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Dec. 5, 2013, 10 a.m.

Where in the world is BuzzFeed? Building foreign news around themes rather than geography

The past decade has mostly seen the retrenchment of American news organizations’ reporting staffs abroad. As BuzzFeed moves more into international news, it’s trying to mix up how its reporting resources are structured.

When BuzzFeed launched BuzzFeed World, an ambitious foreign news vertical, not everyone thought they were up to the task:

That link, which is broken, is supposed to take you to a story written by Max Seddon, BuzzFeed’s foreign correspondent in the Ukraine.

Seddon was hired by Miriam Elder, who herself spent seven years in Russia before making the move to New York to run BuzzFeed’s world desk. I asked Elder how she would respond to naysayers like Morozov (who, to be fair, has many nays to say).

“If that’s what someone thinks our entire foreign coverage is, that just means they haven’t been looking at what we’ve been producing,” she says. “My approach to this is that there’s room for sarcasm, there’s room for humor, and there’s room for incredibly serious and deeply reported stories as well. You don’t have to choose one over the other.”

Elder wasn’t always sure BuzzFeed’s unique blend of what she calls “the fun side” and serious journalism was for her. But after over a decade as a foreign correspondent, she found herself increasingly concerned about the status of foreign reporting in the broader journalistic landscape.

“Nobody wants to see these foreign desks closing; it was incredibly difficult for me, personally, in Moscow, going to the closing party for the Newsweek bureau or something. It’s not something anybody wants to see, even though they’re technically your competitors,” says Elder.

Enticed by what she describes as the intelligence, creativity, and ambition of the BuzzFeed environment, Elder agreed to move to New York to start building BuzzFeed World.

Building a foreign desk from scratch is no small task — you have to think about issues like ensuring your correspondents’ safety and getting them health insurance in other countries, things BuzzFeed is committing to providing its reporters. Elder says she’s both sought and received advice from industry old-timers who appreciate that someone, at least, has the cash on hand to be sending reporters abroad. Says Elder, “I don’t see it, at this point, of a challenge between traditional versus new; it’s just putting together a desk is not an easy thing.”

Elder embarked on that task by selecting reporters based on which regions BuzzFeed’s editors wanted to cover. She hired Mike Giglio, based in Istanbul, to cover the Syria conflict; Sheera Frenkel to report on the Middle East and northern Africa from Cairo; Max Seddon, currently in the Ukraine, to cover Russia and Rosie Gray to cover foreign policy from D.C.

Elder’s next hire was Lester Feder. But unlike the other correspondents, Feder didn’t have a journalistic focus tied to the region that he lived in; the next step wasn’t filling in a few more of the blank spots on the globe. Feder’s focus is on LGBT issues.

“It wasn’t the sort of thing where he’d show up in Bangkok or Phnom Penh and be like, This is what the gay scene is like here. It was more focusing on legislative initiatives, interesting activist groups you hadn’t heard of, focusing on the role of third-gender issues in these countries,” says Elder. “He just went so deep into it, it was so impressive, and it was a beat we knew we wanted to keep, so we brought him on full staff.”

For BuzzFeed, Feder is based out of D.C.; he takes reporting trips once a month or so. Recently, in addition to reporting on major headlines from Washington, he’s reported stories from Montenegro, Kiev, and Cambodia.

Why build a beat around a theme rather than a geographic region? “The idea behind it is kind of, how can you get people really interested in international news?” says Elder. “It’s something that I think a lot of editors ask themselves quite often. I started thinking, you know, if someone is really interested in LGBT rights in the U.S., they’re probably going to be interested in LGBT rights in Russia, in Uganda, in China. It’s this way to explain the world through a thematic vector.”

Elder started thinking about other interest areas that could entice readers to get more excited about news around the world, and decided on women’s issues as the next subject to tackle from the global perspective. After a search, she settled on Jina Moore, a reporter usually based in Africa — Nairobi, at the moment — to fill the role of roving women’s issues correspondent.

“She’s so impressive, and has so many ideas, everything from incredible reporting ideas to ideas about how to structure news — she thinks really conceptually about these things,” Elder says. “It just ended up being a perfect fit.”

