I had to be away from work last week so the usual week 16 lecture in Journalism Technologies at the University of Huddersfield was delayed until week 17. It was a look at the online pure players who have shaken up digital publishing in recent years, from the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed to Breitbart and The Canary.
I kicked the lecture off by showing a large backdrop image of Grumpy Cat, one of the breakout internet stars that we might commonly associate with this breed of media company, and then following it up with a clip of Vice’s memorable fast turnaround documentary on Charlottesville from last year. The message being that while these outlets may have developed a reputation for trivial viral nonsense, they’re just as capable of investing in quality journalism in ways that more traditional media companies find it hard to match.
I included a reflection on academic Mark Deuze’s 2006 call for media companies to embrace what he described as ‘liquid journalism’, which he defined as interacting with the audience, coming up with different ways of creating journalism and embracing the fact that things change rapidly. BuzzFeed for example, which began that year, could be seen to have mastered all three of those points. But as I also noted in the lecture, the recent job cuts there demonstrate that native advertising has not proved the silver bullet to commercial success that some had hoped it might be. Whether there’s room for all of the new players in digital publishing to survive is, as ever, in question.
We’re into the second term of the academic year at the University of Huddersfield and the Journalism Technologies module resumed with the focus switching from the major online and social media platforms, to how media companies are adapting to the rapidly changing technologies which have turned their worlds upside down. Arguably the most significant impact has come on the balance sheet, with the old business models that funded journalism if not destroyed, then certainly coming under significant and sustained strain, and that was the subject of last week’s lecture.
First year university students, born at around the turn of the millennium, have grown up in the smartphone, on-demand, social media era, so I spent much of the lecture filling in a few of their blanks on how things were before. As I did, I was thinking to myself that newspaper classified ads, extended one-minute TV ads and local radio spots for double glazing all seem like media from decades ago. It’s so long since even I read, watched or heard one, trying to explain how significant they once were (and, in some cases, still are) to a room full of 18-year-olds is a bit of an odd thing to find yourself doing.
When having a go in the seminars at analysing the local newspaper’s website (ahead of a visit from the editor the week after next), this became even more clear. The ads were almost universally the bit everyone hated. Too prominent and too irrelevant, the students said, and that was just the verdict of the ones not routinely using ad blockers. When I covered this topic last year there was still some optimism that BuzzFeed’s extensive use of sponsored content might offer one way through the financial mire for under-pressure digital publishing executives. But its recent round of redundancies, and admission it is again seeking to diversify its business model yet further, suggests that making news pay is as tough now as it has ever been.
The winning entry, from the first year Broadcast Journalism students.
This week in Journalism Technologies we welcomed the second guest speaker of the term, Luke Lewis, the founding editor of BuzzFeed UK and now the company’s Head of European Growth. Luke graciously joined us by Google Hangout from London and gave students an overview of how he spearheaded BuzzFeed’s remarkable growth here since it opened in London just four years ago.
TM is particularly interested in the greater value of ads which it can sell around its videos, while the different business model of BuzzFeed favours community and sponsored content. Luke gave some valuable insight into the development of BuzzFeed’s extraordinarily successful Tasty videos, and how relatively few of the people who look at them on Facebook ever actually end up making one of the recipes (a show of hands in the room confirmed Huddersfield students back up this part of the analysis).
One point made by @lukelewis: we talk about mobile-first, but one day it could turn mobile-only, in a way we struggle to conceive of now.
It’s perhaps no surprise Tasty’s been such a hit. Luke noted that content around food, as well as sexual health, tends to do well regardless of the country, even if distribution platforms can vary (curiously, Facebook is “nowhere” in Japan). Luke also did a spot of futurology, looking ahead to a future where even conventional desktop websites gradually disappear in a mobile-only world.
Our workshops looked back at a more traditional aspect of BuzzFeed though, the listicle. We got each group to work together to make one during their sessions, then challenged them to get as many views as they could within a week.
After a couple of weeks spent examining legacy media companies and how they are adapting to digital journalism, this week’s focus in Journalism Technologies turned to the pure players in the scene: ranging from the long-established such as Yahoo and MSN, to the newer (and certainly more interesting for my audience) entrants such as BuzzFeed and The LAD Bible.
