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July 26, 2012, 12:43 p.m.
Reporting & Production

How BuzzFeed wants to reinvent wire stories for social media

Ben Smith wants to increase the impact of breaking news and decrease the echo from redundant reporting.

The wire story is an atomic element of news: It’s the basic material upon which more journalism can be built. But wire stories, as a compact unit for getting out the basics of an updating story, are also a commodity. Thanks to the speed of information and the glut of channels we can access it on, it’s not uncommon to get flooded with the same story when major news breaks. If you were on Twitter or Facebook the day the Supreme Court issued its decision on the Affordable Care Act, you know the signal-to-noise ratio was high on the noise side.

A torrent of repetitive news updates is a problem for readers, and for editors, like BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, it’s a frustration. Smith was brought on in late 2011 as editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed to develop the company’s journalistic side and has since hired a staff of reporters and built out more news-esque sections for the site. The challenge in all of this is finding a way to graft the sensibilities of a news organization onto BuzzFeed’s fabulous Internet harnessing machine. The principle here is to take whatever it is that makes things like 14 First World Problems From the 90s popular and apply it to stories about Mitt Romney and SEC filings.

One place Smith wants to experiment now: The wire story. When I talked with Smith, he said the idea of the wire story needs to be reworked in the era of social media. This week they took a step towards that goal by hiring a new breaking news reporter for BuzzFeed. Jessica Testa, who previously wrote for BuzzFeed Shift, will be stepping into the breaking news job. Part of her work, as the posting for the job advertised, will be “Creating posts on the stories that are just starting to take off on the social web, with the goal of reinventing the wire story for the social web.”

The old model, where wire stories run 2-8 paragraphs with varying degrees of fresh reporting, doesn’t work when people are exposed to so much information on a continued basis, Smith said. “There’s no audience for ‘Here’s this thing you just heard and I’m going to say again,'” he said.

Journalism has always been about speed and precision, but as the place for that has shifted from stories to blog posts and now social media, Smith said journalists have to be more creative in the ways they deliver vital information. They also have to make better decisions. Living and writing in the current news environment means calculating the costs and benefits of working on a “second-rate aggregated version of what someone wrote 20 minutes ago,” versus pursuing an original story, Smith said.

“I feel in general the 800-1,200 word form of the news article is broken,” he said. “You don’t see people sharing those kind of stories.” Smith’s talking about those daily stories that only seem to provide two paragraphs of new information layered on top of several inches of context. Nothing wrong with context, but explanatory journalism now comes in different forms, not just at the tail end of a story.

The problem lies with the delivery, design, and presentation of stories, he said. Think about the structure of wire stories. Most reporters are taught to put old information, the background stuff, at the bottom of stories, thus leaving room for copy editors to lop things off if necessary. But that assumes two things: The value of longer stories and readers ability to keep reading something once they get past new information.

So instead of pushing out a developing story and leading with headline in a Facebook or Twitter post, Smith wants BuzzFeed to experiment. One example he pointed to was the news North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had been promoted to the highest military rank in the country. Instead of an AP-style news update, BuzzFeed took the vital parts of the story and made it a little more shareable via animated GIFs with “Kim Jong Un Gets A Promotion.”

Smith thinks BuzzFeed is well suited to rework the wire story because it’s a company that is deeply web native. The way BuzzFeed works is by trying to pinpoint what web phenomenon will explode next, whether it’s photos, gifs, or news stories. BuzzFeed staff have to have knowledge of sources, but also of different forms of media, Smith said. That means on any given day news on the site doesn’t have to take a predictable shape. It could be a collection of photos, a dominant photo with links, or a collection of quotes.

“It’s something that does the work of a wire story and informs people about this very important piece of international news in this way that was authentically in the language of the social web,” Smith said.

While Smith wants BuzzFeed to tinker with wire stories and try new ideas, that doesn’t mean the site won’t be producing more traditional looking stories. He told me one reason he wants his reporters to think smarter about wire stories is to free them up for original reporting. But it’s worth noting that when news broke of the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colo., Testa led BuzzFeed’s coverage with a curated mix of text, images and tweets.

Smith expects there will be a period of trial and error as they see how different ways of delivering wire stories that connect with readers. “We’re trying to find ways to tell (stories) that are more visual and more emotionally direct,” he said.

POSTED     July 26, 2012, 12:43 p.m.
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