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What’s the right news experience on a phone? Stacy-Marie Ishmael and BuzzFeed are trying to figure it out
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Aug. 11, 2014, 3:09 p.m.
Reporting & Production
BuzzFeed HQ

With $50 million, BuzzFeed growth calls for sharper lines between news and the other stuff

With a new round of investment from Andreessen Horowitz, the viral giant aims to get even bigger. One step down that path: making it more clear to readers what kinds of content BuzzFeed really offers.

The New York Times’ Mike Isaac was the first to report late Sunday night that BuzzFeed had raised $50 million in new venture funding from Andreessen Horowitz.

The story was followed by a chorus of blog posts and press releases. Chris Dixon announced that he’d be joining the BuzzFeed board, writing that he sees the company as a “full-stack” technology operation. Later, BuzzFeed announced what that money would mean, namely more hiring, expanded international and video operations — plus entirely new products and, down the line, potentially new investments.

BuzzFeed LifeThe headline of The New York Times story — “50 Million New Reasons BuzzFeed Wants to Take Its Content Far Beyond Lists” — is somewhat ironic (not to mention predictable). While the investment may be new, BuzzFeed publishing non-list content is not. But some of the structural changes the company announced for its editorial teams will, execs hope, help make that clearer in the future.

BuzzFeed is splitting its content producers into three buckets — Buzz or BuzzTeam for socially-oriented, experimental content; BuzzFeed News; and BuzzFeed Life, for lifestyle content like parenting tips, recipes, or how-to guides. Life, the newest category for BuzzFeed, has been grown out in large part due to the success BuzzFeed has had with lifestyle content on Pinterest. BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith says its current team of ten will be expanded by 25 additional hires.

buzzfeednewslogo“Each of these three elements of editorial are going to be a lot more autonomous than they have been,” says Smith. “We already have a focus on autonomy — small teams whose leaders have a lot of room to run inside these larger groups, and that’s going to stay the same. I think it’s just that we’re bracing for another round of growth, and we want to make sure that our news operation is growing in a way that’s totally focused on being a great news operation.” (BuzzFeed is already working on a mobile app that will focus on news, not the other stuff.)

Peggy Wang and Emily Fleischaker will run BuzzFeed Life, building on their respective focuses on the DIY and Food verticals, and Jack Shepherd will run BuzzTeam. (“What BuzzTeam does is fundamentally a creative enterprise, not a journalistic one,” Smith told me. “What the news organization does is fundamentally about finding new news.”)

News will have a number of leaders, with Doree Shafrir focusing on entertainment and culture, Lisa Tozzi focusing on coordinating breaking news operations, and Shani O. Hilton working to develop global news standards for the company. Smith says he also has plans to continue building out the national desk in order to focus on major stories like immigration, race, and inequality. Some of the operational teams — like copy editors, the photo desk, and homepage managers — will work across Buzz, Life, and News.

BuzzFeedNavBar

But for the most part, the new divisions have more to do with helping the audience understand what types of content BuzzFeed offers than they have to do with internal workflow. Smith tries to avoid using the word “vertical” when considering the various site sections the newsroom produces, preferring to think in terms of small teams who own their beats and find their audiences in the jumble of social media. But when it comes to website architecture, the new categories on the homepage — News, Life, Lists, Quizzes, and Video — are meant to help users find what they’re looking for.

“The point of the navigation bar is not to reflect the structure of your newsroom — it’s to hopefully engage with people,” says Smith. “That’s really more about serving readers than it’s about trying to map our internal structure onto our website.”

It’s not clear how this new structure will roll over into BuzzFeed International, though much of the excitement around the announcement has been directed at international hiring. Overall, BuzzFeed’s global strategy is two-pronged, split between incubating local teams and doing original reporting for their core American audience, though there’s fluidity between those roles when it comes to breaking news. For now, BuzzFeed’s largest international desk is in London, where some of the staffers focus on local news and BuzzTeam content with a British flair, while others focus on supporting the world news desk in New York. It will be up to local teams to decide as they grow when making an organizational split between content types makes sense, but with only 30 staffers, Smith says it doesn’t make sense in London just yet.

The one thing that’s certain, however, is that all content, regardless of language or dateline, will continue to live on BuzzFeed.com. “Readers don’t want their own, smaller website — they want content that they like on our big website,” Smith says.

Another major piece of the funding announcement includes the foundation of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, an ambitious, L.A.-based operation to be headed by online video pioneer Ze Frank. Though The New York Times reported that Frank has plans to produce news video, Smith says neither of them is sure what the best use case is for news video on the web. “I think we’re interested in doing news video when there are stories that are best told as video. But both Ze and I don’t think that most news should be video or most video should be news,” says Smith, who cites Vice’s video reporting from Syria as the kind of reporting that is well served by the format.

It’s also unclear when BuzzFeed would be ready to produce feature-length films, though it was announced earlier today that Michael Shamberg, producer of Spinal Tap and Pulp Fiction, was joining the BuzzFeed Motion Pictures team.

Another new but not necessarily newsy project for BuzzFeed is BuzzFeed Distributed, to be headed up by Summer Anne Burton. The idea is to produce original, BuzzFeed-branded content that will live natively on platforms like Tumblr, Snapchat, Instagram, and Vine, most of which will resemble BuzzTeam-type content to begin with, a model that is comparable to the work being done by NowThis. But Smith says Distributed is not a research team aimed at figuring out how to game new, as-yet-untapped platforms and thereby drive traffic to BuzzFeed.com.

“The goal is to do great work that people love — it’s a pure editorial project in that way,” he says. “There are tons of ways to measure success, and traffic, because it’s the most easily quantified, is one that people tend to focus on, but there are lots of different ways to measure success. Reaching a huge audience, getting lots of engagement, delighting people, and learning about platforms are all things that are valuable to us.”

In fact, one of the benefits of giving Life, Buzz, and News more autonomy — or, as Jonah Peretti puts it, running them like individual startups — is the opportunity to measure success based on their own unique metrics. “There are features, there are analytical tools, that matter to Lifestyle that don’t make sense for News or BuzzTeam. There are different questions that they’re asking analytically. There are different tools they might need,” Smith says. For example, for a recipe to be useful to a reader, it has to turn out well and it has to taste good — but standards for news are different. “Did you get a law changed? How much trouble did you cause on Capitol Hill? Those are things that good [news] editors are always paying attention to,” says Smith.

Of course, you can’t pay the bills — or your backers, as the case may be — based on how many legislators are mad at you. Easily quantifiable metrics may be frustrating and inaccurate, but so far they’re what BuzzFeed has built a business on (though with the expansion of native content services in its marketing department, that could be changing). The benefit of venture backing is to be able to push for new products and rapid growth without having to worry too much about such issues — but nonetheless, developing a more meaningful barometer for success is something Smith says his team is working on.

“We spend a ton of time thinking about why people share things and what kinds of things will they share. The same stories are very widely shared on Facebook and Twitter and email,” he says. “We’re deliberately avoiding focusing on exactly what are the technical features that can give something a small boost on a given platform today.”

Photo by Scott Beale/Laughing Squid used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 11, 2014, 3:09 p.m.
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