Tech // Media

BuzzFeed and the business of empathy

A focus on social connection could either launch a new style of news company, or discredit the profession of serious journalism.

When BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti is hiring the next great listicle or native content writer, he is looking for something surprising: emotional intelligence. Media-makers, from his perspective, are in the business of empathy, working to trade and facilitate social connection.

Speaking at City Recital Hall as a part of Vivid’s Game Changer series, a title that Peretti has undoubtedly earned since launching the experimental media company in 2006, the tech visionary explored his interest in the viral entertainment that BuzzFeed has become known for. But BuzzFeed has no interest in being an entertainment company alone, self-describing as “the leading independent digital media company.”

In 2011 BuzzFeed hired accomplished political journalist Ben Smith as editor-in-chief to launch the company into the news business. But in an industry traditionally dominated by more established news companies, where does Peretti’s business of empathy fit in?

To inspire a social connection, news content must be manipulated for that purpose, whether that is playing upon the joy, sadness, humour, or identity of consumers. This is the model that Peretti has found most effective in creating viral content. He admits that a post’s viral potential is unrelated to its quality, and that some of the most important and uncomfortable news stories stagnate because they are not sharable.

On the other hand, stories that are sharable but not necessarily newsworthy go viral all the time. The latest comments by Margaret Court have exploded worldwide, with calls to boycott the stadium named in her honour, because of her stance against  same sex marriage. In reality, it is a story about a former celebrity who has been out of the spotlight for many years, with very personal — and kind of unsurprising — views that have little ramification on the world around her.  The controversy has made headlines around the world because it struck a chord with audiences, despite not being newsworthy in the traditional sense of the word.

Similar issues surrounding the legitimacy of news stories have led to a lot of criticism surrounding websites like BuzzFeed. One Honi reader described BuzzFeed as “a disease” that is “lowering the bar for journalism”, largely due to their thinly veiled native content and advertorials.

The trade of social connection is a profitable industry. Each like, share, tweet, snap, or Insta that BuzzFeed consumers share as an expression of self creates valuable data for advertisers, who pay big bucks for native content articles. Perhaps, what we don’t want to admit is that advertorial reporting can be of the same quality as any editorial article. A good example is The New York Times’ article on women’s prisons, which was sponsored by Netflix for the release of Orange is the New Black.  But many consumers take issue with the trickery of disguising advertisements as articles, and with BuzzFeed masquerading as a news company when, in many ways, its content could be described as ads.

That is why trust is BuzzFeed’s next challenge. In many cases, it is hard for consumers to trust a relatively new site — best known for its cute cat videos and advertising strategies — on serious issues. Legacy newspapers have spent, in some cases, hundreds of years building up the credibility and trustworthiness that means will readers turn to them for the latest news. Despite that, Australians’ trust in the media is estimated to have dropped 14 per cent in the last year alone.

Is the solution, then, to ditch the rules like BuzzFeed, and join the infotainment revolution? BuzzFeed’s focus on social connection and their business of empathy could either launch a new style of news company, or discredit the profession of serious journalism. Trust is difficult to measure, and in the current political and media climate, perhaps consumers have become so disillusioned with traditional news that they don’t mind a bit of clickbait if it means content is tailored to their social experience. All that is clear so far is that in the culture war between print and digital media, companies like BuzzFeed seem to be winning.