10 Reasons Not to Write off Buzzfeed’s Clickbait

BuzzFeed has the hottest, most social content on the web. We feature breaking buzz and the kinds of things you’d want to pass along to your friends.

Buzzfeed’s self-description doesn’t exactly evoke visions of pulitzers on desks in a newsroom. And thanks to articles like 16 Universities That Straight-Up Look Like Hogwarts they’re keeping true to that initial impression. But if you dig a little deeper you’ll find a company that is using clickbait, blogspam, listicles, and viral content all tailored to extract clicks from search engines and facebookers to fund a new wave of hardcore investigative journalism.

Did you know Buzzfeed has boots on the ground in Mexico City, Dubai, London, Dakar, Manila, Istanbul and more? Would you expect this excerpt from This Is How Ground Troops In Mosul Are Calling US Airstrikes On ISIS to come with a Buzzfeed byline from Mosul, Iraq?

The Iraqi special forces commander had spent the day calling in US-led airstrikes on the militants from the roof of an abandoned house on Mosul’s edge — and then moved downstairs with his team when the mortar rounds began to hit.
The Frenchman, who was there to collect intelligence, mirrored Arkan with a moustache, an Iraqi military patch on one shoulder, and brown fatigues. “In our last position we stayed for two days, and on the second day they found us,” he said in accented English. “We have stayed two days here, and they found us again.”
Soldiers like Arkan are the unseen hands directing the most important asset the US-backed campaign for Mosul has: air power.

The cat pictures you reflexively share with your sister and the celebrity gossip you hope no one ever finds out you read all serves a higher purpose. They’re picking up the tab that no one else will in modern journalism.

The first world news machine’s demise has been well-reported on (natch). But answers about how the business of pricey resource-intensive investigative journalism is going to move forward have been in short supply. To be honest a lot of it simply hasn’t.

After the internet ripped the bottom out of the classifieds cash cow and obliterated the scarcity of information delivery (When is the last time that you read an “EXCLUSIVE” headline without rolling your eyes?) traditional newsrooms were left with holes in their budget you could shove a printing press through. Many organizations scrambled to get online, but the advertising money isn’t there like in print unless you have really big numbers in terms of eyeballs. Content that doesn’t go viral simply doesn’t pay for itself.

Institutions with pedigree like the New York Times and The Economist can erect paywalls and go subscription-only, and that’s exactly what they’ve done. But this model won’t work for everyone. People’s tolerance to pay for news is pretty low. The alternative is to sell lots and lots of ads. Buzzfeed is really great at that by creating content that is light enough and sticky enough to get passed around. A lot.

The next time you see an article like 17 Times Tumblr Got Real AF About Sleep Disorders and despair for the future of journalism… Know that it’s propping up reporting on such heady subjects as How US Money Is Backing The Philippines’ Bloody War On Drugs. Also know that this isn’t new. The sports and gossip sections have always helped pay the bills for the longer, harder stories to research and write. Like everything, it’s just all online now.

(As an aside, I will be interested to see how the noise Buzzfeed pushes out will affect their brand reception and trustworthiness when it comes to more serious reporting. I suspect it won’t be great, but after coming across a few dynamite articles from them, I am willing to overlook it.)

Oh, and there is no list. The title was clickbait.

Wade Meredith has been designing, writing, and programming since 2005. All opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect those of his employer, friends, acquaintances, or other associates. His personal website is WadeMeredith.com.