Shortly after being hired as head of product for BuzzFeed’s new news app, Noah Chestnut started spending more time with his phone, downloading leading news apps, reading email newsletters, and generally checking out the competition.
“I’ve extended my commute 15 minutes so I can read on the train,” Chestnut says. “The context matters so much. On the train, when I’m reading, I have to read — it’s gross and crowded and smelly. At work, I’ve tried reading, but I don’t pay attention.”Soon, Chestnut will have help with all that research. BuzzFeed is announcing today that it’s hired Stacy-Marie Ishmael from the Financial Times to lead the editorial side of the BuzzFeed News app, which we wrote about when the hiring process began earlier this year.
“What’s going to make this work is that we’ll figure it out together,” says Chestnut. “She’s the one who will be directly responsible for managing the editors and writers. I’ll be responsible for developers, designers, analytics, marketing.” (Ishmael wasn’t able to talk with us for this story because she’s still an employee at the FT.)
Chestnut came to BuzzFeed after a stint running the now dead TNR Labs, where he was responsible for audience development and helped create new New Republic products including Q.E.D. and the World Cup blog. Prior to that he worked for a consulting firm in D.C. where he focused on social media campaigns. In his words: “A lot of ‘How do you get sponsored content read?'”
Ishmael is currently vice president of communities at the FT. She was one of the creators of the now-defunct FT Tilt and the early financial blog FT Alphaville. She also worked as a product manager at Percolate, where, funnily enough, she once interviewed Noah Chestnut for a job.
“I was super impressed with her,” he says. “We talked about Reddit for like an hour.”
Prior to all of that, Ishmael was a finance reporter, which means she has experience on both the editorial and product side of a newsroom.
“She sort of embodies what we hope is the strength that we’ll bring to this space,” says BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith. “She’s a real journalist who’s been in the fulcrum of some of the biggest stories in the world at a great news organization. She’s also a person who comes from the Internet and has thought deeply about and worked on product. Along with that sort of experience and intelligence, she has the leadership ability that this job requires.”
Smith says he expects Ishmael will hire somewhere around seven or eight journalists to work on the app, some of whom will be internationally located in order to allow for 24/7 coverage. In addition, reporters already working for BuzzFeed News will contribute to the app’s editorial content — part of Ishmael’s job will be to integrate those two teams and develop an efficient workflow.
With that goal in mind, both the product and editorial teams working on the new app will sit together in the newsroom, which Chestnut says is a first for developers and designers at BuzzFeed. Chestnut has been working with BuzzFeed’s regular mobile developers on fleshing out a prototype of the app, and says new hires to the tech team who are especially interested in working in news will be considered for permanent placement on his team.
“The people who are interested in news from a developer and design perspective but haven’t lived in news, we want them to feel what it’s like to be in a newsroom,” he says. “Not just watch it, but be in it for a few months. It’s a different environment — the cadence, the timing.”
This proximity will help as the product staffers work on developing things like breaking news templates. Smith says through efforts like the BuzzFeed News Twitter account, he’s come to understand the importance of having open lines of communication even for standalone teams. “It’s very important that these people are sitting next to each other,” he says. “An editor saying, Wait! Don’t go with that! Figuring out how to integrate that judgment into the app is going to be important.”
While Ishmael will have a “big voice in product” when she starts, Chestnut has begun to flesh out a minimum viable product for the app. He says he uses apps like Yahoo News Digest, Circa, and NYT Now everyday, as well as Facebook Paper (they make “a lot of weird choices that I love,” he says). Chestnut is an especially big fan of Google Now, which he says he uses all the time on Android, where it’s a baked-in personalized news service, but less frequently on iOS, where it’s based in a standalone app. In both cases, Google uses information like search data and your email contents to predict the user’s information needs.
“It’s taken less than two months for Google to have a sense of what I should be reading,” he says. “It’s not perfect, but there are moments of pure delight.”
He’s also looked at chat apps like Kik and Line, which are especially applicable if you’re interested, as he is, in dark social. Sharing behavior in email or private message is different than on the big networks. “It’s private, it’s intentional — it’s more intimate,” Chestnut says.
BuzzFeed has Facebook and Pinterest down, but they’re also interested in learning more about private sharing behavior and what kind of information people like to have directly delivered to them. That’s why, for example, it makes sense that the app is launching as a newsletter. Other news organizations, like the BBC, are already experimenting with delivering news natively on chat app platforms, so it might make sense to think about what features those services offer when building a news product. Though Chestnut says he’s not sure whether the app will involve messaging, he says he’s been thinking a lot about how people connect via stories.
“I don’t think news is just something you discuss after work,” he says. “News can be incredibly personal.”