With the hiring of everyone from a news director to a Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter, BuzzFeed has been trying to make it clear that its dedication to journalism is the real thing — but even so, the idea of paying for two reporters to jet around the world chasing stories seems a world away from BuzzFeed’s GIFs-and-cats origins.

“It’s expensive, but it’s not like we say, Okay Lester, get on a plane, fly first class, and stay at the Ritz,” Elder says. “It’s about having low overhead. The lower the overhead, the more money for the travel budget. But that’s one of the advantages — we have the money right now to be able to fund these sorts of things.”

BuzzFeed does, indeed, “have the money” — it raised another $19 million round of venture capital in January, and founder Jonah Peretti reported recently that the site is profitable. But why spend it on traveling reporters with global beats? Elder says that by using hot topic interest areas as a lens through which to view world news, she’s taking advantage of a new behavior that, in some ways, is a direct product of the Internet; she calls it cross border identification.

“If there’s a kid who’s sitting in Russia, and he spends all his time online, he tends to be quite liberal, he listens to this kind of music, he does this, that, or the other — a lot of times he can have more in common with a random kid who’s doing the same thing in Beijing or Oslo or wherever than he does with the guy living down the street from him. The world is being organized in different ways,” Elder says.

In addition, the roving reporters’ topic focus can line up better with the heavily verticalized form BuzzFeed’s content takes. A newspaper’s foreign correspondent might cover a country’s politics one day, its industry the next, and local culture the next. BuzzFeed doesn’t have a newspaper’s instinct to be all-inclusive; it picks its spots, and a thematic focus fits in well with that.

A topic focus can also make it easier to build source relationships with activists, says Elder. “It almost makes it easier to get stories because…the global activist community, government officials, whomever, knows who to reach out to,” she says. “For activists around the world to have that one person they know that they can come to with their stories, their scoops, with whatever efforts they’re working on, it’s helpful to have one person that can draw on this entire global activist community.”

Elder points to Feder’s coverage of the World Congress of Families, a conservative, anti-gay group, as an example of the site’s ability to cover both sides of the issue. “He has really good relationships with them,” Elder says. “They know his coverage tends to focus on the LGBT side.” That said, BuzzFeed hired both Moore and Feder in hopes of tapping into the high levels of enthusiasm and attention that go hand-in-hand with activism.

Recently, BuzzFeed has met with criticism regarding the nature of some of its hiring — and firing — in the editorial department. The company hired Isaac Fitzgerald a few weeks ago as editor of its book section, at which time Fitzgerald shared with the world his stance against publishing negative reviews. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all,” he told Poynter. Then, Mark “Copyranter” Duffy spoke out about his firing from BuzzFeed, which, he argued, occurred because the typical tone of his posts — “hating is what I do, and have always done,” he writes — conflicted with BuzzFeed’s strict “no haters” policy.

The big picture here is that, from a business perspective, BuzzFeed believes it’s best off if the majority of its content has a positive tone or connects with the perspectives of its audience. “We’re coming from a place where LBGT rights and women’s rights…it’s not like there’s a pro and a con side, really,” Elder says.

Elder would like to hire more issues-based, global reporters — perhaps one focused on global corruption — but for the rest of 2013, she’s focused on hiring a national security reporter in D.C. and a deputy foreign editor to be based out of BuzzFeed’s new bureau in London. (BuzzFeed also has a bureau in Australia, as well as content made in New York for audiences in Paris and Brazil, all of which functions separately from the foreign desk.) After that, she’d like to dispatch correspondents to Latin America and Asia, especially China.

Overall, BuzzFeed’s foreign story mix seems to continue to match the site’s broader combination of “fun” and news. When Ukraine surprised its neighbors by signing an agreement with Russia, thereby backing away from an agreement with the EU, Max Seddon tackled the national reaction in two ways. First, he scanned the Internet for how people were reacting — mostly humorously — online; then, he hit the streets.

“The Internet is infinite,” Elder says. “We can put whatever stories we want up there.”

Image by pink hats, red shoes used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Dec. 5, 2013, 10 a.m.
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