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April 21, 2021, 11:01 a.m.
Audience & Social

“I have always been obsessed with this idea of getting people to care”

An interview with Sara Yasin, the managing editor of BuzzFeed News.

Brad Esposito got his start as a reporter at BuzzFeed in 2013 and is currently the director of content at Eucalyptus, an Australian health tech company. A version of this interview first ran in his interview newsletter, Very Fine Day, which he created to “give more depth and context to the people who keep the internet humming.” Subscribe here.

Sara Yasin is the managing editor of BuzzFeed News.

Brad Esposito: I think a lot of people who aren’t online might not really understand what it means to be in charge of distribution or curation, or setting the tone of how content flows through social media. So I wanted to ask you first: How would you describe what you do? Not so much from a day to day perspective, but, like, what is the overall goal given to you?

Sara Yasin: I was promoted into being the managing editor of BuzzFeed News. And what that means in the context of the newsroom right now is that I essentially manage every part of getting things prepared to be published and then actually distributing them.

I was director of the Curation team, which was running literally every single platform that we were pushing stories out onto and then also managing the art, photo, and copy teams. All four of those teams have very capable leaders, so my job is to make sure that day to day there’s enough coordination and overlap between those teams. I’m also strategically thinking about how to be efficient … but then also thinking about how, you know, we can do things better and be ahead of the curve.

Esposito: It sounds like a lot of work.

Yasin: Well, thankfully, I have very talented people on my team.

Esposito How do you compartmentalize the different areas that you need to focus on — art and news and everything else?

Yasin: Part of the reason we brought these teams together is because they have a lot in common when it comes to their relationship to the rest of the newsroom. Because essentially, everyone is trying to get everyone’s copy and figure out how they should be presenting it.

For Art, they’re thinking about presenting it on the website. Copy is thinking about what kind of language we’re using and making sure we don’t have errors. And then Curation is thinking about how we should promote things. We realized that all of these things are very interconnected. But the thing that I think is kind of different is the speed of things. I think that because I came out of Curation, I was very used to being like, “OK, this specific news event is happening, the inauguration is happening, this person do this, this person do that,” and not really thinking ahead. Now I feel like I have to do both — I have to think ahead and also think in the moment.

Esposito: How did you start? If I remember correctly from 2017, when we went and got lunch at one of those many places in New York City that does food from a specific culture and just puts it in a bowl, you were in charity?

Yasin: Yeah, I started out in human rights. I started out working for a women’s rights organization that focused on Muslim women. They’re called Women Living Under Muslim Laws, which is what happens when you let academics name organizations. The thinking is that “Muslim law” is law that is interpreted to be Islamic — so essentially man-made, whereas “Islamic law” would mean the actual law from the Quran.

I was doing kind of boring administrative work. I’d done my Masters in international development and I didn’t know what it meant to work in an organization. I thought, I guess, that I would be saving the world. And then they were like: Here’s some spreadsheets. It was really just a bucket of ice water.

I was blogging quite a bit about the representation of Muslim women in the media, at a pretty academic blog called Muslimah Media Watch. I thought that was the only place where my voice was appropriate. It didn’t even cross my mind that I could access more mainstream platforms.

Esposito: Why do you think you felt that way?

Yasin: Because I didn’t think that anyone cared what people who grew up Muslim thought. I don’t practice, but people who are of the Muslim variety — I just thought people didn’t care about their opinion or about representation.

But someone from Jezebel reposted one or two of my blogs, and then I was like, oh, maybe I’m also interested in writing for the internet. I just didn’t even think this was an option.

I was in London at the time and I went to go work for this organization called Index On Censorship as an editorial assistant. My job was half editorial and half advocacy. Working in advocacy was interesting, because I got to meet cool people, but also really, really, really, disheartening. I got jaded quickly, because it felt like, well, how many action statements could I write?

Esposito: Were you just not seeing any kind of progress from the work you were doing?

Yasin: I was working specifically on Bahrain and I felt like I was doing the same things over and over again, and not necessarily getting any results. I know and respect a lot of people in the human rights space, and I think that there are a lot of people who are doing really important work. But for me, personally, I was obsessed with making things accessible for a wider audience. I was always the person who was thinking about how to get more people to care about something. And sometimes I felt like that wasn’t as important to other people.

Esposito: What were they focused on?

Yasin: I think when you’re in an advocacy-based situation, you care more about decision makers, and, you know, influential people understanding what you’re saying. You’re gonna care more about writing a letter to an MP than you are about an op-ed, right?

Obviously you want both. Most human rights organizations want all the kinds of coverage they can get. But the problem that I found a lot of the time was that they didn’t know how to frame things around what people actually want to learn and what they actually want to know. They focused more on what they thought people should care about. And there are plenty of things that people should care about, you know, but if you don’t frame it in a way that makes sense, they’re not going to latch on to it.

[The New Humanitarian (no longer an acronymed UN agency) wants to move humanitarian crisis journalism beyond its wonky, depressing roots]

Esposito: Sure. So what year was this?

