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BuzzFeed does politics. Watch out, Westminster

27 January 2014

5:30 PM

27 January 2014

5:30 PM

It’s startling how few young people feel aligned to a particular newspaper. Gone is the idea of ‘taking a paper’. Today, we are far more likely to use Flipboard to browse stories from hundreds of different newswires, blogs and websites. We turn to Twitter to see what people are saying about the day’s news, before logging into Facebook to share commentary on it. We care about what our friends are reading, and what the people we respect are reading. We couldn’t care less about loyalty to a publication.

The explanation for this lack of loyalty is two-fold. There is plenty to suggest that the young feel abandoned by traditional news sources. But equally, traditional news sources have struggled to keep up with the voracious appetite for ‘social news’ – stories deemed worthy of sharing.

The online media pioneer

The pioneer of social news is BuzzFeed – the site renowned for its cute pictures of cats and lists of ‘life hacks’. Up until recently, the mainstream media have tended to scorn BuzzFeed – and with good reason too. The site sometimes blurs the lines between editorial and advertising, has promoted stories that turn out to be fake, and can at times trivialize news items. But it has become increasingly hard to ignore BuzzFeed, given that its formula both draws huge audiences and monetizes them. Revenue in 2013 was estimated to be somewhere between $20 million and $40 million, and, as of this month, the company is valued at $200 million – with suggestions being made that it has the potential to become a billion dollar company. There is, it seems, money to be made in online media.

In recent months, BuzzFeed has focused efforts on more traditional forms of journalism. They have recruited a number of top reporters (a couple with Pulitzers to their name), begun to build an investigative team, launched a section for longform journalism (known as BuzzReads) and have increased their international outlook. In March last year a UK site launched with 15 staff; by November, they attracted more than 10 million unique UK users. Unsurprisingly they are currently recruiting more British staff.

As a result, a young, internet-savvy audience is rapidly accepting BuzzFeed as the equivalent of ‘the paper they take’. Loyalty to the site is high. Lured in by entertaining ‘clickbait’, the site then offers its readers more serious pieces to take stock of. They want to be the ‘news source’ for the ‘younger generation’ says COO Jon Steinberg.

Shaping millennial minds

BuzzFeed’s real power is in its ability to shape opinion. Spend any time on the site, and you’ll come across some of the accepted assumptions BuzzFeed’s narrative rests upon: Beyoncé is a goddess; the 90s were a hallowed era; Obama is a dude. The underlying messages relate to feminism, progressive politics, liberal drugs policies, gay rights and so on, packaged up to delight youthful readers and encourage them to share articles. The site blends current affairs, culture, politics and entertainment into a potent mix that reaches a vast audience. Whether you agree or disagree with BuzzFeed’s content, it’s not hard to see that it’s a pioneer.

It’s also not hard to see why the site has considerable political clout. The average BuzzFeed reader is in their mid-20s and ripe for having their political views sculpted. The US arm of BuzzFeed Politics now has 11 staff reporters, and back in October, the UK edition appointed its own political editor. Competition for the role was stiff – with the position eventually going to City AM’s Jim Waterson – a young journalist famed for frying an egg under the Walkie Talkie skyscraper.

BuzzFeed and Westminster

‘People in Westminster are starting to view BuzzFeed as a communication tool, using the community as a way to reach 20-somethings,’ says BuzzFeed’s UK editor Luke Lewis. In 2014, they intend to ramp up their political commentary – ‘but there’s still a way to go before we’re at the same position as BuzzFeed in the US, where they have a whole team of White House reporters, and have done since the start of 2012,’ says Lewis. ‘There is an assumption that young people don’t want to read about politics, but we’ve found it’s very much a question of presentation,’ he adds.

At the moment, a handful of British politicians feature fairly regularly on the site: Boris Johnson, David Cameron, Ed Balls, Ed Miliband. It’s unsurprising that a politician like Boris – who understands so well the benefits of a well-timed stunt – has garnered so much attention. Articles such as ‘11 Film Posters Made Better By Boris Johnson’, with the strapline ‘Boris Johnson is a man of action’ are devised to appeal to a young audience. Despite its apparent triviality, a piece like this can engage young people in a way that no dry political campaigning could ever do. ‘We’re getting a substantial number of people reading political articles who wouldn’t glimpse at the politics sections of other news websites,’ says Waterson.

As well as being the subject of posts, there are examples of politicians penning their own BuzzFeed articles. In November last year, Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps wrote an article in the Community section entitled ‘12 Facts: Why Energy Bills Are Sky High, And What We Can Do About It’. The standfirst read: ‘The Labour Party want your energy bills to rise by £125. The Conservatives will help you keep warm this winter.’ The piece was based on a number of Tory press releases on energy policy, and was hardly that exciting, but it showed an engagement with the site hitherto unseen in British politics. ‘As long as contributors abide by the community guidelines they can write what they want,’ says Lewis. ‘But it’s not really what we want the BuzzFeed community to be about. It’s supposed to be fun and creative, and if people use it to advance a particular agenda, we won’t promote it ourselves.’

A question of timing?

Cynicism abounds. Certain stories have made serious points: a comparison of Ukip and Monster Raving Loony policies; Dan Knowles’s accessible piece about housing prices. Others have failed, including a vapid LibDem posting entitled ‘10 Reasons Why Mary From “Sherlock” Should Stick With The Lib Dems‘. Overall, BuzzFeed UK’s political coverage in recent months could hardly be called extensive. Some expected the political arm to have made bigger waves by now, but there is still a long way to go before it can really rival the established political heavyweights.

But perhaps it is just a question of timing. With the 2015 election on the horizon, BuzzFeed UK is gearing up to play an important role in shaping how millennials view British politics. Over in the US, both the Republicans and the Democrats have begun to incorporate BuzzFeed style tactics into their campaigning. The likelihood is that British parties may well have to adopt them too, if they want any hope of getting a ‘like’ from the younger electorate.

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