the new gatekeepers

Do people really want to watch a Netflix show about BuzzFeed journalism?

April 25, 2018

Netflix announced on Wednesday that it is rolling out a new short-form series called Follow This, which will profile writers who work at BuzzFeed News and the stories they are working on, in 15-minute weekly segments (so no binge watching). For example, a promo for the series features BuzzFeed reporter Scaachi Koul talking about a story she is working on related to ASMR, an Internet subculture of people who create and consume videos consisting solely of soothing noises designed to trigger a mild euphoria.

The clip does its best to make the process of reporting such a story interesting to non-journalists, with short cut scenes of people typing on their laptops, or scrolling quickly through websites on their large monitors. But do ordinary people really want to watch or listen to journalists at work? Obviously most journalists would like to think the answer is a resounding yes. “I think literally everyone will enjoy it,” BuzzFeed News head Ben Smith told me.

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Whenever a movie like Spotlight or The Post comes out and gets a good response at the box office, journalists cheer, in part because it validates what they do, and even in some cases makes it seem mildly exciting. But it often does this by leaving out all the hard work, and focusing on tropes like the chain-smoking reporter who meets his sources in dark alleys, or the crusty editor with the heart of gold, a genre that late-night host Seth Myers recently spoofed.

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It’s easy to see why BuzzFeed would jump at a Netflix series—it could potentially give the site a higher profile with a different audience, act as a teaser for upcoming stories, and maybe even teach the public some “news literacy.” And it’s easy to see why the streaming service would be interested in doing it: Netflix has a desperate need for more and more content, and Follow This is a good way to experiment with the 15-minute format (which Facebook Watch is also going after). But is there any real demand for this kind of content, apart from journalists and their friends?

It’s true that BuzzFeed has had some success stories from its own internal short-form video experiments, including former writer Matt Bellassai, who gained a following for his Whine About It series, in which he complained about things while drinking wine in the BuzzFeed newsroom, and later left the site to pursue a career as a comedian. But that seemed more like a happy accident—a combination of a charismatic individual and the right material.

Journalist friends have argued the time may be ripe for a behind-the-scenes series, now that the media and journalism are under fire from the president, and people are theoretically more interested in protecting them. Perhaps BuzzFeed News can  tap into some of that. Or it might join TMZ Live–a behind-the-scenes show about the celebrity news site and its reporting—as something that exists for a very tiny niche market. And maybe that’s as it should be.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.