The hard news equation, and why it matters to Buzzfeed

ciaran norrisWith Buzzfeed pushing to be recognised as a news site Ciaran Norris looks at why it matters for new online media outlets to be seen as serious. 

Every morning on its News Breakfast show the ABC runs through the major stories on the front pages of the day’s newspapers, covering everything from the Sydney Morning Herald to The Age, the Daily Telegraph to The Mercury. But it has also, for some time, included the homepage of the Australian version of The Guardian which differs from the rest of the organisations included because it has no printed version.Whilst the idea that an organisation shouldn’t have to print words on to paper to be considered a news publisher isn’t exactly a radical one, it does raise some interesting questions about what does qualify as news media, who decides what qualifies and whether it matters.

Nielsen obviously agrees with the ABC that The Guardian counts as news media as it ranks the site in amongst other news organisations. However, Nielsen also categorises the local version of the Mail Online as a news site though the ABC doesn’t feature it. Something that both the ABC and Nielsen do appear to agree on though is that Buzzfeed isn’t a news organisation.

Earlier this year Buzzfeed questioned its categorisation by Nielsen; rather than being listed as a news site it is listed in the “search engines, portals and communities” category. Simon Crerar, Buzzfeed Australia’s editor, was quoted by Mumbrella as saying:

We consider ourselves a news and entertainment company in the same way that NineMSN, News.com.au and the Mail Online have a mix between hard news and entertainment content. That is very much what we do too.

Crerar suggested that if Buzzfeed had been so categorised, it would have featured in the top ten news sites, alongside both The Guardian and Mail Online. As to why he would want to be considered a news outlet, The Australian suggested it might be so that Buzzfeed could charge higher advertising rates.

Whilst it may once have been true that publishers could charge a premium because they reported news (presumably in the days when news could be easily classified), those days have mostly passed. In reality “news”, whether on TV or in print, was simply a vehicle that could be more or less guaranteed to deliver consistently large audiences, and prices were set accordingly; the audiences held the value, not the type of content they happened to be consuming, but because the products or programmes were the best proxies for those audiences, they commanded the big dollars.

However, this is no longer the case. The scale of the audiences that can be found on sites such as Facebook or YouTube dwarf any traditional media outlet, whilst premiums are now more likely to be paid for integration, context and data.

Why then do we continue to argue about what does or doesn’t constitute a news organisation?

Maybe it’s because the best of these actually set the news agenda, rather than just reporting it. The concept of “agenda setting” goes back to research in the US from 1968, but it has been proven on numerous occasions since, perhaps most recently when an editorial in the New York Times calling for the legalisation of marijuana in the US led to a huge amount of coverage for an opinion which isn’t really that surprising.

There’s a compelling argument that this is because of the New York Times’ authority. But with Buzzfeed recently announcing that it has raised $50m in funding, which it plans to spend on enhancing its news offering amongst other things, having also recently announced that it would be creating a new, separate app for its ‘hard news’, it will be interesting to see whether such authority remains the preserve of the old guard.

You can already see pillars of traditional media companies striking out at what they view to be unworthy comparisons with digital peers but as analyst turned one-man publishing company Ben Thompson pointed out:

• Mainstream media has long made the vast majority of its money on Buzzfeed-like content. Think the style section, real estate, entertainment, etc. The news sections provided legitimacy for the publication as a whole, but were money-losers on their own.

• It turns out Buzzfeed is almost certainly exactly the same! Buzzfeed drives tremendous engagement for advertisers with their native advertising in particular, but Buzzfeed cannot charge rates anywhere close to, say,nytimes.com even if the actual content being advertised against isn’t that different. It turns out that branding matters to advertisers as well. And so, the push to legitimize Buzzfeed.

Where this leaves us all is still unclear, though we do know that someone needs to pay for this content, though we can’t agree in what form that payment should come.

But it is this last example, that really makes the point – Ben Thompson hasn’t only been blogging for a few years, but I now choose to pay to receive the content he writes (it’s why you will need to subscribe to read the article that quotes are taken from). To me, it’s as valuable as the opinion and analysis to be found in the New York Times, AFR or Economist to name but a few.

And what this really tells us is that the only people who will end up defining “what is news” are those who choose to read, watch or listen to it.

Ciaran Norris is chief digital officer at Mindshare


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