TNR asks the big journalism question

When news breaks, does the source or the viral aggregator deserve the clicks?

Over at The New Republic, Marc Tracy offers a helpful peek into how an ignorant Fox News interview—a religion scholar who happened to be Muslim was asked why he wrote a book about Jesus—became a “traffic bonanza” for BuzzFeed. Basically, as Tracy recounts, BuzzFeed embedded the video in its own post with a catchy headline and then used its Webby skills to harness all the traffic:

It is not surprising that BuzzFeed would leverage this best. As I reported in a New Republic story about the site a year ago, its presence on social media, its clean layout, and its editorial philosophy of shearing most context from tidbits of news and giving readers just the thing itself—all make the site immaculately positioned to capitalize on the new news economy, in which readers increasingly find things like this video not by subscribing to or regularly visiting specific blogs or websites, but by happening upon independent articles shared via social media like Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter.

Tracy’s point that a BuzzFeedian take on a news snippet capitalizes on the ongoing shift from SEO or direct traffic to social referrals is a good one. BuzzFeed packages its content in a Millennial-friendly aesthetic, topping news with tongue-in-cheek, share-ready headlines. It might be worth adding that some young (liberal) Internet denizens deliberately chose to share BuzzFeed’s URL rather than Fox’s to minimize traffic to the conservative-leaning network.

After noting that the Fox News “scoop” resulted in traffic for other sites, Tracy extends his logic to wonder how “traditional” journalism can get into the traffic-generating game:

The explosion in the ability to self-publish is redefining what publishing is and what kind of things publishers can make money off of. So I suppose the question becomes: What, in this era, can traditional journalism somehow add to the mix? And how can that, too, score pageviews and make money?

The big question. BuzzFeed already offers one answer: In the midst of cleverly aggregated content and cat videos, it has been building a formidable news operation, now branching into international coverage. So one response to “how can ‘traditional’ journalism score pageviews” is: To make money doing journalism, expand your definition of “traditional.”

That’s not to say every successful outlet has to mix silly and serious. (I’ve been brainstorming a post taking Salon and Slate to task for setting the quality bar too low in its rush to post massive amounts of content daily, when newer sites like Rookie and, indeed, the revamped New Republic have proven that publishing fewer, better posts is also a viable way to run a website. But I still need to work out how to make that criticism fair when comparing sites that depend more on banner ads to those that don’t.) It’s possible to offer analyses on issues of the day that nobody else considered—Nate Silver does this, which is why his move to ESPN was considered a “get” for the company. It’s why younger freelancers are increasingly building personal brands that sell them as unique commodities. Legacy outlets can add the financial oomph to let these one-writer brands grow to their full, audience-generating potential. And “traditional” media can keep doing traditional journalism. After all, BuzzFeed and Upworthy need content to repackage and aggregate—and link back to.

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Kira Goldenberg was an associate editor at CJR from 2012-2015. Follow her on Twitter at @kiragoldenberg. Tags: , , ,