. And he just said: ‘Well there’s only one way, and that’s whether or not the editor likes it.’ And I thought that was hilarious.
Because at Buzzfeed… you publish something and immediately you start looking at the number of shares and at the end of the day, the number of views, and you ponder it and you tot up all the little things you’ve learned about it. So it’s constant feedback, and much more rewarding, I think.
Who do you see as Buzzfeed’s main rivals? The managing editor of the Financial Times said a couple of weeks ago that Candy Crush is as much of a rival as the Wall Street Journal and other more traditional competitors.
I’d agree with that. You’re in competition with absolutely everyone. So like all the newspapers, but then also places like Vice and Huffington Post.
But pretty much anything anyone does with their phone in their downtime, whether they’re commuting or in front of the telly or whatever, we’re in competition with that.
Everyone is after people’s free time basically. So I’d say anything on the internet.
How much do you look at page views and web hits when making decisions?
We definitely look at data quite closely, but the key is not to be a slave to it. I think the best thing is you need to have writers who are equipped with absolutely brilliant accurate data. And then they can use it as a tool for creativity so it not just becomes mechanical about it.
So the idea is you look at the number of shares a post has had on the previous day. And that should spark ideas.
I think my job as editor is very different to the sort of classical editor job. In the sense that there is a culture at Buzzfeed of experimentation, which means saying yes to pretty much every idea.
I think traditionally an editor is someone who says no to things. If someone wants to do something the attitude at Buzzfeed is like, yeah try it – see what happens. And I think that’s really good, really healthy, and one of the reasons hopefully that people enjoy working here.
Has Buzzfeed already changed the approach of more established British media titles (screen short from Mirror website, right) since its arrival?
Definitely. I feel that that has actually been more the case in the UK than it was in the US. In the US the media establishment is a little bit more stuffy.
So you had all these people looking at the run-away success of Buzzfeed and not really wanting to get their hands dirty by copying Buzzfeed. There are no lists on New York Times, for example. Washington Post did not want to do any quizzes.
Whereas in the UK the media is seen as a little bit more lively perhaps and so we’ve had a lot of stuff that is clearly inspired by Buzzfeed.
You notice a lot of publishers moving away from multi-page galleries, for example. Writing lists just on a single page and lots of quizzes, clearly inspired by Buzzfeed, but that’s absolutely fine.
And I think it’s good. It’s been good for the newspaper scene in general.
Does Buzzfeed's approach give journalists more freedom?
I think that the standard format of a news article hasn’t really changed in a hundred years. And you have that slightly artificial pyramid structure.
With Buzzfeed, what we’re going for is things that play well on social media, that share well on Facebook. And so often it’s a much more conversational tone.
And we think that leads to actually a much clearer, more natural way of telling a story. It’s partly to do with our content management system as well. It was built to facilitate lists…
And that actually lends itself very well to a news story because it means you take it step by step – it’s quite modular. So you’re telling a news story and you’ll just start at the beginning. Often a Buzzfeed news story will start with someone’s name: ‘This is so and so. This is how old he is.’ And then you build up from there.
It’s a bit like telling the story to a friend.
Aside from increasing staff size from 23 to 30 before the end of the year, what other plans do you have for Buzzfeed in the near future?
All of our attention at the moment is focused on building up our politics desk. So our deputy editor Jim Waterson, he’s great and he’s now got two political reporters working under him and we just want to get some more.
So we want to be in a position so that when things start picking up for the General Election next year we are as well resourced to cover that election as any newspaper.
It’s really exciting because one of the way’s Buzzfeed in the US really made a name for itself was the way it covered the 2012 Presidential Election. So we’d love to mimic that.
Are your editorial staff completely office-based?
Yeah. Apart from the news team. And particularly the politics desk. We want them to be out in the field. Even potentially on the road.
So recently Jim actually went up to [Newark for the by-election and] interviewed Ed Miliband. So we want to do much more of that. We want to get a lobby pass and do quite old-fashioned, boots on the ground reporting.
What are you like as an editor? Do you shout a lot?
No, definitely not. I’m the opposite of a shouty boss. I don’t know if they really exist any more, do they?
It’s such an old-fashioned idea the idea that a newspaper editor has to be someone who marches up and down shouting. I think that model has not got much longer left for this world.
You seem to have a very quirky office environment – with loud music playing. Is that constant?
In the afternoons it is. We used to play music all the time because it’s my background as a music journalist, and everyone else seemed to quite like it. But then some people found it quite distracting.
So as a compromise we just play it in the afternoons now.