A pivot to Netflix? Vox, BuzzFeed News collaborate with streaming behemoth

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Two prominent digital newsrooms are cashing in on a popular platform left mostly untouched by publishers: Netflix. They’ll bring an influx of news content to a streaming service that, to date, has focused mostly on entertainment.

Vox and BuzzFeed News have announced collaborations with the platform. The Vox series, Explained, which dropped this week, explores news and pop culture in 15-minute segments, roughly. BuzzFeed’s series, Follow This, which premieres in early July, will also use 15-minute episodes to discuss current events through the eyes of the outlet’s reporters.

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Netflix is desperate for content to feed its giant audience. With 100 million subscribers and an $8 billion programming budget for 2018, the streaming service has amassed an endless supply of documentaries, original dramas, and more stand-up specials than anyone ever wanted. Today its market value surpassed that of both Disney and Comcast, at $151.6 billion. Even former President Barack Obama has landed a multi-year production deal with the company.

Vox and BuzzFeed News both face the task of translating their brands, originally geared toward a younger demographic, to a broader audience. This is also an incentive: Vox can increase its visibility, while BuzzFeed News can highlight its hardcore journalism. But they both risk making the same mistakes many publishers made with Facebook: investing heavily in a platform only to have the rug pulled from under them.

CJR spoke with both publishers about their Netflix ventures to find out more about their motivations for creating shows with the platform.

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Vox

The four-year-old publisher applies its explainer approach to everything from ethical controversies around gene editing to the modern-day relevance of monogamy and the global emergence of K-pop. Vice President of Vox Entertainment Chad Mumm says the Netflix-funded project is the most resource-intensive and expensive endeavor the outlet has ever undertaken.

The company says the crew for the show consists of 23 people, including Editor at Large and Vox Founder Ezra Klein and Executive Producer Joe Posner. The series will contain 20 episodes—in addition to three that launched yesterday, one new episode will go live each Wednesday.

Posner says the show offers an opportunity to produce stronger videos. He explains that Vox’s segments on YouTube are usually produced by one or two people who do all of the reporting, editing, and sound mixing. “We had more resources to better specialize,” Posner says. “We have gotten to bring our visual storytelling to a higher level.”

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But the longer format may present a challenge for Vox. The outlet’s explainer approach is by definition not an extensive dive into subjects, and it could face criticism for being reductive (as it has in the past). The new series addresses broader topics, and as Vox gains additional time to explore those topics, it also loses the justification of not having enough space in its segments to go deeper. Posner’s response to the potential reductive criticism is simple: “If we’re doing our job well, we we find something specific that helps people see the world in more detail rather than less.”

Regardless, Vox has big goals on the horizon. “We want to create a habitual viewing habit on Netflix for documentaries that are both sparking people’s curiosity and do it in a way that’s extremely satisfying and entertaining,” says Mumm. “What we’re hoping to achieve is that people see this, and it will be in front of a much larger audience than the one we have on our platforms; and our storytelling approach will carry very well in that environment.”

 

BuzzFeed News

BuzzFeed News’s forthcoming documentary series Follow This, which will also consist of 20 episodes, will feel more like a newsmagazine. Set to premiere July 9, the show will cover current events through the lens of the journalists who report on them. BuzzFeed News Editor in Chief Ben Smith says it’s an opportunity to tell the outlet’s stories to Netflix audiences with the tools of premium television.

A crew of about 20 full-time contractors will be kept on for the duration of the project, according to BuzzFeed News. It will also feature a number of well-known reporters, including Scaachi Koul, Charlie Warzel, Rega Jha, and John Stanton. Smith notes that Jessica Harrop, who serves as showrunner and is an executive producer, was fundamental to the project.

“The series is meant to bring awareness to not only the process of journalism but also how interesting the characters are within our newsroom, and how they approach reporting on their stories,” BuzzFeed News Head of Programming Cindy Vanegas-Gesuale says. “We don’t want the news organization just to be the main name and the brand. We want people to get to know our reporters.”

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The format gives “transparency in the reporting process that we think adds both credibility and texture to the stories,” Smith adds.

When asked whether watching stories told by working journalists will make for an entertaining experience (a question CJR has previously explored), Smith says: “At a moment when there are a lot of challenges around people’s trust, transparency is important. People want to know who you are and how you’re doing your job,” adding that the focus is still on the story, not the journalists.

 

There are some drawbacks to the standard production deals Vox and BuzzFeed News have made with Netflix. Although the outlets shy away from revealing dollar amounts, both confirm to CJR that Netflix is covering the production costs of their shows in exchange for ownership. That means the two publishers receive revenue from fees they collect included in the budget of the show, but they don’t own the content. Critics may see the move as giving away their intellectual property and audiences to a streaming service. But neither outlet sees the deal as unfair.

“Netflix is taking the majority of the risk by putting up the money to do it and the marketing to get it out there,” Mumm says. “Our intellectual property is explanatory journalism, and nothing about the Netflix deal is restricting us from doing explanatory journalism. They don’t own the IP, they own the finished product.”

BuzzFeed News’s Vanegas-Gesuale echoes that stance: “This is an opportunity to further our reach. It’s more of a give-and-take and a conversation about what makes the most sense. I see them as a true partner; I don’t see them as getting something for nothing from us. We’re working very well together towards producing something we’re really proud of, and that’s going to long-term be really helpful for both organizations.”

Mumm says Vox sees the Netflix deal as a way to bring the brand to a new audience.

“We want people to recognize this comes from Vox media, and that is a signal for quality, storytelling, [and] authority. We think those brands will matter on TV even if it is not on a Vox network per se, and everything we do on video only helps us better understand how to program for audiences,” Mumm says. “My goal for our team is to build the most premium, nonfiction programming studio in the next five years.”

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Justin Ray is the digital media editor of Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter @jray05.