By Meg Garner
Reporters laugh, joking back and forth about something they have seen or read. They are not just coworkers but friends dedicated to telling and sharing the news in a way that is both spirited and serious.
It does not seem to faze these reporters that their work could be shared across the Internet that day with millions of readers tuning in to see, click and share, but then going viral is nothing new for a BuzzFeed reporter.
Since its inception in 2006, BuzzFeed has dedicated its team to a model of tracking viral content and producing stories that people want to share, so it makes sense that the site’s reporters are familiar with writing attention-grabbing pieces.
And after two years BuzzFeed’s business desk has proven itself to be no exception to this model.
WTF: BuzzFeed and business?!?
A large majority would hedge their bets by saying readers going to BuzzFeed to find out which Disney ride they are are probably not interested in JPMorgan’s latest earnings. That same majority might also say business news is boring.
So why mix something as boring and old-fashioned as business news with the young, hip, fast-paced reputation of BuzzFeed?
The answer really is simple.
What this great majority continually gets wrong is that business news can be both. They do not recognize that a business story can be engaging solely on how the writer presents it.
For this reason, the business reporters at BuzzFeed are encouraged to do just that, fill their stories with solid, compelling business reporting with a bit of uniqueness thrown in. Furthermore, they are told not to just tell the day’s stories, but tell them in a way that differs from everyone else’s coverage.
And to BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith that is the not-so-secret secret to the business section’s success.
“We’ve hired great, ambitious reporters, and always tried to tell original stories rather than to chase the (giant) crowd or to be all things to all people,” Smith wrote in an email.
This sentiment was reiterated by business editor Tom Gara who said the flexibility of BuzzFeed allows his writers to focus on only the stories they feel matter and leave other sites, like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, to fill in the holes.
“With BuzzFeed, our distribution method primarily is social, and we see social as this foundational thing, so we’re not under the assumption that people are coming to BuzzFeed.com or to the BuzzFeed business page to see all the business news that matters at any given moment,” Gara said. “We don’t think we’re playing at their game, and we’re not trying to play at that game.”
“We know there are places that are going to be better than us with a full page of every single news headline, and what we want to have are individual stories that are compelling enough that people want to share them and will pass them around.”
And it seems to be working.
For instance, a January story by Molly Hensley-Clancy, who covers the business of education, about how college students can access personal admission files at their college went viral with over 800,000 views. Not only did Hensley-Clancy break news with this story, beating the New York Times to it a few hours, but she also wrote a business story that attracted thousands of people’s attention.
But Hensley-Clancy said while going viral is exciting, to her it is more important that she continues to dive into her beat and gain the respect of her consistent readers.
“Well, I’m not sure we’re necessarily trying to appeal to the ‘average’ BuzzFeed reader,” she said. “Some of our stories are, but a lot of them are written for a more niche, specific audience.”
“When I write a story about an education company, I don’t expect it to go viral; I write it for the few thousand people that it will matter to, and to gain respect on my beat.”
But getting people to take a BuzzFeed seriously in terms of its news coverage was not always easy, and for one reporter seeing the team’s credibility grow has been the most fulfilling part of working for BuzzFeed.
Sapna Maheshwari left her job at Bloomberg to cover retail for BuzzFeed in 2013 when the desk was first beginning. At the time she wrote she was “extremely attracted to the opportunity to help create a new platform for business journalism, write content that will reach more viewers + consumers (especially those under 35) and, I hope, make a real impact.”
Maheshwari said the initial year of reporting for the website was difficult because few understood what it meant for BuzzFeed to cover business news.
“There was fear that it was going to be more of a Gawker-type of publication that aggregates and comments and isn’t really rooted in fact, and so I think we had to prove ourselves in the beginning but now that part is sort of over and now we can do more reporting,” Maheshwari said. “We don’t have to worry about that quite so much anymore.”
Maheshwari has appeared on a variety of news shows shedding light on the retail industry, which can only help to promote the legitimacy and credibility of the business desk’s reporting.
Comparing her job to the one she had at Bloomberg, Maheshwari said there is more freedom with BuzzFeed in terms of what she can cover and how she can format her stories.
Gara said producing content in different formats is what makes BuzzFeed business stand out from its competitors and what makes it accessible to so many audiences.
“One of the good things about BuzzFeed is that we are very flexible and we can write in a lot of different formats if we want,” he said. “If we want we can do a 2,000-word feature, if we want we can do a 500 word quick news story, if we want we can do a list with charts and graphics with a few headlines in between them explaining what happened in earnings results and stuff like that, but I think the thing that’s important with that is knowing when at times to do each of those.”
“I feel like if there is a really complicated issue out there, especially with financial markets like with currencies or interest rates or the central banks, it’s not talking down to your readers to say here’s the five most interesting things one step at a time.”
OMG: What’s it like to be a BuzzFeed business reporter?
Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, working for BuzzFeed according to its staffers is basically the same as working for any media outlet, except they get more snacks.
Going over his daily routine and duties, Gara said they are pretty similar to what one would expect of any desk editor.
“We’re based in New York so we’re in the same area, and I’ll physically walk around and see what everybody has going on and also talk to them about what I’ve been seeing in the news, what I’ve read that morning or what I think is interesting,” he said.
