Ishmael helped start one of the FT’s first blogs, Alphaville, which allowed the paper to experiment with tone for the first time. Connecting with digital financial communities eventually inspired Ishmael to look into how the paper could build a deeper relationship with its readership offline. As vice president of communities, Ishmael worked closely with teams including FT Live, the events business of the FT which hosts some 200 conferences a year.
— stacy-marie ishmael (@s_m_i) November 17, 2014
But BuzzFeed offers Ishmael the opportunity to explore an area she’s never taken on directly — general news. She’s been thinking a lot about ways to reach BuzzFeed’s audience on mobile, like push notifications, email newsletters, and Twitter cards. Both she and Chestnut want to find a way to predict users’ information needs without asking them to commit time to establishing preferences and to provide an overall delightful experience on par with Instagram or Tinder.
As Ishmael has been preparing to leave the FT, Chestnut has been busy building up a staff of developers and researching competitors. During that transition, I had the chance to talk with Ishmael about her plans for the app, including her own mobile media diet, management philosophy, and experience in audience development. Here’s a lightly edited version of our conversation.
Increasingly on mobile — and especially for sophisticated technology companies that are in media, like BuzzFeed — when you talk about the editorial, the editorial is the product. The story is the product. You can see the way that’s informed a lot of their editorial strategy — like, promoting Tom Phillips to be head of new formats. They’re thinking about stories, but they’re also thinking about ways to tell those stories.
So Noah and I are going to be working very, very closely together from the beginning. Which is not to say that there’s going to be any interference into the editorial. I’ve been really impressed with the way that Ben [Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief] has handled this especially. It’s very easy for people to talk about news organizations like BuzzFeed News and say “there’s so much interference from the commercial side.” I haven’t seen that at all.
Mobile is yet another way to get in front of sophisticated, interesting, demanding audiences. In addition to brilliant stories about Ebola, they want to get that in a way that is contextual, frictionless — I don’t want to use the word “delightful” in a story about Ebola, but they want the experience to be really, really seamless.
I think for a long time, news organizations have struggled with figuring out how to create great experiences in digital. In a lot of cases, the print reading experience is the best reading experience. For most people. I subscribe to The New Yorker in print because for me, it’s just better. I like flipping the pages, I like having the opportunity to read in a longer form way.
But…I find that mobile is the thing I read most after my magazine. I’ve always found reading the weekend editions of most newspapers to be really difficult. You look at The New York Times on the weekend and you feel like you’re never going to get through it! What we’re trying to figure out with this mobile app is: How do we create that delightful news experience for this audience and for this generation, that expects that?
Influences can come from a lot of different places. I’ve always been agnostic about where good ideas come from. When I was a finance reporter, what seems like a million years ago now, I would try to write in a way that still felt interesting and accessible. Nobody actually wants to read about credit derivatives unless they have to. Why would you punish them by having really turgid writing? I feel the same way about product development. If the best ideas are coming from dating apps, we should try those. If the best ideas are coming from physical design and 3D printing, we should see what we can learn from that as well. I don’t think that only looking at things that other media organizations are doing is where you’re going to get most of your inspiration.
I technically qualify as a milennial. You could talk about me as being one of the attention-deprived generation. But I’m also the kind of person who likes tinkering. I like setting things up. I like messing around in my settings. But I know I’m not representative. And actually, when apps ask me to spend a lot of time — Tell us all your preferences! — I’m like, I don’t want to! I want you to help me make informed decisions. That’s what we’re going to try to do.
One of the things that I have always respected about the FT and always will respect about the FT is we pride ourselves on having really strong editorial judgement. One of our old taglines is “Without fear and without favor.” We are going to give you an unvarnished look at what we think is important today, and we are going to help you make good decisions. I really want that ethos to inform how we present the news at BuzzFeed.
There’s always this tension — you see it now in newsrooms, where people are like, I’m really worried if we only focus on data and analytics, we’re only going to write things about what people say they want to read rather than what they actually should be doing. The “should” is seen as worthy — it’s seen as the public service journalism versus are they really just going to look at pictures of Kim Kardashian?
I think that’s a false dichotomy. I think good editors understand how to present compelling mixtures of the worthy and the funny and the fascinating. If you’re good, the worthy is also funny and fascinating and you want to read it. It’s on us to be able to deliver that, and I think we will.
We want you to come across something through us that you would never have otherwise seen that is a nugget of interestingness that makes you more informed. It’s not always going to be something that we write. We will link if someone else is doing interesting things; we want to highlight that as well.
One of the things that Ben always says is that we want to make sure that the good news rises. I don’t mean good in the sense of positive, but if other people are doing good work, we should highlight that good work wherever it lives on the Internet.
We want to be one of the options when somebody is either, say, going to college for the first time or going to their first job. A rite of passage for people used to be: And now I’ll subscribe to The Economist. I think there’s going to be a generation for whom it’s going to be: And now I’m going to download the BuzzFeed News app. That’s where we want to get to.
My team gets to do fun things. We get to do things like organize events for women in business and technology. Or we get to come up with better ways of packaging our news so that it’s even more relevant to students at business schools. We get to show that we are a key part of the product development process and that we represent the changing needs of our audiences.
