Traditional news sources should emulate the Buzzfeed model to stay relevant

Chuck Matula

If your Facebook news feed is anything like mine, between drunk Halloween pictures and aggressively under-informed political screeds, short lists seem to dominate most of the space. From fledgling viral sites like BuzzFeed to Thought Catalog, these lists seem to be trying to enumerate everything that might interest anyone. The ability to share published content through social media has made viral media more relevant than ever to young people. From how to eat vegan during the holidays (“32 Vegan Recipes that are Perfect for Thanksgiving”) to promoting social awareness (“9 Things that are More Expensive than Curing AIDS”), viral content tailored for college students seems to have lived up to its name. According to a September report by CNBC, BuzzFeed received 18 million unique website views in August. Compared to The New York Times’ 17 million unique views estimated by the web traffic database Quantcast, this signals a surprising shift in the way we share media.

It’s no secret that traditional media formats are struggling to keep up. According to a February report by The Huffington Post, after a round of layoffs earlier this year, The New York Times warned its employees in a memo that it was “remaking [itself] for the digital age.” This stands in stark contrast to the ambitions of BuzzFeed, which, according to The Wall Street Journal, announced plans to launch a business section that same month and launched French, Spanish and Portuguese versions of the site in October.

Although some people may bemoan that lists and GIFs are finding a cultural moment on social media, a more careful observer would note that BuzzFeed maintains some of the more traditional facets of journalism as well. The New York Times explained this month that BuzzFeed had hired Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Mark Schoofs to head up a new investigative journalism team. Business Insider reports that in January the company raised $19.3 million in venture capital financing for, among other things, geographical expansion and mobile development. This sum of money indicates a vote of faith by venture capital firms in BuzzFeed’s business model. As other media companies search for ways to become profitable, they should take a page from BuzzFeed’s book on how to produce simple and clickable viral content.

UT journalism senior lecturer Robert Quigley says the presentation and content of BuzzFeed are part of what make it successful. “Buzzfeed appeals because the editors are catering the lists in a way that targets that demographic. It’s not just the content, though; it is how it is presented. The news is generally presented in a fun way and has an entertaining bend to it,” he told The Daily Texan.

If traditional media outlets want to emulate the success of BuzzFeed and its peers, they need to develop similarly appealing models for delivery. For people browsing social media to see what interests their friends, there’s nothing more off-putting and inaccessible than a dense block of text. Traditional papers should produce more comprehensive content that embraces easy-to-read lists and videos. While many news sources already have begun to focus on more video content, it’s clearly not to the same effect as viral media sites.

BuzzFeed has demonstrated that it has a sense of loyalty to journalism in its traditional sense, boasting a section of its website dedicated to original longform stories (BuzzReads) and releasing a list of “9 Longform Stories We’re Reading This Week” every Friday that links to both original and external content. As the audiences of viral media sites begin to age and want more serious reporting, they will need a compelling reason to turn to paywalled newspaper sites if they can get the same serious content on the sites that specialize in cat GIFs.

According to a September 2013 report issued by the Newspaper Association of America, more consumers aged 35 to 64 read the newspaper in any given form, from print to e-edition to mobile, than consumers aged 18 to 34. If newspapers aren’t able to convert younger readers as their core readership ages, they won’t have revenue to support day-to-day operations. Newspapers have a compelling interest to emulate successful viral media outlets. 

Many newspapers have struggled to face the increased competition with free content on the web. Viral content can appeal to a person’s sense of identity, compelling recent graduates to click on “Your Postgrad Job Hunt As Explained by ‘Star Wars’” and Texans to read “30 Moments That Could Only Ever Happen in Texas.” Newspapers fill a vital interest in educating the public and shining light on things that go on out of the public eye.

If producing superficial and cheap content is a feasible strategy for funding more ambitious journalism, then that is a format people our age should endorse. The work done by newspapers can’t be replaced by blogs or television news, and we all have an interest in ensuring they remain an American institution for the foreseeable future.

Matula is a finance junior from Austin.