With all of the user-generated content floating around the Internet, it’s not surprising that something like Storyful emerged to organize it. News outlets subscribe to the service, which combs the Web (typically trawling through Twitter and other social-media platforms) to find the best video, photos, and written content produced by average users. Storyful then relies on a team of journalists to verify each item’s accuracy, and pass the vetted material along to its subscribers for reuse. “ABC News calls every night asking for the best content to put up tomorrow,” says Berger.
They like to anoint new brands
If there is one website that epitomizes the general-interest newspaper in the era of social media, it is BuzzFeed. Almost 60 percent of its readers are between the ages of 18 and 34—easily the highest proportion of any major general-interest news site. More than 40 percent of the traffic comes through mobile devices, and the majority of that is through social-media apps such as Facebook’s. “Sharing is our main goal and quality metric,” says Jonah Peretti, referring to those times when an item gets posted or linked to on social media by a BuzzFeed reader.
Visiting the New York office of the rapidly expanding company is like watching a cartoon of new media at work. The publication’s headquarters, tucked into a nondescript Chelsea building, seem like a metaphor for the Web itself: casual, transparent, and non-hierarchical. There are massive windows showcasing impressive views of midtown Manhattan, and large communal workspaces that—in the manner of online publications—lack the loud banter of newsrooms. Reporting and discussions among the overwhelmingly young staff are more likely to take place over email and IM apps than face-to-face or on the phone.
Peretti sits in a glass-walled office in the middle of the floor. After Huffington Post was sold to AOL in 2011, Peretti left to focus on BuzzFeed’s expansion into original reporting. And just as HuffPost’s mastery of search-engine optimization defined media wizardry a few years ago, BuzzFeed defines it today.
“When we launched, we didn’t have verticals around traditional content categories,” Peretti explains. “We organized the site around the emotions that lead to sharing. If a football player does a funny touchdown dance, you share the video because it is funny, not because it is sports.”
Search engines are still a major driver of traffic. In fact, according to Pew, search remains the second-largest source of website traffic coming from the population as a whole, trailing behind direct visits to homepages and far ahead of social media. “Nobody sees what you search for,” notes Peretti, so it’s the best way to find anything that’s “less socially acceptable”—anything relating to sex, for example, or one’s medical ailments.
Peretti, of course, is a big believer in the salutary effects of social media on journalism. Writing for search engines led to notoriously gimmicky and unilluminating pieces such as HuffPost’s infamous 2011 “What Time Does the Superbowl Start,” an empty page designed to capitalize on people searching for the Super Bowl’s kickoff time (and yes, the title of the event was intentionally styled incorrectly to catch more search traffic). But people share only what they think is worth looking at. Say what you will about pictures of cats overlaid with ungrammatical phrases—but at least they go viral because Internet users actually find them funny.
The emphasis on sharing may result in even more soft, feel-good material. As the Times reported in May, “By scanning people’s brains and tracking their emails and online posts, neuroscientists and psychologists have found that good news can spread faster and farther than disasters and sob stories.” Jonah Berger, a social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Times: “When you share a story with your friends and peers, you care a lot more how they react. You don’t want them to think of you as a Debbie Downer.”
Advertisers want to avoid that, too. “Whenever I hear from ad sales, it’s, ‘I want to be around positive news,’ and most news isn’t positive,” says Alex Leo. “That’s why we’ve seen The New York Times Style section expand to two days a week, and so much more health content and blogs about parenting. It’s the same with HuffPo.”
What might they want next?