When she first came on board BuzzFeed in March as UK Investigations Editor, former award-winning Sunday Times journalist Heidi Blake was given a modest brief. “We want to become the dominant news and entertainment company of this century,” she was told by Mark Schoofs, Investigations & Projects Editor.
Fortunately for Schoofs, Blake was ready to hit the ground running. She’d been increasingly disheartened by the limitations of the Sunday Times – traditional print journalism locked behind a digital paywall. On breaking the FIFA files story about the systematic bribery by Qatari officials (at that stage by far the biggest story of the year) Blake had to sit behind the paywall and watch everyone else engage, share and go viral with the story. This meant that she also had to sit in silence whilst everyone else’s version included glaring factual inaccuracies – an experience she somewhat understatedly describes as ‘frustrating.”
She believed then, as she believes now, that the trick is finding a way to make the web pay for artisan journalism. Enter BuzzFeed. As she points out, although it started off with “quizzes and cat gifs,” BuzzFeed has grown to be at the forefront, shaping a new kind of journalism; that of disseminating news through social channels, where your feed is your own online publication and you are the editor curating content for your friends. “BuzzFeed were making lots of money from social advertising, and wanted to reinvest in serious hard hitting journalism,” she says.
Blake goes on to make the point that the content of the investigations hasn’t changed, it’s the way they tell those stories that’s different. For starters, thanks to its digital core, BuzzFeed has the luxury of being able to experiment with what kind of content makes people want to share and what will resonate on different channels. “The reader is the person who decides what matters that day, not the editor.” For example, 15 Insane Confessions of a Buckingham Palace Guard did insanely well in a way that perhaps a more traditional news format would not.
Another difference that Blake highlights is that BuzzFeed recognises word of mouth is the greatest form of advocacy, which is why they have a great team of creatives for sponsored, relevant content, and not just banner ads. “Everything we publish will have a different audience, and will be shared in different communities,” she explains.
Indeed, what Blake makes abundantly clear is that, whilst highly important, the power of investigative journalism is just one ingredient fueling BuzzFeed’s stratospheric success. The real superpower is social lift-off.