With launch of i100, viral sites continue to spread

As the BuzzFeed model proliferates, even legacy media like The Independent want a piece of the pie

i100 looks very familiar. The new website from UK newspaper The Independent has “curiosity gap” headlines (“The most uplifting body image message you will see today”), clicky YouTube videos (“The spectator who popped a wheelie alongside Tour de France winners”) and listicles (“The 9 best worst things you can buy from the Ukip gift shop”). There is a dynamic list of the top 100 articles on the site, big red buttons that help “upvote” pieces up the chain, and weekly sponsored content from bank First Direct.

Yet in a world with no shortage of BuzzFeed and Upworthy imitators, from Distractify to ViralNova to the shamelessly successful Playbuzz, what sets i100 apart is that it belongs not to a plucky startup but to a traditional, mainstream daily newspaper.

“We love list-based stories, we love quizzes and games, we love data maps, we love data charts,” said Christian Broughton, digital editor at The Independent. “Could we do high quality? Could we do proper journalism? Could we maintain a really authoritative tone and have these content forms?”

There is little precedent so far. Time has viral-focused Newsfeed and The Washington Post has its subject-specific Know More blog, but i100 differs slightly from both. The purported goal is to repurpose highbrow pieces from The Independent, as well as its daily, compact digest The I, in a more social and mobile—read: consumable—package. For instance, a recent 1,100 word Independent story on the impossibility of finding a safe zone in the Gaza Strip sparked an i100 piece that pulls a map from a UN report, a quote from the original story, and a single sentence as an explainer.

There is a reason the viral Web has spawned everything from QuickStir (India) to oodera! (Nigeria) to elmeme (Argentina) and even Oh My Disney (clickbait has reached such a saturation point that The Onion even has its own parody of a viral site, ClickHole). They’re cheap to run, target a young demographic, and rake in high traffic by targeting social media and tapping into what BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti has called the Bored at Work Network. That should all benefit i100, with its dedicated staff of three. The current average reader age is 42 for the print version of The Independent and 50 for The I, which did not even have a website until now.

Still, since BuzzFeed reconfigured the norms of digital journalism, it’s been hard to get a competitive advantage in the viral space. What i100 is banking on is that its respected parent company and selection of newsier stories will create a niche. “Right now the subject matter that’s usually applied to these forms of journalism is really not in people’s minds serious heavyweight news,” said Broughton.

How well hard news and viral content can not only sit side-by-side but merge is yet to be seen. One risk is that the Reddit-inspired upvoting system, that along with shares, reads, time, and interactions decides story placement, might leave the news pieces at the bottom of the barrel, undermining this advantage. “Partly I think that you’ve got to trust the users,” said Broughton. “The front page of Reddit has always got really interesting stories on it.”

Still, the confluence of a traditional journalism brand and shareability seems like the sweet spot for many publications. Ironically, as The Independent is trying to get more clicks, the sites that kicked off the viral trend are moving in the opposite direction, trying to get their own comparative advantage by shoring up the seriousness of their brands. The Huffington Post won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012, and BuzzFeed has hired an investigative team, removed poorly sourced articles and, with last week’s firing of editor Benny Johnson for plagiarism, made a point to drive home a statement of editorial rigor.

“As you want to exist and survive in a changing media landscape, as you seek to burnish your brand, as you seek to silence detractors, investment in serious journalism goes a long way,” Gabriel Kahn, who runs the Media, Economics and Entrepreneurship program at the University of Southern California, said of sites like BuzzFeed. “They’re not producing investigative listicles.”

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Chris Ip is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisiptw. Tags: , , , ,