One of the tensions that media organizations have is we’re sometimes using technology that is a couple of years behind what our readers are using. It wasn’t that long ago that most reporters had BlackBerrys, which was not representative of phones people are actually using. What that means in the newsroom is your view of the world, or how people are consuming the world, is actually completely different from the reality.
One of the tangible responsibilities of the communities team is to make sure that we are in touch with what our audiences are interested in. Where are they on social if they’re on social? What events do they find interesting? We have an events business that does 200 conferences a year; we want to make sure that we’re delivering great experiences for them.
Being at FT reader is an enormous privilege, because you’ve gotten to the point where not only are you informed about your own life, but you’re also being informed about the world to an extent that can be incredibly esoteric. You’re probably one of those people that’s going to Davos. That’s incredibly important, and that’s one of the reasons the FT is now 126 years old. But there’s a generation coming up who don’t think of themselves as the future Ben Bernanke. That’s totally fair — most people will never be Ben Bernanke. But I still want them to have the opportunity to be informed about the world and to understand what’s going on and be fascinated by countries outside of their own. I think general news is a fascinating market, and I’m really looking forward to that.
The second thing is it’s incredibly important to create an environment in which people feel simultaneously supported and challenged. The kinds of people who opt into working on products that don’t exist in a crowded marketplace at a super fast-growing technology company tend to have self-selecting personalities. It’s really easy for those teams to get obsessed with a particular problem, or take it really hard if they feel like they’re not making progress. It’s the responsibility of the people leading those teams to help people grow and learn and understand that we’re not going to get everything right the first time, and that’s okay.
In terms of the skills and the interests, I’ve been thinking about this in a couple of ways. One of them is I want people who are really beautiful writers, who have the ability to make copy sing. Going back to what I said about when I was trying to write for the FT — nobody has to read you. You have to earn that. You have to respect people’s attention. One way that you respect people’s attention is by being a good writer and by being able to present things in interesting and engaging ways so that reading is actually a pleasure.
I’m also looking for people who like making phone calls and like going out and finding stories and breaking news. Sometimes, the people who are really strong reporters are not necessarily the same people who are the really strong writers and editors, and that’s totally fine.
I’m looking for people who think in images. I’m completely open about the fact that I grew up in an Internet that was very text-heavy. My default is to think in words. I need people who don’t think in words. I need people who think in pictures and videos, who think in slideshows and who think in charts. The Internet is an increasingly visual place. The web is an increasingly visual place. Pretty much everything on social is a picture. We have to be able to build a team that has that skill set as a core competency.
And then I’m looking for people who are really good at reading the Internet. That one friend who no matter what link you send them, they’re like, “Oh, I’ve already read that.” There’s going to be a very strong element of finding good stuff that’s out there and linking to it. That’s a skill. There are people who are very, very good at finding that one thing that no one else has seen, and I’m looking for those people as well.
But when you’re talking about an app, there’s this problem of where that’s going to open. How are you thinking about solving that problem? Or is it going to have to be that, in the beginning, the app is for core users who are going to open it directly?
One of the things I like about Google Now is it’s managed to not be creepy. I think that’s actually hard for Google, because Google has sometimes been super creepy. But this app will be like, “You should probably leave home if you want to make it to the office on time, because it’s going to take 39 minutes because the 7 train’s not running properly.” Or, “By the way, did you know that FC Barcelona — which is my favorite football team — is playing today and they’re playing Real Madrid at 2 p.m.” And it’s great, because I never have to go into Google Now, because Google Now comes to me. It presents itself in ways that are useful, and I really appreciate that.
So that’s going to be one of the things we have to solve — knowing that people don’t go into apps unless it’s something like a Facebook or an Instagram or a Pocket or an Evernote — how do we get in front of them regardless? That’s the first challenge.
The second challenge is how do we make really good use of email. Now, I’ve been obsessed with email for a long time, and now I see everybody else is obsessed with email — which is fine. Why is everyone in your inbox? Because people still spend a lot of time reading email. We complain about it, but we still do it, and we sign up for more stuff all the time. So I think email alerts and email newsletters are popular because they tap into a need that isn’t going away. So that’s certainly something that we look at and explore and try to do well. I think BuzzFeed is actually pretty good at email. The longreads email, which is edited by Dan [Oshinsky], is fantastic. It’s one of the things I look forward to reading on the weekend.
The third is what you described. It’s signaling out how you integrate social into the flow. One of the huge advantages that the news app team is going to have is that we are part of BuzzFeed, which is really good at social. As an organization, it understands how to be interesting on social without being patronizing. It doesn’t resort to the kinds of tricks that make you hate yourself when you click on something, and I appreciate that.
I’m really looking forward to learning from people like Dao [Nguyen, BuzzFeed’s publisher] about the kinds of techniques we can use. Whether it’s Twitter Cards that lead to the app, whether it’s publishing straight to a story, or, if you’re on Android, you click on it and it will ask if you want to view this in the app — it’s an evolving space, and it’s a really exciting one.
But the thing they both have at the heart of them is: how do you make it super easy and actually pleasurable for somebody to complete a task that they might not want to complete but they have to? It’s fascinating.