Breaking News Is Broken; Could Buzzfeed Be the One to Fix It?

The social news site is figuring out ways to bring "breaking news" and "social news" together (cat GIFs optional).
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Screen Shot 2013-04-25 at 12.51.44 PM.pngThe headlines summed it up, or tried to: "Major breaking news errors." "The brokenness of breaking news." "Breaking news is broken."

And, yep: Last week's big breaking news story brought, as it always does, a long string of misinformation that was spread and then amplified by the media. The running man. The Reddit bomber hunts. The police scanners that were connected, via human interfaces, to Twitter. We were awash in data, but had, at first, very few ways to convert it into knowledge.

This, says Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed, was not new. "There was this illusion pre-Twitter that news wasn't messy," he told me. But breaking news on any platform, he notes, has always been messy. And dealing with the chaos -- ordering it, prioritizing it, deciding what to emphasize and what to underplay -- is part of what it means to be a news organization, particularly in a real-time news environment like the one the web has given us. Buzzfeed, home of cats and corgis and 26 Reasons Kids Are Pretty Much Just Tiny Drunk Adults, was one of the outlets engaging in that real-time Swiffery last week. Buzzfeed's visits, like those of many other news sites, spiked as people in the U.S. and abroad hungrily sought news about the bombings and their perpetrators. "We had people coming to us in a new way to see what was going on," Smith says. And while it wasn't the first time Buzzfeed found people turning toward it as a source for breaking news -- the site has found again and again, Smith says, that people flock to it during big, breaking-news events -- "I was really proud of our coverage, and we learned a lot from it."

Today, Buzzfeed is taking a step to advance that learning, and to make breaking news an even more integral -- and even more deliberate -- aspect of its approach to social news. The outfit is bringing on a News Director who will manage its breaking-news coverage on a day-to-day (and, if situations call for it, night-to-night) basis. To fill the role, Buzzfeed has made yet another big hire from The New York Times: Lisa Tozzi, an editor on the paper's news desk. Tozzi, Smith says, is that Buzzfeed-ideal combination of hard-boiled news reporter ("she's covered murders," he points out) and savvy social-media user. She is also, to extrapolate from Buzzfeed's News Director job description, "an experienced, fast, obsessive, and Twitter-savvy player-coach."

At Buzzfeed, starting mid-May, Tozzi will supervise a team of ten reporters. Her role, though it's new and still somewhat to-be-determined, will be to oversee a mix of what Smith calls "straight-ahead news stories" and more image-focused, list-friendly, generally Buzzfeed-y fare. Though Tozzi will assign and write stories, her job will also be strategic: to figure out how best to use social platforms as both reporting and delivery tools, and to determine Buzzfeed's particular role to play in an environment where news is fast and furious and, at first, not always factual. "A big story breaks, and there's a kind of puzzle before you," Tozzi puts it. "You're trying to figure out how all these pieces fit together."

While Buzzfeed isn't looking to develop, necessarily, a set of guidelines for how to do that kind of informational ordering -- "it's not like there's a clear handbook on this," Smith points out -- part of Tozzi's role will be to develop a sense of how to approach breaking news in a way that is comprehensive and clear at the same time. And it will be to act as a kind of curator of all the information, good and bad, that flows alongside fast-moving news stories. ("Things just come flying at readers," Tozzi says, "and the real service is to break all that stuff down for people and sort out facts from fiction in real time." Or, as Smith puts it: "Readers are really hungry for us to debunk things that aren't true.") 

For Buzzfeed, that might mean doing lists of Mind-Blowing Conspiracy Theories About the Boston Bombers. It might mean taking specific rumors that have gained traction on the social web and putting them into context. It might mean creating liveblogs that draw in tweets and videos and images and other items. It might mean developing new templates -- mental, for reporters, and actual, for readers -- for presenting information that is at once highly volatile and the first rough draft of history.

"I do believe," Tozzi says, "that there's a new model that's waiting to be discovered for how to present live information."

Breaking news has long been part of Buzzfeed's DNA (it describes itself as embodying "a pioneering mix of breaking news, entertainment, and shareable content"); the idea that one staffer would be dedicated to it, though, was a product of evolution. "It took us a little while to figure out how breaking news works on the social web and how it travels," Smith says. Now that it's doubling down on breaking news, Buzzfeed will have the challenge and the opportunity that every startup does: It isn't weighed down by institutional history. It can -- and in some sense it has to -- invent new approaches to breaking news. And one way it will do that is to take a slightly meta view of what a "breaking news story" is in the first place. The 5 W's -- a Buzzfeed-y list if ever there was one -- may work for wire services, but they're not enough for an organization that puts itself so implicitly in dialogue with the social web. "You have to be really transparent," Smith says. "The information is part of the story now in a way that it didn't use to be."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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