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Nov. 21, 2014, 2:30 p.m.
Mobile & Apps

What’s the right news experience on a phone? Stacy-Marie Ishmael and BuzzFeed are trying to figure it out

“Nobody has to read you. You have to earn that. You have to respect people’s attention.”

few weeks ago, we wrote about BuzzFeed’s hiring of Stacy-Marie Ishmael, formerly of the Financial Times, as the editorial lead for their forthcoming news app. Product lead Noah Chestnut, formerly of The New Republic, has been working on building a product that will serve news in a mobile context to core BuzzFeed News readers for a few months now.

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.

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.

O’Donovan: How do you see the division between the product side and the editorial side of this app?

Ishmael: I think it’s going to be hard to separate them, and not just because both Noah and I are two people. I like talking about living at the intersections of things — I have a strong product background and a strong news background, and so does he.

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.

O’Donovan: So far, what’s your sense of what the product team is building? Are they checking in with you and asking what you might what to present, or is yours going to be a primarily news decision-making job?

Ishmael: I think it’s going to be more talking to each other multiple times a day on Slack about: How does this enable the editorial vision? The editorial vision for BuzzFeed News is to be a great news organization, have a fantastic newsroom with people all over the world gathering news, reporting, telling great stories, having exclusives and scoops.

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?

O’Donovan: I was at the Online News Association conference and every time people were talking about a “delightful” mobile experience, they could not resist talking about Tinder! It came up a number of times.

Ishmael: My team at the FT’s actually written a piece about what news organizations can learn from dating apps. The interesting thing about Tinder is it introduced a new interaction paradigm into mainstream use — the swipe. Swipe left, swipe right. I don’t even use Tinder, and have not used Tinder, but I downloaded an app the other day, and it was a scroll app, and I was like, what the hell! Why can’t I swipe on this thing?

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.

O’Donovan: So, is the BuzzFeed News app going to involve a lot of swiping left and right?

Ishmael: We don’t know yet! We have the basic designs that we’re looking at. The key for this is to feel really easy — for it to feel like something you don’t have to spend a lot of time configuring.

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.

O’Donovan: It sounds like you want this to be a core news source. Like, someone could go through their day and not check for news anywhere else and be fairly well caught up.

Ishmael: The way that I’ve been thinking about this is — almost everybody has that one friend who’s really interesting and really witty and who’s, like, the sparkling guest at the dinner party. They always have that one anecdote that nobody else at the dinner party has. We want to be that friend.

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.

O’Donovan: Who do you see being the core audience for the BuzzFeed news app?

Ishmael: In the beginning, we’re going to focus on the people who are currently coming and reading BuzzFeed News on the site. BuzzFeed News has solid traffic. It has an engaged audience. There are people who come back and follow the series that they’re doing. Having Max [Seddon] in Ukraine, he becomes a destination for a generation of people who might not even know the names of other people covering these kinds of stories at other media organizations, but they have a strong relationship with BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed is one of their destinations, so BuzzFeed News becomes one of their destinations.

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.

O’Donovan: I want to go back a little bit to where you were before this. Can you tell me what you were doing at the FT?

Ishmael: So this was my second stint at the FT, which tells you a little bit about how much I love them. The role of communities is really about ensuring that the FT has a strategy and a commitment to creating and deepening meaningful relationships with our audiences around the world. I mean that in a really uncynical way. We know that our audiences are extremely interesting people, that they are running countries and companies and central banks around the world, and there’s a lot we can learn from them in addition to being of service to them as a news organization.

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.

O’Donovan: Those people that you’re talking about — those loyal FT subscribers — are a really different population than the people who are reading BuzzFeed News. Is that going to be a big adjustment for you?

Ishmael: I like challenges. There’s two things that I have always been really obsessed with. One is building fantastic teams, and the other is solving hard problems. I think of news as a public service. I think it’s really important to functioning democracies that you have people who are informed, not just about their own neighborhoods and their own families and their own lives, but the context in which they’re operating.

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.

O’Donovan: At the FT you also worked on a couple of standalone products. What were the big challenges? What did you learn about managing a team that’s working on a product that’s of the newsroom but also inherently separate, from a management perspective? And what of that do you want to bring to BuzzFeed?

Ishmael: One of the very first things that I learned is that it’s super important for your team to understand how they fit in and align with the overall strategy of the organization. As soon as people feel like they don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing, it becomes very difficult to succeed. I feel that it’s going to be crucial to understand the importance of BuzzFeed News.

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.

O’Donovan: I don’t quite want to ask who are you going to hire, but what is that team going to look like? How big is it? And beyond people who are ambitious and into news, what kind of skill sets are you looking to combine?

Ishmael: One of the first things I’m looking for is attitude. I want people who want to solve problems, who think creatively, who have — to use the jargon — grit. Lucy Kellaway, who’s an FT columnist who I adore, wrote a column about the importance of conscientiousness, which is wanting to get the thing done and being motivated to get the thing done. I also have a really strict no-asshole policy. In all of the teams I’ve built it’s like, if you’re a jerk — no matter how talented you are, no matter how brilliant — I’m not interested.

O’Donovan: That sounds like it will mesh well with BuzzFeed’s hiring policy.

Ishmael: Exactly. Shani [Hilton, BuzzFeed’s executive editor] has done a really good job of also not tolerating assholes.

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.

O’Donovan: Yeah, that’s a newish skill set.

Ishmael: It is newish. It’s also an old one. Newspapers back in the day used to have teams of what they called copy-tasters. Those were people who read all of the wires, who would read all of the wires coming in on AP and Reuters and Bloomberg and AFP, and say “This is what we need to be covering,” and they would pass it on to the news desk. So, in a way, nothing in news is really new.

O’Donovan: You brought up social — we know that the social web is also the mobile web, right? If something is breaking, it’s going to be big on social, and people are going to be checking it on mobile.

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?

Ishmael: There are three elements to this. One is acknowledging that your app has to do a good job of presenting things to people in a contextual and relevant way, in a realtime way. My favorite app right now, on both Android and iOS — because obviously I have more than one device — is Google Now.

O’Donovan: You walk around with two phones in your bag?

Ishmael: Yes, it’s true. One of the funny things is, Noah and I have actually known each other for a while. One of the first times we met for coffee we both took out these two phones and were like: We’re going to get along really well.

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.

O’Donovan: The email newsletter thing — is that going to be born out in how you use and voice push notifications and other alerts?

Ishmael: Absolutely. I don’t think it’s possible to be a media organization without some kind of notification strategy. Your notifications could be direct from your app, they could be tying into IFTTT, it could be getting into email. I’ve been watching with interest what Evernote is doing with media organizations. Evernote just signed these deals with people like the Journal and Dow Jones where, if you’re editing a note in Evernote Business, you’re going to see relevant things from Factiva and Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal. It’s about: How do you get into people’s workflows in a way that doesn’t feel obtrusive and that is actually totally relevant to whatever they’re doing at that time?

O’Donovan: Right. That’s what people say about Tinder, and apps like Instagram: How do you become an app that people are addicted to? That they open compulsively?

Ishmael: Two of the books that I’ve been reading, or rereading, is one called Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug, and another called The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. These are completely different universes. One of them is about chairs and doors and entrances and how you design spaces that make sense, and the other one is about web development.

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.

POSTED     Nov. 21, 2014, 2:30 p.m.
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