Cats, shares and Parisian cafés: inside the BuzzFeed content machine

In an analogy, borrowed from BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti, Simon Crerar, the editor of the Australian arm of the business, draws an unlikely parallel between the website and a French coffee shop.    

“In a Parisian café, you can be reading your Le Monde, being very serious about the world, when this couple with a beautifully manicured French poodle sits beside you,” says Crerar. “And then you tickle the poodle, have a lot of fun, before going back to reading your serious thing. These two things can co-exist. BuzzFeed is like Parisian café because you have serious content that’s very engaging … and the fact that we also have cat videos doesn’t detract from it. Readers are smart, and they know that one does not negate the other.” 

Over the last year, the website, which is so often dismissed as a production line for inane .gifs, has produced a varied range of hard-hitting news content from Gaza, Iraq, Ukraine and elsewhere.

Internationally, the company is making a habit out of headhunting experienced journalists, resulting in several Pulitzer-winning writers joining the ranks. 

And with last year’s appointment of Crerar as the first editor of the Australian division, BuzzFeed is sending out the message that it also intends to cover serious news stories on this side of the world.

With a background that includes stints at The Cairns Post, The Times in the UK and the Sydney Morning Herald, Crerar has a long history of chasing down grunty news stories and he sees this continuing in his new gig.

“The fact is that we’re invested in serious news around the world,” he says. “We haven’t really done that much yet in Australia, but we have had some breaking news reports since July and we’ve hired another politics reporter now. And our plans are to do more news, because surprise, surprise, young people really like news—they’re really interested in it, they really like to know what’s going on in the world, and they like to share it.”

This understanding that millennials crave news is something that Vice Media’s global general manager Hosi Simon also referred at the recent Brandcast event when speaking on the early research into the market.

“What we found was that generation Y was absolutely desperate for news, but they were totally disenfranchised with traditional news media,” said Simon. “And, most importantly, they were consuming news in very different ways.” 

And in much the same way that Vice built a massive audience out of millennials who don’t connect with mainstream media, so too is BuzzFeed garnering a following among a similar group. 
And rather than detracting from the seriousness of news messages, Crerar says that BuzzFeed’s commitment to entertaining content is actually an essential part of its model.

“We have that affinity [with millennials]through the content, and that means that they trust us when we’re doing news. They didn’t grow up reading newspapers, and BuzzFeed is one of their primary news sources.” 

In this sense, the fact that BuzzFeed doesn’t have a legacy actually works in its favour. This means that the publication posts something humorous or lighthearted, it isn’t automatically accused for distributing drivel. It is an accepted part of the BuzzFeed package. 

This is however not the case for a publication like the Herald, which is called out for writing fluff every time the readership feels a piece isn’t newsworthy. 

Fairfax’s answer to this problem is Stuff Nation, which provides a discrete hub for readers to share their own lighthearted content. But even in this instance, readers still criticise the publication for giving digital column inches to undeserving content.   

And while BuzzFeed is in many ways molded as a foil to traditional media, the site has also retained one of the core tenets of  news publication by incorporating a strict separation between church and state.   

“What’s great about Buzzfeed is that we’re built on traditional lines and our office reflects this. Our editorial staff sits on the one side, and then creatives for the business are on the other side.”

Crerar says that the journalists are never required to write native advertising pieces.

“There’s a general suspicion that native content is always written by journos. They’re doing that here in Australia. MamaMia and Junkee—two of our competitors here in Australia—do that and I think it blows the line, personally … I can understand that people have business models, but I just wonder when people go up and defend it … from a journalist and ethics point of view there’s more rigour if I’m not also writing about brands.”

He elaborates further on this point by saying that when journalists work closely with brands it muddies the water—a point he explains by referring to a real example from earlier this year.  

“Telstra did some [native advertising]posts with us earlier this year to help tell the story of the brand. But then when Telstra shared a Tweet which said, ‘Did you know that on this day in 1969, the dish was used to facilitate the first moon landing.’ In actual fact, they got the date wrong by about five days. The whole of Twitter erupted and took the piss, so we wrote a post about it. There wasn’t ever a question of Telstra’s advertising stopping us from doing that. Whereas if we were on a different model, in which I was writing posts about Telstra, then I’m sure I would think, ‘Well, I’ve got a mortgage to pay, I’ve got a car, and all these things.’”

While this traditional structure remains consistent and unchanged at the core of the business, Crerar says that the BuzzFeed working experience is also typified by constant change.        

“We’re very much a technology company as well as a media company, so we’re very invested in technology as well. One of my frustrations at my previous job was the number of loops and the amount of time it took to get things done, whereas Buzzfeed is very nimble and quick at evolving. [The dev team] is constantly evolving our content management system, without us even asking for it. [Quite often]some amazing new feature might just arrive … [and this]really gives us exciting new ways of presenting content.”

But while presentation is important, Crerar says that what is written and how it’s written is often the most important element when it comes to creating a successful post.   

“A lot of what our core BuzzFeed team does is very much rooted in people’s sense of identity: who they are, where they grew up, their personal gender politics and theire sexuality. Buzzfeed is very open and honest, and we find that really resonates with young people, because they feel we’re speaking their language.”

To ensure that the voice on the site is consistent with the target group, Crerar keeps his staff very young.   

“Our writers are usually skewing to the bottom age of the 20 scale … Four of my writers are in their very early 20s, and that means they completely understand the space. They are writing with authenticity about the problems they have, the funny things they encounter and the nostalgia of growing up in the 90s or the noughties. That makes it very real.”

To explain the importance of authenticity and writing from within, Crerar uses the example of a pair of articles that he has written.    

“Part of being a good writer at Buzzfeed is about putting yourself in other people’s heads. But I think the best stuff [comes from personal experiences]. For example, I did this post called ‘59 reasons why living in Sydney ruins you for life’ and it was one of our best ever Australian posts with over a million views, and it was because I genuinely am in love with the city. Then, we did one for Melbourne from here [in Sydney]and it didn’t go quite as well.”

Crerar says that BuzzFeed Australia covers “at least one or two” stories on New Zealand a week, and this writing duty is quite often given to writer Jemima Skelley, who has Kiwi roots through both her parents. 

In addition to attracting millions of views, Skelley’s stories have also given the BuzzFeed team some interesting insights about the differences between the Australian and Kiwi audiences.     

“What we’ve found is that Aussies are really good sharers, but Kiwis are crazy good sharers. A post might have a 100,000 views on the site, but then it has an additional 50,000 coming from social media. So that has a 1.5 lift, because it has an additional number of people coming in from social media. Something that goes really well is a two times or three times lift, which would come from having 200,000 or 300,000 social media views in addition to the 100,000 on BuzzFeed. Some of the New Zealand posts have a seven or eight times lift, meaning that close to 90 percent of our traffic is coming purely through social media.”

Despite this success, Crerar says that he does sometimes get negative feedback for posting Kiwi stories under the BuzzFeed Australia brand.     

“We always get snarky Aussies going, ‘Don’t you know this is BuzzFeed Australia.’”
For this reason, he says that he would like for a discrete New Zealand arm to one day be incorporated and hopes to add another Kiwi to his staff.

“There’s no official plan yet, but I would definitely like to have some dedicated to New Zealand.”

And he adds: “In fact, if there’s someone out there from Auckland who would like to do a ’59 reasons why living in Auckland ruins you for life’, we’d love to commission it.”

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