Yasin: This was in 2011. So kind of half my job was running this advocacy program on Bahrain.

It was about freedom of expression. I got to go on a mission trip to Bahrain and I met activists and worked with them and stuff. And so part of it was literally just talking to people and understanding their stories and putting things into reports and doing that kind of thing. And then the other half of it was writing stories — literally covering some of the freedom of expression issues that had happened. One of the first big stories I wrote was about students who were caught up in the protests and were being arrested. That kind of thing.

Another one of the bigger stories I wrote was one of the things that made me understand how important it is to figure out a wider audience. I’m a little fuzzy on it now because it was 2012, but I had a scoop around Kim Kardashian. One of the weird things in the Bahrain story was that at one point they had hired the guy who started Millions of Milkshakes, this thing in Hollywood that used to be this big deal paparazzi stop.

This guy was hired by the Bahraini government to use celebrities to basically repair the public image of Bahrain. At least I think that the remit was repairing the public image of Bahrain, but it was kind of obvious that part of it was also bringing in celebrities. So they brought Kim Kardashian over to … I think Bahrain and Kuwait. And I wrote this story like: this is the guy who is responsible for Kim Kardashian going to Bahrain.

Esposito: So at the moment I’m rereading one of my favorite books, which is Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas.

She talks a lot about the activism and social media crossover. Do you think the industry of world affairs and activism has the same issues now? Or do you think they understand social media a bit better and the internet a bit better [than they did in 2011]?

Yasin: Yeah, I think that people definitely see the light a lot more. Now, I think that there’s a difference between activists and people who work at these bureaucratic organizations. It was really interesting to see how younger activists harnessed social media to spotlight their ideas and amplify them. But also, at the same time, there was this really thorny relationship with the platforms. At the time, as you probably remember, there was a lot of weight placed on the social media platforms for the revolutions. A lot of the activists felt like that erased their work.

Similarly, I think the old school people sitting around doing a lot of human rights work didn’t really know how to think about social media. Now I feel like people recognize how things happen on there but also maybe [recognize] the harm a bit more.

I think it’s difficult to talk about human rights issues in an open way on social media, because of the troll accounts.

Esposito: You’ve been harassed and trolled quite a few times for stuff you’ve said, is that right?

Yasin: Yeah. It’s not as bad as other people. But when I covered Bahrain, I got trolled pretty significantly. Anyone who does Bahrain stuff has probably experienced that. It wasn’t as bad as things that other people have experienced. There was one point in 2016 where I got trolled a bit. There was a period where my avatar on Twitter was Lindsay Lohan in a hijab and I got a lot of hate during that time period.

Esposito: So, from activism you went to BuzzFeed straightaway as a curation lead?

Yasin: Well, Index was like half journalism, half advocacy. And then I was like, I’m gonna go down the journalism route. So I went to PolicyMic. I started out as a deputy politics editor, and then I was the world editor. My job was to create the widest audience for world stories. Then I went to Global Post and was the social media editor. It has now has been folded under PRI. I came to BuzzFeed in 2015 as a social news reporter. While I was there, the curation team was formed, bringing together the social team, the mobile team, and the homepage team.

Esposito: It feels like a way to describe your job would be trying to get people to care. If you agree with that, how do you think your approach has changed as your understanding of the internet, and people, and content, has changed?

Yasin: I worked in human rights orgs, but I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself an activist. But I do think that I have always been obsessed with this idea of getting people to care, getting people to think about things, and thinking about a wider audience.

I often think that people are way too cynical about what [audiences] want to consume, and that goes beyond the internet. I think you see this with literally everything. I think that [audiences] are a lot smarter than we think they are. The assumption that people aren’t smart, or that they don’t want to read anything that’s complicated or intelligent, I think, has led to some really bad decisions.

Esposito: Like what?

Yasin: Like the condescending tone of a lot of the early Facebook traffic gold hunt content.

I think that there was this push to tell people what to think … Gen Z seems very allergic to people being condescending toward them. And I think that’s partially because they grew up immersed in that kind of content, and so they’re like, stop telling me what to think, please.

Esposito: I want to run a situation by you because I think we both were, at one point in our careers, social news reporters, which I described to people as: Well, you just treat the internet like the playground, like it’s a public sphere. And you’re just writing about what happens on the internet. But also implicit with that role was that you wanted things that go viral.

But do you ever feel kind of jaded? Because this is something I experienced when I started doing some, I guess, more traditional reporting about the medicinal cannabis movement in Australia. I’m talking to parents whose children have died, parents whose children are intensely sick and who can’t get access to this medicine. I’m talking to kids who can’t get access to this medicine. And so you spend a lot of energy working on this project and you write it up and you publish it. And then it’s like: 400 people care. And then you write another thing in that same day that’s like: Look At This Funny Chair That Kim Kardashian Sat On, and 500 million people want to look at this funny chair.

I’m still not sure I’ve learned how to emotionally deal with that and figure out: OK, how do I get more attention toward the thing I really want people to pay attention to?

