News flash for the NYT: You and BuzzFeed aren’t that different

In the wake of the New York Times innovation report last May, which detailed some of the venerable newspaper’s digital shortcomings, one of the major changes the paper made was to appoint an “audience development” editor — someone whose job it would be to help boost the Times‘ readership online. The person who took that position, Alex MacCallum, talked with Digiday recently about how she is approaching the job, and much of what she said is eminently sensible. A couple of comments, however, set off alarm bells.

Before I go any further, I should note that MacCallum is not some web neophyte that the Times brought over from the business side to put together slideshows: she was one of the first employees of the Huffington Post, acting as the site’s news editor, and she clearly understands audience analytics. But at the same time, when asked about her job, MacCallum says she doesn’t see what the newspaper has to do as being anything like what BuzzFeed does. “It isn’t just chasing clicks,” she says.

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”The whole mission of BuzzFeed is to get people to share. That is not the mission of The New York Times. The mission of The New York Times is about the best journalism in the world and giving people accurate, timely information. I don’t think that BuzzFeed is competing in that space.”[/blockquote]

Quizzes and photos

As New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen noted in a response to this comment, you can learn a lot about people in the media based on the kinds of remarks they make about BuzzFeed. For many, the site has become synonymous with clickbait and low-quality web gimmicks like quizzes and posts like “23 Dogs That Are Disappointed In You.” Obviously, that’s not the kind of thing the New York Times does, right?

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Here’s the thing, though: If you look at the most-read items the New York Times published last year, do you see any investigative journalism or long features about important issues? No. You see a photo essay, a couple of quizzes and a travel guide. That sounds a lot more like BuzzFeed than many on staff might like to admit. If the paper’s online audience is indeed continuing to grow by 20 percent — as a recent memo from executive editor Dean Baquet says it is — then those kinds of items are partly to thank.

But the New York Times is much more than just photo essays and quizzes, you will protest. That’s true — and so is BuzzFeed. Judging BuzzFeed based on a listicle or a photo gallery is a little like judging the New York Times because it has a fashion section, or a comics section, or classifieds. Or because some of its columnists are irritating and frequently wrong. Or because it does trend stories about things that aren’t trends.

It’s not just listicles

Whether the Times likes it or not, it and BuzzFeed are in the same business, and at this point BuzzFeed is winning. It was easier to dismiss the site when it was a tiny thing run by nerds, but it has close to 1,000 staff around the world — including journalists doing serious news and political coverage in a number of foreign bureaus — and a theoretical market value of close to $1 billion. It’s not just a bunch of listicles and cat photos any more.

Buzzfeed cats

One other thing: MacCallum’s comment about how sharing is what BuzzFeed is all about, but not what the New York Times should be all about, also sets off alarm bells for me, especially when combined with what the Digiday article describes as a focus on search-engine optimization techniques — including appointing 15 editors to be what she calls “SEO ambassadors” inside the paper, to think about keywords and headlines.

I understand the difficulty of dealing with what is still a largely print-focused publication, and there’s no question that search is still important. But I think the Times would be better off if MacCallum taught editors and writers about a different kind of SEO — namely, “social engine optimization,” or an understanding of how content is affected by social platforms like Twitter and Facebook and Reddit and Instagram. Social is increasingly how people find things now, not by going to a search engine.

If I was on the audience-development team, I would be spending a lot more time looking at those platforms, and the way that new ventures like Reportedly from First Look Media or BuzzFeed are experimenting with them — by creating or distributing their content in ways that make sense for those platforms, instead of just waiting for people to realize what great journalism they have and show up at the front door.