A pitch for a new rhetoric: Is BuzzFeed a solution?

This is an article written for my linguistic class at the University of Missouri. Jack Fuller, a former editor of the Chicago Tribune has said journalists are leaving their audiences behind as they continue onto their quest for entertainment and information on the internet.

Providing meaningful news, in a way that readers are interested in it and retain the information begs for a new rhetoric. The way news will be written as the digital medium continues to evolve remains to be seen but here are a few ideas:

By Paige Blankenbuehler

The audience is changing and for better or worse, journalists must follow them on the same path if we ever hope to serve them. It’s important though, not to blindly follow but to guide. Doing this though, must not alienate the audience and leave them behind. We’re straddling a fragile line but a balance between capturing attention and providing eye-opening and educational news that will help improve people is more important than ever. This paradox doesn’t make a solution any more apparent. Scholars have long lingered and longed for where that balance may be found. There’s no denying though, that news needs a new rhetoric.

Much of the audience’s attention is online — a great portion on Facebook or Twitter. The headlines that are posted there extend news morsels for an insatiable and wildly picky audience in the slim hopes that they will take a bite. Some links do manage to capture the attention of the digital audience though, taking them from their social networks to the websites of certain publications. As Jack Fuller asserts at the end of What’s Happening to News: The Information Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism, “We have to take the audience as it is, not as we wish it to be.”

Buzzfeed has captured a large audience for its user-friendly list format stories. Their format yields itself to what the digital reader is looking for: something that will entertain them that they can scan through quickly and that will relate to their lives.  The BuzzFeed story model is not word-heavy, it’s bulleted and pictures, GIFs and visuals are paired with it, scratching the emotional itch of the reader. Could this platform be the new place for delivering news with more of a bite? It should be noted however, that BuzzFeed news stories have significantly more words than their click-happy list stories.

Could Buzzfeed adequately deliver hard news, breaking news, and community news in a way that satisfies journalistic values? There are some signs that point to yes, but it’s an argument that doesn’t exactly convince. Would doing it be selling out? It’s now more than ever that journalists and astute publications need to step back and take a good look at their wiring and drop the ego. But it is our place, is it not, to provide what people need? Will people want it if we deliver it in a way they want? I can’t see how this could be a bad thing. Gimmicky headlines and a little bit of snarky delivery could go far enough in giving the masses the news they need and BuzzFeed isn’t far from hitting that ball out of the park.

Recent Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hamby (and Mizzou J-School alum) recently joined the investigative team at BuzzFeed. Interesting choice. Let’s investigate: BuzzFeed has a breaking news sections. But how many people are turning to BuzzFeed for breaking news? How many people even care about breaking news anymore? The younger generations are less inclined to search for it, instead they must be bombarded with it through Facebook, Twitter and other places that are stealing their time away from the newspaper’s digital edition, printed edition .. radio, television… it’s all being eclipsed by more exciting, gratifying uses on the internet. But more than many other news stories done by the Associate Press, The New York Times and other astute publications, BuzzFeed is always there, putting in their two-cents on an issue. The lists might be silly but they get into the emotional center of the reader and provide a piece of the cultural conversation. BuzzFeed stories lend themselves to defining a generation and identifying with the pieces of life that the younger generations (the readers of news in the digital age!) find funny, sad, nostalgic and important. It’s certainly true that BuzzFeed is one of the few things that I see over and over again on the feed in my social network. I don’t even “like” BuzzFeed on Facebook, so all of the content is being put in front of me directly by my peers viewing it and sharing it. In the digital landscape, news consumers that share articles are going to be the ticket to success. If no one is sharing your work across social media, it’s very likely that not many people are ever going to see the work produced.

Journalists shouldn’t follow blindly into the digital world of cat pictures and empty news. To do so would be the start of a cyclical nightmare: The worse the audience becomes, the worse the media that follows closely behind will become to capture their attention. Breaking news and investigative journalism could be the digital age’s biggest victim. Fuller is correct that the industry needs a rhetoric change but some of the core values of journalism must be maintained.

Ah, the struggle, the paradox, that we all face. What we want, what they want and what’s best. It’s impossible to have something be the way it should but the bar in journalism must remain high if we’re to serve an increasingly detached audience. The more their eyes peer into their computer screens, the more we’re risking losing touch with them. We need to be where they are and we need to satisfy their needs. If news becomes completely lost, will there still be a longing for it? An urge to join humanity and history in the current events of their present generations gives people a concrete identity they need.

 

The power of the info-graphic and other suggestions

Some new rhetorical devices are already being widely used by legacy media and new digital media alike. Take the “Depth of the Problem” by the Washington Post. The story, describing the possible location of the M-370 Malaysian plane wreckage, did so by showing the depth of the Indian Ocean relative to how far people have been able to dive, the depths at which the deepest diving mammals can reach, the depth at which the Titanic was found 73 years after it sank in 1912 and how far down the last of the pings from the black boxes on the plane were detected. This was all accomplished and expertly told in a compelling and memorable way — with not a single word. The graphic, kept the reader scrolling. Down, down, down to the depths of the ocean. It makes the whole situation and widely-covered story easier to come to terms with. All I could say was “Wow.”

What about a virtual game on the homepage of a community daily newspaper as a way to dispense the news of the day to your audience? An interactive game with the basic, user-friendly appeal of Pac-man, but something that would pop out information that the reader could use throughout the day, could solve the problem of reader retention on a news website. A virtual game, on the computer to start someone’s day could be better than a cup of coffee and more helpful to a person trying to get a quick synopsis of the day’s news than browsing through Facebook or Twitter on the way to work.  Still, this would be asking the readers to take time away from their normal routine to immerse themselves in a game.

John Stewart on the Daily Show, though he doesn’t really consider himself to be a journalist (nor do any of the journalists in the industry consider him to be the spitting image of a journalist) but much of the audience does and that’s really, at the end of the day, the only thing that matters. If this is news in the eyes of the viewer, then we must provide it in a way they appreciate (perhaps with a little less sarcasm). One thing that The Daily Show has over any other news publication, and this applies to most late-night programming that provides a slant on the day’s news is that they have the final say. The news of the day is out and the daily grinds by all of the news publications have put various slants on it. The Daily Show comes on late in the news cycle and has the opportunity to have taken a step back and look at the news… and more or less, put their final stamp on it. What’s said last, may be the highest regarded when it comes to the delivery of news.

News that readily available (top of mind) has sway, news that confirms existing biases of the brain, too, will be more influential than a mid-day news report that doesn’t confirm a preexisting notion of the consumer. But I think the final say, that the Daily Show has, also does something to our brains and the way we digest the news of the day.  Often BuzzFeed has the luxury of taking a step back, to evaluate the news and put their spin on it. Since the articles are shared so widely across social media, often the platform is what sticks in a reader’s mind.

BuzzFeed does a great job at kneeling down and getting to the reader’s level. The way the information is dispensed, through listed format with information communicated quickly through limited text and visual components, captures the news consumer’s continuous partial attention. As Fuller so often says in his book, the attention is the prize.

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