Back in June, that doyen of business reporting, Robert Peston, gave the Charles Wheeler Memorial Lecture at the University of Westminster.
He spent some of his time sticking a couple of well-manicured fingers up at Buzzfeed, the hugely successful content stream business which relies significantly on Listicles (lists of bitesize nuggets) and animated GIFs. He says, “In a commercial world where hits mean money, it is legitimate to fear that difficult journalism will increasingly be squeezed out by massively popular stories…”
Peston may be right – but he’s horribly wrong to have Buzzfeed in his sights. For starters Buzzfeed has published some exceptional, well-researched, in-depth longform journalism; most recently on the Palestine situation, for example.
Second, unlike the many other clickbait merchants (“This man parked his car… what happened next will AMAZE you” etc. etc.), Buzzfeed’s offering is sufficiently nuanced that it has a very definable opinion and stance – just like Britain’s traditional media. Buzzfeed is libertarian, youthful, and pragmatically left-leaning. You would be hard pushed to identify these personality traits in beg-for-click sites.
Then there’s the fact that Peston is confusing method and message. We do now live in a media-saturated world, in which there is greater competition for a dwindling degree of attention. But the success of sites like Medium prove that there is ample appetite for longform content.
The issue is not length, it is the method of delivery.
Again, Buzzfeed actually leads the way, successfully prototyping and developing new forms of content. They have recently launched an intriguing ‘image slider’ mode, in which two images can be compared. Here at Wells Park, we have produced listicles for our corporate clients, and we do so because we know they work. No doubt, we will get calls for image sliders soon, too.
Listicles and image sliders work because they get a message across effectively. This does not preclude them from having any depth. It does not preclude them from delivering a narrative – even a complex and challenging narrative.
The best writers and communicators make the most of the tools at their disposal, and traditional journalism is not weaker for having more tools in the kit. My dear friend Ben Heubl, for example is at the cutting edge of using powerful visualisations to make previously boring and inaccessible data attractive and comprehensible. Writing is getting ever more exciting – Mr Peston needs to enjoy the Buzz.