Why serious journalism can coexist with audience-pleasing content

Legacy media organizations should experiment with digital platforms while continuing to publish hard news


Ann Friedman writes about digital culture and trends for CJR.

In his editor’s letter this week announcing a redesigned New York Times Magazine, one with much more digital content and a podcast tie-in, editor Jake Silverstein offered a preemptive defense against concerns that this might run against the magazine’s reputation for sterling journalism. “This isn’t an obligatory exercise in multiplatform brand leveraging, as the marketing types might put it,” he wrote, “or the beginning of our descent into soul-deadening content farming.”

For too long, it’s been easy to mock legacy media organizations that dare dabble in relatively new, digital platforms or formats that are perceived to be low-brow. When outlets with long-established reputations do take a stab at entertaining an audience rather than just informing it, critics have been quick to couch the move as a play for advertising and lowest-common-denominator clicks.

Given how quick we are to cry “clickbait!” these days, the legacies must assure their audience that they are not sacrificing standards when they try to play the digital game and—god forbid—get some social-media traffic. But it’s been surprisingly difficult to get the message across that high-brow, deeply reported journalism can, in fact, coexist with audience-pleasing frivolity.

Perhaps this is why I detected a similar whiff of defensiveness in the publication of BuzzFeed’s new editorial standards, which were released a few weeks ago. “We published this guide to keep BuzzFeed’s writers, reporters, and editors accountable to our readers,” wrote Shani Hilton, executive editor for news. Many news organizations make their ethics policies public (although often buried somewhere deep within their site), but few of those outlets feel a need to convince their audience to take them seriously as a go-to source of hard-news reporting and amusing listicles and quizzes. Even as it has published an increasing volume of hard news, critics still mock BuzzFeed’s “awkward juxtaposition of solemn striving and pop-culture bacchanalia.”

This juxtaposition was less apparent—and therefore less awkward—in an era when newspapers could run crossword puzzles and comics several sections away from the hard news of the day. The modern equivalents are all jumbled up together on most-read lists and in social-media feeds. The same BuzzFeed that reports on the juvenile justice system is also the place you’ll find disposable humor like a dozen Left Shark jokes. The most popular New York Times story of 2013—a year when the paper won Pulitzers for investigative, explanatory, and international reporting—was a quiz. That same quiz was also its third most popular piece of content in 2014. And last I checked, the Times still publishes a crossword. None of this has harmed the paper’s reputation as a home for serious journalism.

Part of the reason legacies panic about losing their gravitas and upstarts worry about how to gain it is that most of their audience doesn’t come through a homepage or a print magazine, where a hierarchy is on display. They don’t know whether they’ve clicked on an article the editors deemed important news, or an amusing cultural footnote meant to be buried in the metaphorical back pages. As Felix Salmon pointed out when the Times got a bit embarrassed about running a story about hipsters wearing monocles, online it’s impossible to “tuck” a story away. It can be equally hard to call attention to a story that editors deem important but won’t naturally attract an avalanche of clicks. Times editor Dean Baquet announced Thursday that editors would no longer pitch stories for page one, they would submit them for consideration “for digital slots on what we’re calling Dean’s List,” and those that make the cut “will receive the very best play on all our digital platforms.”

It remains to be seen how the “Dean’s list” will affect the way readers perceive the most important stories of the day. But beyond design tweaks that signal to readers whether they’re in the proverbial news pages or comics section, an audience’s perception of how a publication balances the hard news and click-friendly content still boils down to reputation. And reputation is a long game. It’s simply taken awhile—and will probably take a bit longer still—for audiences to understand that they can get their nostalgic GIFs and their Syria news from the same outlet.

There’s hope for us yet: Last week, the venerable, fusty New Yorker joined Snapchat. Though there was a bit of snickering (“Finally I can get dick pics from Eustace Tilley,” a reader tweeted), there were no attendant editorial assurances that the magazine would continue publishing high-quality work. Such assurances were, and will hopefully be, increasingly unnecessary. The New Yorker, along with most of its modern counterparts, can contain multitudes.

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Ann Friedman is a magazine editor who loves the internet. She lives in Los Angeles