There is an untoppable introduction of Stacy-Marie Ishmael already on the Internet – so we won’t even try. She’s a „Soon-To-Be Media Mogul“ it read, and managing editor for mobile news of BuzzFeed. How is Journalism working in a company that made it big with listicles and cat pictures?
Stacy-Marie Ishmael is way funnier than you might guess about a true media mogul. Oftentimes during the interview, she’s laughing out loud, always proving her enthusiasm about the inner workings of a surprisingly big company that, up to this day, a lot of people do not really understand. We talked about why BuzzFeed is way more serious business than the still existing doubters would have you think and why it got involved with building an app providing hard news to a young audience.
Let’s start easy, with a definition. How do you explain BuzzFeed to someone at a Dinner party?
BuzzFeed is a global media organization.
Which is already probably a very different explanation from what many people would say about a brand that rose to fame with Ryan Gosling and cat pictures. Now you have this serious news unit, which may in the future be run independently, but still is surprisingly big: How many people within that global ecosystem are working on news right now?
It’s a couple of hundred people with reporters and editors in lots of different countries. We have a news team in Paris, the biggest non-US news team is in London. We’ve got a news team in Berlin, Sydney and I’m definitely forgetting countries. In the US, we have offices in L.A., New York and D.C.
A lot of your job has to do with the news app, which was released June 2015. That was already a time where a lot of publishers became hesitant to build one. The idea is that people don’t want to learn an app anymore.
I think by 2013/2014,
BuzzFeed had figured out social. We still have. We have a very strong social presence and we’re getting a lot of organic traffic through our mobile web. But in an app, there’s a lot that you can do underneath, that you just can’t do on mobile web browsers and you still can’t on social. So it was a natural combination of: „How do you have an excellent owned and operated experience, that delivers a fantastic user experience, that you can learn from, that you get data from, that you can experience with, in ways that you can’t on any of the other platforms that you’ve already figured out?“
How does the news app make money?
All of our deals are very custom. When we launched, we had a deal with
, so we had different kind of ad units in there. They were native in the sense that the The Daily Show with Trevor Noah BuzzFeed creative team created these posts on behalf of Comedy Central. But we are working on other partnerships, which will be slightly more traditional. When you’re launching the app, there’s going to be a Sponsor-screen and it will be „Brought to you by“.
You’re approaching the news operation in a pretty traditional tone, not as loud as BuzzFeed oftentimes is known for. What’s the philosophy behind the content and the tonality of it?
If you take notifications for example, we write all of them so that you never have, what we call „News FOMO“, Fear of Missing Out. We always tell you what the news is. We don’t write our notifications that you have to tap through to read the story, to get the news. That is very true to the overall
BuzzFeed philosophy. People are always saying: „Oh, BuzzFeed does Clickbait.“ That’s not true. BuzzFeed does headlines that beat you over the head with what the story is. We always tell you exactly what the story is in the headline. There was one yesterday. „This picture of Chris Hemsworth with his twins will melt your heart“ and I was like, „OK, in this article, Chris Hemsworth will be with his twins…“ We write our news headlines in a very similar way, because the idea is, that we don’t believe in „Bait and Switch“. It’s always: „These are the facts and this is the thing.“
Let’s get back to the News FOMO thing, because the app tells me „This is how much you have to care about the news and then you’re fine for now“. It gives me three top stories, then some more. It also tells me how long ago it was updated. And it says at the bottom: „You’re all caught up for the day.“ When did you decide to add these features and why?
That was a decision already at launch. I don’t like infinite scroll in news, because it’s a very frustrating experience. People are generally reading news to solve a problem. They are reading news because they want to know more about something they heard about. Or they are reading news because they need to be informed about the world. And if you take an approach of infinite scroll, you tell the user „You’ll never know everything you need to know.“ – And I see that as a failure of editing. We’re trying to develop this trust, that if you believe in us as good editors, then we are not going to let you down. We are going to tell you „These are the three most important stories and here’s the context for these stories.“ If you then would have to go into a meeting and somebody’s like „What are the things happening in the world?“, you could have a very fluent conversation.
Another trend I hear many people raving about is individualization, especially of the homepage, in a way that my New York Times homepage will be showing me more and more videos if I click on them more often than the average user.
