Political journalism in the Buzzfeed age – an evening with Emily Ashton

by Amar Patel in ,


Regular readers will know that I tend to jump around a bit when it comes to the topics covered. But one bedrock is definitely journalism. You can fill your boots with countless posts and podcasts but sometimes only a face-to-face conversation will do. Thankfully there are a number of events in London that professionals can attend to discuss the key issues. Take Modern Journalism or example, organised by Eleanor Goodman, who is features editor at Metal Hammer. Last week we were lucky enough to meet Emily Ashton, senior political correspondent at Buzzfeed.

Buzzfeed's senior political correspondent Emily Ashton

Buzzfeed's senior political correspondent Emily Ashton

Think Buzzfeed and the first word that pops into your head will probably be "lists". The second might be "GIFs". And yes, those are key features of the irreverent power publisher. They have pioneered a 'less and more often' approach to digital media with their oh so clickable take on pop culture and current affairs. Or, as founder Jonah Peretti once put it: “Catering for the bored at work network, the largest network in the world.” However there is another side to the company that is causing a stir – their news and current affairs coverage. The Prime Minister granted them an audience in the build up to the last General Election: to some a validation of an infamous cat site, to others a cynical move from Cameron to appeal to young voters. Even their lists have become more serious.

Could their strategy be to attract attention through light-hearted fodder before presenting the weightier content that generates greater investment through native advertising. Surely, not. Peretti, who also co-founded the Huffington Post, was quick to spot a gap in the market, outlining his vision in a memo to staff in 2013: "The world needs sustainable, profitable, vibrant content companies staffed by dedicated professionals; especially content for people that grew up on the web, whose entertainment and news interests are largely neglected by television and newspapers."

Let's consider the “dedicated professionals” part. Attracting 16-34s on web and mobile with shareable content is important but so is reporting and breaking stories – very traditional skills of a news journalist. Since the beginning of last year – where Buzzfeed UK traffic accounted for 10 per cent of the company’s global total (200 million, apparently) – there have been a number of high-profile acquisitions: 

  • Janine Gibson, Deputy Editor, The Guardian
  • Stuart Millar, Head of News, The Guardian
  • Heidi Blake, Assistant Editor, Sunday Times
  • Richard James, Deputy Online Editor of Metro.co.uk 
  • Tom Chivers, Assistant Comment Editor, The Telegraph
  • Robert Colvile, The Telegraph
  • Michael Gillard, Sunday Times
  • Monica Mark, The Guardian
  • Ali Watkins, Huffington Post
  • Jane Bradley, BBC Panorama
  • Tom Warren, Bureau of Investigative Journalism

[Buzzfeed is also moving into local news, recruiting 14 more staff and four regional reporters.]

To that list you can add Ashton, who joined in 2014 having spent three years at The Sun (as Whitehall correspondent) and five at the Press Association. Two traditional publishers that have needed to quickly adapt to a digital age where agility and accessibility are everything. But listening to Ashton run through her day, it soon obvious that some things haven’t changed. She still needs to produce a steady stream of short pitches – sourced from contacts at Westminster, lunches with MPs and little chats at Portcullis House – and she still needs to write around 200-300 words per piece in short sentences just as she once had to for The Sun. The newsroom does operate slightly differently though, thanks to tools such as Slack.

Her most popular piece for the tabloid was this story about David Cameron leaving his daughter in a pub. A sympathetic viewpoint; he was devastated apparently. The Mirror would have been more cutting, said Ashton. Her most popular piece to date for Buzzfeed is this – a witty collective response on social media to Jeremy Hunt after he threatened to make doctors work weekends.

 

Notice the difference in format. Ashton loves having more control over the headline at Buzzfeed. Writers will input options into a CMS, which recommends the optimum composition to offer the best chance of going viral. Breaking news is immediately posted and headlines are tweaked based on how well each piece performs on social media.

Ashton had been keen to move into digital for a while and, at 28, felt the time was right to make the leap “before she missed the boat”. She described the experience at Buzzfeed as feeling “more like a rolling Sunday newspaper”. But while a newspaper pitch might end up on page 14, a similar story at Buzzfeed becomes a standalone page with countless shares. And there is still scope to tackle big stories, long reads, profiles… For example, she would like to pitch an interview with Iain Duncan Smith and Labour MP Jess Phillips is keen to do a Snapchat quiz with them. “And why not? she asks. You may not be the best but you’ll be the first and likely to be the most popular.”

Ashton also shared her excitement about video, something her employer is investing heavily in through its Buzzfeed Motion Pictures venture. For a company that strives to go viral every day by producing surprising content that makes millennials want share, you can see why 30-second videos are the way ahead. They will try anything and that’s their strength, as long as they continue to harness data to decide what to cover and where.

One anecdote that had us all chuckling was where Ashton recalled MPs' reactions to Buzzfeed reporters introducing the website and probing for stories. “Bird Seed? Breastfeed?” they would ask dumbfoundedly … perhaps mockingly. Well those days have surely passed. In a world where every vote counts, those that win the clicks wield the power. Buzzfeed executives such as Peretti and editor-in-chief Ben Smith often talk about the word “impact”. Using the company’s distribution model and knowledge about how stories spread to influence popular culture. This is the company that can generate more than 25 million hits by convincing us that #TheDress is blue and black one minute and white and gold the next. Imagine what they could do in a country where half of 18-34s reject the political system?



Amar Patel