BuzzFeed, Startups Leading Shift Toward Curated Journalism

Editorial Board

Scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed, you might find a BuzzFeed article about kittens above an update on Shaun King and racial injustice — two posts that are seemingly unrelated. But as social media has helped bring millennial culture to the forefront, journalism itself has begun to change in both definition and function.

In her keynote speech last Friday during the Review’s journalism symposium “Breaking News: Reimagining Journalism for a Digital Age,” Fusion Pop and Culture Director and former Jezebel Deputy Editor Dodai Stewart claimed that consumers of online journalism are exhibiting an unprecedented shift away from traditional news outlets like The New York Times and toward a curated feed of individual voices. The public has the ability to select which writers they want to read, no matter which publication they write for or on which platform they use — a newspaper, a personal blog, Twitter or a Tumblr account. Silly Harry Potter GIFs can coexist with investigative journalism without detracting from or delegitimizing the latter, Stewart said; in some cases, the combination of so-called highbrow journalism and lowbrow entertainment can even increase the quality of both.

Journalism’s old guard has been resistant to this type of change. Not a week goes by without a think piece or op-ed lambasting the inherent laziness of Generations Y and Z. But as many traditional papers continue their slow demise, it has become clear that the internet is the future home of journalism. BuzzFeed’s attention-grabbing headlines, snarky commentary on pop culture and “Which Disney Princess Are You?” quizzes juxtaposed with its own investigative pieces have succeeded in garnering the site a massive following. Other media organizations are following suit: Upworthy, Gawker and even Rolling Stone have all adopted headlines and listicle-style content reminiscent of BuzzFeed.

What separates BuzzFeed from run-of-the-mill entertainment sites, however, is its commitment to promoting journalism abroad and tackling tough exposés. BuzzFeed has used some of the profits from popular articles to hire journalists from around the world. While often criticized for its lack of serious content, there’s no doubt that the site has done well for itself: From Aug. 2012 to 2015, views jumped from 1.1 to 5.7 billion per year. But BuzzFeed, as with any media conglomerate, is still a single source. It offers a variety of voices but all under a corporate umbrella. It may one day rival traditional sources, but in some ways, it may one day find itself behind companies thinking even further ahead.

Citizen journalism has created greater incentives for keeping the power close to the source, giving those breaking stories the opportunity to control their own voices. This emphasis on editorial independence at organizations like First Look Media might eclipse BuzzFeed’s tried-and-true content model. Established in 2013 by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, First Look de-emphasizes top-down management, placing editorial control firmly in the hands of journalists and minimizing the ideological influence of advertisers and investors. Snowden leakers Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill and Laura Poitras helm The Intercept, one standalone site of a proposed group that hopes to foster original independent voices and build the company’s journalistic credibility. It’s unclear if First Look’s idea of a personality-driven, walled garden of journalism will be successful in the 21st century; the startup has gotten off to a rocky start thanks to budgeting issues and, ironically, a lack of coherent management. But perhaps if it were in better hands, the site could succeed in its mission: investigative, confrontational journalism without complicated ties to advertisers or political interests.

In an age where everything is changing — cultural tastes, smartphone apps, trending hashtags — journalism’s next step is still being developed by the best and brightest. Millennial have the opportunity to shape the field’s future, whether that will be prioritizing individual voices over whole websites or reacting to Donald Trump quotes with cat videos. But just as our thirst for the latest technology and craft beers has driven the release of software updates and microbrews, our consumption of news and other media will eventually shape the malleable future of journalism. The cumulative click-power of our generation will determine who the next crop of journalistic innovators are. Our clicks, after all, are our currency, and when somebody strikes gold, their traffic will show it.