Yasin: I feel like one of the big parts of my job is that. The senior audience development analyst and I have regular conversations with desks about how their stories are performing. We think about the points of opportunity. We feel really strongly that it’s about way more than the numbers.

I do think that sometimes it’s a matter of getting things in front of the right audience. You know, sometimes you’re going to write a story that only has 10,000 views — but it’s introduced as evidence in a Senate hearing, and I feel like that is equal to a story that gets a million views.

But I do think that there is a way to make sure that those stories get their best shot. One of the things I’m constantly saying to foreign correspondents and people in that space is that a good story is a good story. If you find the right angle, and if you find a headline, and you package it well, then you can get it to the right people and you can give it its best shot. But you have to balance that with maintaining the integrity of the story.

I [work in] media because I wanted people to care about the human impact of things. Growing up Muslim in the U.S. meant that I literally felt the impact of [news outlets] making lazy decisions when they were reporting on Muslims.

I went to NC State, which has a lot of people from very rural parts of North Carolina who in some cases had never seen a non-white person. And there were so many people who told me that they thought that all Muslims were terrorists because they only watched Fox News growing up.

Esposito: How does that come up in a conversation?

Yasin: Because I was wearing hijab, it was like a lightning rod for people to come up to me and say really weird stuff. I’d be standing around and someone would just ask me really weird and intense questions about being Muslim. I felt like I had to answer all of them because I was like, everyone thinks Muslims are terrorists, I have to answer everything, even when it was violating my boundaries.

Sometimes people would ask me if I wore a hijab in the shower and I felt like I couldn’t sarcastically reply. I couldn’t be like, “What do you think the point of a shower is?” because I didn’t want them to think I was an asshole.

I worked at a camp when I was in college, and a lot of those kids told me that they assumed that I was a terrorist because of being Muslim. When I would first meet them, they would be so scared of me, because they didn’t know what to make of me.

I feel like a certain element of social media has made us lose our ability to humanize people. And that’s something that terrifies me, honestly.

Esposito I’m thinking back to conversations we had almost four years ago now. So my memory is a bit hazy. But I also have a memory of you talking to me about when you made the decision to stop wearing hijab and how professionally other people spoke to you differently and treated you differently.

Yasin: I stopped wearing it in 2009. The attitude of people toward me changed once they thought I was white. The microaggressions that had happened before on a daily basis — someone being really rude to me, someone assuming I couldn’t speak English — just stopped happening completely. People were just nicer to me.

Esposito: Let’s talk about the function of what you do and how you approach it. Part of the job is figuring out the algorithms, right? Is it hard keeping yourself motivated to do that? Because it’s just a non-stop process. It’s not like you have a golden rule that exists forever, like pivoting to video and saving media, for example.

Yasin: Yeah, I mean … woof.

In my line of work, in particular, there are a lot of snake oil salesmen who pretend like they understand the algorithms. And I think the basic thing that anyone who has any shade of a social job knows is that we literally don’t understand the algorithm, right? We can optimize as much as we can, and we can try to position things as well as we can, and we have tools to understand how the algorithms have changed and what they might be prioritizing or how they might be feeding things or how the tech companies are thinking about changing them.

But at the same time, they are changing so much that the way that we would hurt ourselves is by having a static mentality toward how the algorithm works. There’s no transparency. We have a general sense of how people are seeing content, and we can guess how things are shifting. But if there’s a big algorithm change, that really hurts digital organizations a lot.

Esposito: What scares you? This is an open-ended question deliberately. So it can be what scares you now, it could be what scares you about the future … And I guess if nothing scares you, you can say so, but that’s not very cool.

Yasin: I think what scares me is the inability for people to hear each other at this specific point in time.

If I may go back to the beginning of my career, around [the time of] these revolutions in the Middle East, it felt like people were being heard. That’s kind of naive, right, but I was in my early 20s and that’s what that does to you: You think there’s all this change that’s coming, blah, blah, blah.

Now, I’m thinking about the opposite end of that. We’re at a point where these platforms are not the places for amplifying voices that we don’t hear from. They can now be used very cynically and everyone has their own version of reality … The example I always use is, for example, homelessness. I grew up in Raleigh and it’s very purple … no one [used to say] homelessness doesn’t exist. People argued over how to address homelessness. Now, it’s like: is this even real?

Esposito: How do you stay motivated, then?

Yasin: I think that there are a lot of people who want this to change. And I think that a lot of people want to have good conversations. I have a lot of issues with Tiktok, but one thing I like about teens and how teens are using Tiktok is that they seem to be surprised by the toxicity of comments on other platforms.

For [the millennial generation], we were like, “Don’t read the comments. We’re just going to ignore this part of it.” And they’re like, oh, no, we’re embracing this, and this isn’t going to be a toxic place. And I like that, because I feel like it shows that the next generation thinks that the internet is a real place. We sometimes conduct ourselves online as if it doesn’t count in real life. And I think that Gen Z knows that there is some weight to what you say on the internet, because they’ve seen the consequences of that in every possible way.

Photo by wallsdontlie used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 21, 2021, 11:01 a.m.
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