People have said for a very long time that what they want is personalization, which is never actually true. It’s not true on either side. The thing that news organizations are good at is deciding what’s important. The thing that people are terrible at is knowing what they are actually interested in. Or, no, differently: They know, what they are interested in, but they lie about it. People will say: „I only want to read really important news stories!“ And then what they actually read (smirks, bursts into laughter)… is Amber Heard and Johnny Depp.
Also, there are risks inherent on both sides of the system, where you can overindex on giving somebody only the kinds of stories which then they tap through to – which then gives you a supernarrow view of the world that never introduces somebody to anything else outside of what they have explicitly expressed as a preference. Or you get to a point where you deliver so general, that it’s relevant to nobody. What we’re trying to do is to avoid either of those by making editorial decisions that are informed by data about what our audiences are doing but that are overlaid with editorial judgment. That, I think, is a much more effective solution for what we’re trying to do.
How did this affect the design of the app?
We’ve tested this in lots of ways in the
news app. The news app has no menus. You can’t be like „Give me more Tech News“. When we launched, we thought that people would freak out and be like „Why can’t I get 53,000 more Politics stories???“ But the volume of feedback that we get about that is very, very low. Every now and then a person writes in and says: „I wish, I didn’t have to see any story about LGBT rights!“ – it’s always LGBT rights, cause people are terrible. Where we do a lot of personalization is notifications, because we think, notifications are a much more intrusive experience and that you should tell us explicitly what you’re interested in us blowing up your phone with.
Was there ever a plateau in Usage or Download numbers and what did you do against that?
Downloads are extremely cyclical. They are driven by things like promoting the app on our homepage, being featured in the
App Store or in Google Play or BuzzFeed being in the news a lot. So there are levers that you have control over, like your own Marketing. There are Gods that you pray to, like Google and Apple. And then there are news events that you don’t have any control over at all.
What’s your actual role in this then? The last title I read was „Managing Editor of Mobile“. What is that?
It’s still my title. My job has a few different elements that can be divided into Process Management, People Management, Product Management and News Management, or pure „News Direction/Editing Decisions“.
The people management part is you have direct reports, you’re working with other teams, you’re making sure that what your team is doing is aligned with the organizational priorities. What is Jonah’s vision for
BuzzFeed? What is Ben’s vision for news? The change management part is mobile right now. I don’t think mobile is new, but it’s actually getting harder. How quickly you have to adapt it, geometrically progresses every single day – say Facebook shuts down Notify, or whatever. Staying on top of what is happening, making decisions how and whether we need to react to what is happening is a really important part of my job. The Process Management is about how you take those people and those ideas and systematize them into ways of working that are both easy and efficient. When you are trying to get people to do different things, the worst thing you can do is to make it hard. So for example, now you actually see a tiny phone preview first.
What’s the purpose of the preview? To see what fits on one screen without scrolling?
It’s not even just that. Most journalists are creating stories on large monitors and designers and photo editors have Thunderbolt monitors and they are thinking about beautiful desktop experiences and they are not necessarily thinking about: „How does this story, this photo gallery, this interactive or this list look on a single screen? Most days, I try not to use my laptop. I try to do as much as possible for my job just from my phone, because it gives me more empathy for how our audiences are interacting with our stuff. We know that more than half of the people who come to
BuzzFeed are on some kind of smartphone. That means the vast majority of people who’ll ever read that story are on a smartphone. If it doesn’t work that well for them, your story doesn’t exist.
Let’s get back to the company’s philosophy, back to roles, responsibilities and titles. Would you think, there’s something specifically fluid about these concepts at BuzzFeed?
You know, titles are a way of defining what you think you should be doing. But sometimes, what you think you should be doing changes weekly. That’s just the rate of change in a lot of jobs, we’ve done. Most of the jobs that I’ve done didn’t exist before I did them. Couple of years ago: What was a Social Media editor? 6 months ago: What was a
Whenever I see people from BuzzFeed sitting on panels, they talk a lot about how teams come and work together. It’s usually cross-departmental and often the groups are mixed up. Is that something that this company has figured out better than others?
Whenever I’m building a team, I’m intensely collaborative across departments, because it’s the only way to get things done. I have a particular bias to that. You cannot survive if you work in silos. One of the best people I ever worked with, Gillian Tett, who is the FT US managing editor, wrote an entire
book about how silos destroy companies and teams and countries.
Text and translation: Christian Fahrenbach
Photos: Sari Goodfriend