The latter is a particularly intriguing case study: not least because, in contrast to the US-dominated world of tech and media, it’s a company which emerged not just from the UK, but from the north of England. It’s also fascinating because of its popularity – it has almost as many weekly UK users as The Sun and ITV News websites, according to the latest Reuters Institute Digital Report – and the way it has pivoted in an attempt to shake off its reputation for, well, laddishness. Its hugely popular Facebook page, and accompanying website, have been virtually purged of the overtly sexist and misogynist content which were once its trademark.
The LAD Bible today. No cleavage anymore.
For fans of the genre, I must report that “Cleavage Thursday” is a thing of the past. Instead, clicking on even an old link to that ‘feature’ instead takes you straight to the very smart homepage, today being led with a story about Iraq. There’s still plenty of ladbantz going down on FB, but it’s clear The LAD Bible wants to be taken seriously now, and the display ads for well-known high street names suggest the strategy is making progress.
I turned to Mark Deuze and his notion of ‘liquid journalism’ for this week’s theoretical viewpoint. First coined a decade ago, Deuze used the term to describe the way in which journalists and media companies needed to change their ways of working, from the traditional methods to those better suited to the more fluid nature of modern society. Arguably, formats such as BuzzFeed’s listicles are an example of exactly this, which legacy publishers have sometimes struggled to match. In this week’s workshops the students have been working in groups to come up with competing lists using BuzzFeed’s Community feature, an exercise I’ve run successfully for many years with visiting school groups. I’ll see which has got the most views in time for next week’s lecture.
You can’t discuss social media for very long before you arrive at Facebook, so in a way it’s a surprise we’ve waited until five weeks into our Journalism Technologies module to get onto it. This was the lecture delivered by my colleague Caroline Pringle on Monday, focusing in particular on the development of the platform. It’s tempting to think that it’s been around forever, and for 18-year-olds it just about has, so going back and exploring how it became what it is today is really worthwhile. And, as a show of hands confirmed, not that many teenagers have seen The Social Network.
The key concept introduced was that of The Filter Bubble, a term coined by Eli Pariser – best known for his role at MoveOn.org – and explained by him in this TED talk. Roughly speaking, it describes what happens when algorithms, such as those which power Facebook’s news feed, increasingly show us only content it thinks we’re going to be interested in, based on our previous online behaviour. It’s ironic that Pariser went on to co-found Upworthy, one of a series of BuzzFeed rivals which suffered a big drop in traffic thanks to a Facebook algorithm tweak in 2014.
The workshops focused on using Facebook for practical journalistic purposes. In part, this is about finding appropriate groups and pages to like, helping to turn the news feeds of our students into ones more useful to trainee journalists. Less Unilad and more, well, everything else. The highlight though was the section on using Facebook for broadcasting, when everyone had a go at Facebook Live. Even though I reminded all the groups to set their privacy to ‘Only Me’ to avoid spamming confused family and friends, one was enjoying himself so much he let everyone in his network see his stream. “Are you sure you’re supposed to be doing this in a lesson?” wrote his mum in a comment. I can vouch for him: he was.
I’ve done the odd piece for them before using their community feature, mainly as a way of trying out the content management system so I could then use it for classroom exercises. One of mine in particular about Aberdeen did pretty well, so I was asked to do another. Hopefully I’ll do some more, too, and I’ll post them here when I do.
I gave a short talk last night at a Huddersfield Teachmeet event, hosted by Huddersfield New College. Given seven minutes I thought I’d do a PechaKucha, and it’s embedded above. It’s on the topic of using social media in the classroom, and was a brief overview of ways to potentially use tools including Instagram Video, Buzzfeed and Findery.
I was at Journalism.co.uk’s latest News Rewired conference in London last Thursday. As is often the case at these events, I learned a new word. This time it was ‘dronalism’ which I heard casually bandied around during a session on drones for news, as if it was an entirely normal thing to say.
Peter Bale from CNN demonstrated the above video of the wreck of the Costa Concordia, which they broadcast after buying it from Team BlackSheep. As cool as it undoubtedly is, I thought Bale was pleasingly candid when he said that drones would be all the rage in TV newsrooms for a while, but that things would die down when editors got tired of them and realised they only really add a dimension to certain stories.
Mobile in general was the key theme of much of the day, and several speakers mentioned the new benchmark being reported across leading news websites including BBC News – that visits from mobiles and tablets taken together have now overtaken those from desktops and laptops.
