Boris v Dave. Eton chums go head to head. It's Tory civil war. Yawn. Over the past few months, it's been frustrating to see the media so obsessed with personalities rather than the actual facts. How is the public supposed to make an informed decision on the EU debate? Forecasts are not facts and neither are estimates. You would think an MP knew the difference, well-educated lot that they are. As one Newsnight audience member quipped, 'Why do the facts change depending on who's giving them?"Read More
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.
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?
If you haven't bought a copy of new fanzine British Values then you really should. Edited by journalist Kieran Yates and featuring the words of both established and emerging talent in the UK, it is a deliciously irreverent take on modern British culture by the children of immigrants. AKA, the loud minority.Read More
The nation is in revolt and it feels good. Britain has awoken from its political mire and everywhere I go – from the supermarket to the pub – people are fired up about this year's general election. Perhaps it's the cumulative effect of years of frustration reading about ridiculous expenses, dodgy deals, tax evasion, broken promises … and witnessing endless repeats of the blame game and political tit for tat. On the other hand, it could just be a vote of confidence in democracy and the realisation that we, the humble electorate, can change the political landscape with the decision we make. If not, it must all be down to Russell Brand dishing out a few home "trews".
This general election will be the closest since the Second World War. Everyone's under fire. The Labour party lacks leadership and has little comeback to the coalition's stabilisation of the economy and reduction in the number of unemployed to a six-year low. They could start with addressing those real wages… Meanwhile, the Conservatives have haemorrhaged support to UKIP on the issues of immigration and equality "with the party widely perceived to be serving the interests of the rich, rather than standing up for aspirational, hard-working families of all backgrounds," say to the Telegraph. Will that wealth ever trickle down? (Their stand on mansion tax is proving particularly toxic, although Labour's own Peter Mandelson, among others, supports a review of council tax instead.)
Milband is trying to muscle in on that low-income voting segment, promising to "make Britain better off" with his 10-point cost of living contract. (You may remember a similar phrase being used by The Conservatives back in 1979 when Saatchi & Saatchi created that 'Labour isn't Working' poster. Someone's having a laugh and I fear the joke's on us.) The Liberal Democrats, already reeling after that broken promise about tuition fees, have also been Faraged. Then there is that dark horse, the Green Party, which has split the left-wing vote and currently stands at about 10% in the polls. Once the object of ridicule in political circles, now poised to crash the party on live TV, chipping away at the prospects of a Labour majority and leaving David Cameron rubbing his hands with glee. But will their commune approach to government leave Britain wallowing in negative growth, struggling to support itself? Does Natalie Bennett actually know how they are going to pay for their peaceful utopia? Err no and … err … no.
Admittedly, I've been woefully apathetic towards British politics for years, my attitude shaped both by my childhood memories of Spitting Image satire and later the pomp and pageantry of increasingly meaningless traditions such as PM's Question Time. What we are seeing now in this country is that public discontent has reached critical mass and, encouraged by the last year's turn out for Scottish referendum – where democracy was the true victor – there is a sense that we can shape our own destiny for the first time in years.
Besides a growing feeling or helplessness or detachment from the political system – a defeatist response that perpetuates political control in the eyes of Adam Curtis – the other big issue has been misinformation. Putting aside the main parties' increasingly ideology-free scramble over the middle ground, you'd be hard pressed to clearly distinguish between each candidate and their key policies. (No such problem with the Green Party, however…) How are you supposed to make an informed decision?
Vote for Policies is a valuable attempt to tackle this problem head on and they have just updated their site in line with current policy pledges so do take the almost blind test and see where your vote should be heading. In the meantime, I have decided to set my own test and – avoiding the potential bias of a newspaper or blog article – attempted to pick apart the current manifestoes of each party in an attempt to pinpoint where each stands on the key issues of the day. Excel-intolerant readers look away now… Here's what I found. I will try to update this as each party shows their hand.
You can also pour over the BBC's rundown of the who's offering what here (especially if you are an SNP or Plaid Cymru follower).
The main point is that I shouldn't have to do this. It speaks poorly of political parties that they would each rather snipe at one another and play "he said, she said" then have a reasoned and honest debate about what's best for Britain. Rather than try to catch out the other party, how about starting with yourself – admit where you have gone wrong in the past, say what you promise to do in the future and challenge the proposals of the others based on facts.
But no, where's the fun in that?
So it's down to us. Let's call this the year of radical thinking. Read well, question hard and then … take a leap of faith.