“Then we talk a little about what they’ve been seeing, and we’ll sometimes think maybe we should do something based on what we’ve been seeing and what is out there that day and what is happening. “
From discussing that day’s stories to editing pieces for accuracy and tone, Gara said the only notable difference between his job and any other editor position at another news agency is that he spends a ton of time on social networking sites publicizing his writer’s work and searching for trends.
“That’s one of the things about BuzzFeed is that we are much more interested in trending stories like through social channels, so a big part of that is just pushing our stories out to those areas like Twitter and Facebook,” he said.
“I stay on Twitter all day long looking at headlines and looking at the conversation that’s going on around the stories we cover and seeing if that chatter is leading somewhere we should be writing about.”
Gara said he pushes his writers to focus on the most unique elements of their stories and not get bogged down by frivolous information.
“I think when you’re a reporter quite often you end up taking a story in ten different directions and throwing in the whole kitchen sink because you become obsessed with the story you’re writing,” he said. “And I think as an editor you’re kind of the regular person reading it in a lot of ways because you’re the first person to see it, and when you read the story it’s a lot easier to identify what’s compelling about it and what’s interesting and new along with what’s unique and what pushes this story forward.”
“Quite often focusing on that and distilling a story down to its most compelling, interesting and unique elements is the most general thing that I spend the most time telling reporters to do.”
And after the final copy is published online that is when Gara steps up to publicize the work across social networks.
WIN: What’s the future of BuzzFeed business?
In a recent interview, VentureBeat editor in chief Dylan Tweney said the journalism industry has to adapt to social media because that is where readers are now and where they will continue to go.
“It’s probably a student that will be able to figure out how to use WhatsApp for journalism,” Tweney said. “It’s not going to be me because I am too busy editing posts for VentureBeat, but [a student] is going to figure out how to make a news channel out of a messaging app.”
While Tweney’s assumption is correct, readers will not have to wait too long for news made directly for social media because BuzzFeed is already doing it.
“We have a team at BuzzFeed called BFF that’s like a new division of the company almost, who’s whole thing is to produce context sort of natively on other people’s platforms, like making stuff directly for Instagram, Snap Chat or Vine,” Gara said. “It never goes on our website. It just goes there first and only there.”
Gara said he hopes his team can figure out a way to tap into this model whether it is by posting graphics directly to Facebook or Instagram or coming up with push notifications for the company’s new app.
He also added that given BuzzFeed’s immense video operation, which averages almost one billion views a month, he hopes to find a way to create more business stories with video components.
This video alone received over 8.1 million views:
“Our video team now pulls in regularly a billion video views a month, and I don’t even know how to think about that number,” he said. “We would get a ten million viewer post on the text or list or news side a dozen times a year, and they are getting it daily.”
“I’d love to think about how to start getting business type stuff in a format that works for video.”
As far as expanding the business desk in terms of numbers, Gara hired two reporters, Venessa Wong and Cora Lewis, in April 2015.
Wong was hired to cover the food industry, having covered it previously for Bloomberg Businessweek. Some of her highlights include: Chipotle: The Definitive Oral History and There’s No Such Thing As Nacho Cheese.
“At BuzzFeed she will be covering the biggest names in the food business, and how they are responding to America’s fast-changing eating habits,” Gara said in an announcement to staffers. “Central to this will be the declining fortunes of some of the country’s biggest and most iconic companies, like McDonald’s and Coca Cola, and the rise of a new generation of food giants.”
Lewis will head up BuzzFeed’s coverage of labor, which Gara said he thinks is a hugely undercovered beat. She graduated from Yale in 2013 and previously interned for the New York Observer and the Wall Street Journal. Lewis also worked as a staff reporter for the New Haven Independent.
“The changing face of the labor market is one of the biggest and most consequential stories in America today, and what happens to American workers in the coming years will be a central story for the economy, politics and culture,” Gara said in an announcement to staffers.
He also said they recently moved a staffer over to cover the hospitality industry, which is an area he sees with lots of potential.
But Gara did note that while he would like to have reporters covering every beat possible, he understands there are some limitations, especially since he is the only editor.
“Moving forward one of the areas I’m really interested in, and we will have hire someone and probably many people in the long run but we don’t want to overrun ourselves now just because it’s a small team with only one editor, is the way that companies use their power to influence regulation and public policy, ranging from corporate lobbies in D.C. to kind of industry specific stuff, like how the energy industry influences that surrounding debate around climate change and renewable energy,” he said.
Hensley-Clancy agreed with Gara saying that expanding into more narrow niches in terms of coverage will help to give BuzzFeed business a powerful voice in its own industry.
“I see us becoming even more respected in our beats, and hopefully becoming a source for more scoops and exclusives as people come to know and respect us,” she said. “I have huge faith in Tom Gara — I think he’s the absolute best person for the job.”
So as Gara makes his morning rounds, chatting to his team about what he read that morning he is not as concerned about the future, but rather the present and how they can work together to create original content that is witty, colorful and informative.
“We have on our job app ‘no haters,’ which sounds funny and it’s a funny tagline that people make fun of, but it really is such an identifiable, tangible thing you feel every day,” he said. “It has such a collaborative environment that people are really happy to be around each other and really like each other on a general level and value humor and that sort of stuff.”
“It’s such a great team to be a part of.”
Meg Garner is a business journalism student at UNC-Chapel Hill.