Matt Danzico of the BBC, and one of the brains behind its new Instafax service on Instagram, said it would be the template for Auntie’s offerings on all social media away from Facebook and Twitter. He pointed out that putting text on a short-form video is often a better solution for mobile than the traditional TV package mixture of clips and a voice over, because people like to watch these things in public and don’t want to send sound booming across the bus queue.
Amid all the well-received show-and-tells, the only real note of tension came whenever the issue of online copyright came up. The keynote speech from BuzzFeed’s ‘cat guy’ Jack Shepherd was smooth and mostly went down very well, the gif-based fun only draining away a touch when someone asked about whether they had the proper permissions for every single one of those images.
The same went for Hannah Waldram’s similarly enjoyable presentation on Instagram. Persistent questions from one freelancer about the company’s treatment of the metadata of the images uploaded to its app turned the mood in the room a bit sour. Waldram said that it was still an emerging debate, and someone called out: “Yes, and you’re right in the middle of it!” Only idiots go to media conferences and make predictions, so here’s mine: this is one talking point we’re going to be discussing a lot more.
We’ve had a group of A-level students from Sheffield College at the University of Huddersfield today, having a Focus Day in the Journalism and Media department. They’ve each taken part in a series of hour-long workshops on different aspects of our teaching, and I led the sessions on social media.
Thinking about how best to tackle this in such a short time, I decided to get each group to contribute to a single Buzzfeed list. Partly because it avoids the hassle of having to get everyone set up on the same social network at the start of each workshop (almost everyone was on Twitter and Facebook, but one or two said they’d left for various reasons), and partly because I thought teaching the students about how to comb YouTube and Flickr Creative Commons for material might be a useful skill they’d take away with them. And besides, I reckoned they’d all have at least seen Buzzfeed, so would quite enjoy it.
There were four groups, and here are the four lists they made. I told them to promote their own on social media over the coming week, to see which ends up with the most views (access to these analytics being one of the advantages of Buzzfeed’s Community feature, another being its dead easy CMS).
Here’s the Prezi I used to run the sessions. After a bit of a preamble about the changing media, I introduced them to Buzzfeed (most had seen the lists before through social media shares, often without realising the website itself was called Buzzfeed), got them to pick a topic and gave a brief overview of searching on YouTube and Flickr. Then after they’d found something each, I put the list together on the board with input from everyone. It seemed to go pretty well, and as an activity it fitted into an hour quite nicely.
“Is this what you actually do in lessons?” someone asked. Well, not all the time.
You’ll be familiar with Buzzfeed and its listicles, the eminently clickable posts which have helped turn the site into one of the internet’s rising stars. But you may not be aware of Buzzfeed’s Community feature, which lets anyone put together posts for the site. As a bit of an experiment yesterday, I thought I’d have a go at doing one, to see how quickly it spread.
Calling on my hazy memories of my hometown and scanning Flickr’s Creative Commons for pictures, I quickly put together 31 Signs You Grew Up In Aberdeen in what I hoped was a suitably Buzzfeed style. I tweeted it once, Facebooked it once, stuck it on the Aberdeen subreddit, and waited.
But I didn’t have to wait very long. I was soon receiving emails from Buzzfeed telling me that the views were piling up. Helpfully, I didn’t have to take their word for it, because the Buzzfeed Community pages allow you to personally check the analytics for your post, so I could see it all for myself. Within 24 hours, it had 45,000 views.
My post made it onto the front page of the UK site for a while, and the BuzzfeedUK Twitter account promoted it once too, but the analytics show that it’s been overwhelmingly spread using Facebook. About two-thirds of total views are from Facebook, and almost all the rest are either clicks on the Buzzfeed site itself or are classed as Dark Social – sharing via email, third party Twitter clients and the like. Views from Reddit are only in the dozens, although that may be because the Aberdeen subreddit is not exactly one of the busiest pages on there. Views from search engines are in even smaller numbers, so far at least.
At the risk of reading too much into one little experiment which I did for fun (seeing friends I know on Facebook sharing the post without realising who’d actually written it was certainly that), it’s been a reminder to me of the persistent power of Facebook. We in the media might snark about it, but ordinary people are still on there in large numbers. And it seems ordinary people like listicles.