This story will never go viral

Journalism is rethinking the way it distributes and presents content to hold on to readers These days, sharing articles is more important than reading them

Daniel Verdú
BuzzFeed’s newsroom in New York.
BuzzFeed’s newsroom in New York.Brendan McDermid (REUTERS)

This story will never go viral. Or perhaps it might: after all, it has one of those headlines expressly tooled to pique your curiosity and make you click. Mind you, it would have more of a chance if it consisted of a list, had a number in the headline, and was accompanied by a short but punchy video.

And for it to be shared exponentially it would need to be distributed strategically on Facebook, which with around 1.4 billion members is the largest media outlet in history. There it would compete for attention with photos from birthday parties, messages from your boss and the group for the soccer team you play for.

Virality, an old phenomenon now amplified on the internet and used with great success in marketing and political campaigns, represents the second big revolution in journalism, after the collapse of advertising. Some analysts say it is possible to measure the variables that make a story shareable, and even those that affect chemicals in the brain, such as oxytocin, which plays a key role in making us want to connect with others. But as a study on innovation published by The New York Times last year shows – which itself immediately went viral – the trick is to connect with readers’ emotions and their desire to share something that has affected them. So does virality change the way we tell things? You bet. But it also breaks other barriers such as the way newsrooms are structured, increasing collaboration between journalists, data analysts, and copywriters.

Virality changes how newsrooms are structured, increasing collaboration between journalists, data analysts and copywriters

The New York Times report highlighted the role of new players such as BuzzFeed, the internet news company set up in 2006 by Jonah Peretti specifically to test, track, and create viral content, which currently has around 200 million unique users.

Initially, companies such as BuzzFeed – many of which were also founded by former MIT Media Lab students like Peretti – focused their efforts on trial and error studies of potentially viral content. They are now increasingly moving toward journalistic content, taking advantage of their high reader volumes and income generated through advertising.

Peretti is the paradigm of this new breed of new media gurus. He had previously set up The Huffington Post with Kenneth Lerer and Arianna Huffington, leaving after it was sold to AOL for $305 million in 2005. In 2012, BuzzFeed hired Ben Smith, the senior writer at the prestigious Politico blog, as a way of providing a window for political information and hard news. Other respected journalists were subsequently hired from quality dailies such as The Guardian.

And so a new journalistic creature was born. That same year, BuzzFeed started to run exclusives, breaking stories such as John McCain’s coming out in support of Mitt Romney in the US presidential campaign. From then on there would be no more jokes about lists of cute cats and Kim Kardashian’s bottom. The quality and relevance of the stories being provided to readers speeded up the revolution, where it was no longer about clicking on articles, but about sharing them. Understanding why we share some things and not others has now become the major concern of the traditional media, prompting the creation of EL PAÍS’s Verne, BBC Trending, The Independent’s i100, and The Washington Post’s Know More.

BuzzFeed has plans to create a huge video department with studios in Hollywood

The job of these social media-focused units is to work on how to refine shareable content. “The idea is to hack into readers’ attention and compete with everything else on their desktop,” says Delia Rodríguez, the head of Verne and author of a book on how virality is changing the media. “You can’t fool readers. You have to get the format right, whether it’s reportage, a list, or infographics … They will not forgive us for wasting their time” Virality gives articles a second, third, or fourth life, she says, sometimes long after they have been published.

What’s now happening is that the traditional, quality media are increasingly looking for viral content, and have been accused of “dumbing down” in their bid to attract readers. Scott Lamb, vice president of BuzzFeed, which operates in seven distinct markets, warns that traditional media should avoid trivializing their content and instead focus on finding good stories and distributing them properly. “Newspapers need to think hard about what the reader wants. For example, The New York Times found it hard to accept the idea of using different headlines in its print and online editions because it didn’t understand that they had different readerships and served different purposes. Strategies need to be different. But the scoops and stories that change the way people see the world are always viral,” he says.

BuzzFeed, which employs around 700 people and has a team of 350 journalists, has plans to create a huge video department with studios in Hollywood. Why? Because according to CISCO Systems, by 2018, 84 percent of internet traffic will be audiovisual. Which is probably why Disney tried to buy the company in 2013 – though it ultimately balked at the $1 billion asking price.

There is no rigid structure. We are always changing, even with things that work” PlayGround’s Pau Rodríguez

The model is similar to those of others, such as Vice (which has been more focused on journalism from the beginning), Upworthy, Elite (which has just been bought by the Daily Mail for €35 million) and the companies owned by Emerson Spartz, which have around 45 million unique users, although they are more focused on content aggregation. Aside from descriptive, eye-catching headlines, lists, humor, and impactful photographs, the sites no longer use a front-page format – 80 percent of their traffic comes from social networks, which are overwhelmingly accessed via smartphones – or follow the idea that each single piece of news is in itself a link in its web of content. This can also increasingly be seen in traditional media outlets such as EL PAÍS and The New York Times. “Our success is based on understanding the data behind our product and then the choice of content. When we launch something new, we are always looking to see how it impacts on user experience. We use this data to make highly informed decisions about our next steps,” says Spartz.

In Spain, PlayGround, which now has 11.7 million unique users, started life as a music and fashion publication, but has branched out to include a wide range of topics in the hope of getting its content shared on a massive scale. Pau Rodríguez, PlayGround’s audience manager, previously worked for a chain of consumer electronics stores, helping establish its presence on the social networks. “At the structural level, what makes us different to other media is our ability to react. We work with a wide range of material. We’re able to see if we have failed immediately, and if we need to change our strategy. There is no rigid structure. We are always changing, even with things that work. We’re always trying new things out,” he says.

The publication also places a strong emphasis on distributing its content on Facebook, which provides around 70 percent of its traffic, and its relationship with the site’s constantly changing algorithms, which decide that content’s relevance. It’s a need that has spawned companies such as Adsmuria, set up by Marc Elena, which has gone from dealing with brands and political parties to media companies looking to position themselves and segment their public using Facebook’s data on their potential clients. But few media organizations have gone so far as to pay for the privilege, says Elena.

Virality can give articles a second, third, or fourth life, sometimes long after they have been published

“Depending on the story, driven by the social networks, with highly segmented advertising strategies and clearly defined targets, it is possible to achieve much greater impact. If I post a piece of news about tennis on my Facebook page, I have to wait for people to come and consume it. But if I can segment an audience that likes tennis, I multiply the success of that news. In this way, people not only consume it, but they help distribute it through the social networks,” says Elena.

The fact that a video or news item goes viral does not always mean it achieves its objectives, as shown by the Kony 2012 video that exposed the Ugandan guerrilla leader accused of kidnapping children and using them as soldiers, which was seen by millions but did not result in his capture. Furthermore, by being targeted on the basis of algorithms, we run the risk of only receiving information on topics we already know about or want to hear.

Eli Pariser, founder of Upworthy, warns in his book The Filter Bubble that personalization can separate us from information that disagrees with our viewpoints, effectively isolating us in our own cultural or ideological bubbles. According to this theory, unless you are a journalist, or work in advertising or communications, you will probably not share this article you’re now reading, or even receive it.

As The New York Times innovation survey points out: “Our daily report is deep, broad, smart and engaging – and we’ve got a huge lead over the competition. At the same time, we are falling behind in a second critical area: the art and science of getting our journalism to readers. We have always cared about the reach and impact of our work, but we haven’t done enough to crack that code in the digital era.”

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