After working for the Sunday Times as assistant editor and in the Insights Team, Heidi Blake made the radical decision to leave the traditional newspaper world, joining Buzzfeed as UK investigations editor in January 2015. Investigative journalism stories typically hang well from the reputation of a mainstream news title; Buzzfeed is a different animal.
Heidi has a well-known reputation in journalism for being behind some of the biggest investigative stories of the 21st Century; including the award-winning story into the alleged bribery to Qatar to win the 2022 World Cup (AKA. Fifa Files). Therefore her move to Buzzfeed, the infamously listical ‘social news and entertainment company’, did cause surprise in the industry; a well-known ‘traditional’ journalist moving to a new form of social media news website.
— Dylan T. Williams (@dylanski) September 16, 2015
From the very start of her talk at Social Media Week London, it was clear that part of Heidi’s decision to move from the Sunday Times was due to their corporate decision to launch the paywall. As soon as the paid-for barrier was raised in 2010, it became much harder to draw people to the website, with the newspaper frequently losing out to social media sharing opportunities. So despite her award-winning Fifa Files story, competitors frequently gained more traction online.
Reading between the lines of her talk, clearly many journalists at the Sunday Times were concerned by the paywall decision. There was no doubt the newspaper was losing power to its competitors on social media, which really made the reputation of the Sunday Times’ name ineffective; nobody knows your article exists.
At the same time Buzzfeed was making a lot of money from social advertising but wanted to reinvest in hard hitting journalism; Heidi was the clear choice. The remit was the same as a newspaper, to see heads roll and a positive impact to society. Proper investigative journalism should be about bodies found and money stolen, and Buzzfeed can help frame those stories to make an impact.
Okay, clearly there were a few jokes about Heidi’s job becoming the master of Buzzfeed post-style lists. Heck, why not? The format of writing a story about “The top 50 bribes for the 2022 World Cup” may actually gain more traction than a long-form broadsheet article. It’s already working, the Buzzfeed investigations team’s post “15 Insane Confessions of a Buckingham Palace Guard” went viral on social media.
Integrating social media into investigative stories has been critical. Traditional newspapers could almost be likened to dictators, as it’s the editor who has the final say. Unlike Buzzfeed where people’s feedback on social media has democratised the news process; an online audience curates and stories can be targeted at different social media communities.
To an extent this allows Buzzfeed to guide it’s ethical decisions too, the guiding philosophy for Buzzfeed is to not be a barrier to information. If others are publishing sensitive photos that have already gone viral online, Buzzfeed may as well publish too.
Even in terms of investigating, it’s now possible to geo-lock social media searches to spot keyword related phrases that are linked with a current investigation. Incredibly useful for monitoring what staff of an organisation might be writing about on social media; it immediately provides a first-hand account. LinkedIn is another obvious choice, as the social network allows investigators to search vertically across typically difficult to navigate organisational structures.
Whether Buzzfeed can fulfil it’s aim to become the defining media company of the 21st Century remains to be seen.