As digital media grows up, will profitability follow?

If you’re looking for a sign that online journalism is maturing, consider this: BuzzFeed is hiring copy editors.

In a lengthy feature for the Columbia Journalism Review, the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher examines how traditional and pure-play digital newsrooms are rebalancing the need for speed with the need for accuracy. He describes how digital upstarts like BuzzFeed are trying to add more checks and balances to their editorial process.

BuzzFeed has decided it’s no longer good enough to fix errors after publication, at least not on its most popular posts. They’ve decided it makes good journalism and business sense to assure readers that their posts are true, so BuzzFeed is embracing the ultimate symbol of the overstuffed print newsrooms of the pre-digital past.

BuzzFeed Deputy Editor-in-Chief Shani Hilton has built a three-person copy desk with more hires in the works. “I charged myself with bringing more old-school DNA to this place,” she told CJR.

[Hilton] tells skeptical producers that content can be checked and polished without unduly slowing the machine. “They have to feel like they’re not being held up or we won’t succeed,” she says.

Copy editors now review anything on BuzzFeed’s top 10 list—a palpable sign that larger audiences create more responsibility and caution. “If something’s going viral, we want it to be correct,” Hilton says. “But there are people here who don’t think of themselves as journalists, so it’s a learning process.”

Fisher suggests a subtle shift taking place, as legacy brands try to become more nimble and digital pstarts try to become more credible.

As the lines between old and new increasingly blur, are the two schools of journalism’s core values blending into a hybrid? … Despite utopian rhetoric about the Web as a self-correcting mechanism, getting things right from the start turns out to have considerable value.

Fisher focuses on accuracy in journalism, but more broadly it’s a continuation of the argument around quality vs. quantity. With the digital media ecosystem devolving into an endless stream of aggregated, curated, recycled dreck, many pure-play digital brands are realizing that the best way to differentiate is through quality, original content.

Legacy publishers have always believed this to be true – but unfortunately, many of their business models no longer support investments in quality journalism. The reason: Too many still equate quality with print, which is why it’s so hard to break out of the downward spiral they find themselves in as the legacy business crumbles beneath them.

The key to creating a high-quality – and profitable – media brand lies in melding the principles of good journalism with the efficiencies of digital distribution and the value added through visual, interactive storytelling.

Economist-Essay-Democracy

That’s why legacy brands such as The Economist are changing the way they develop long-form essays, embracing a digital-first model that operates beyond what Journalism.co.uk calls “the constraints of print.”

One of the key features of the Essays feature style is that the multimedia and interactive elements are part of the strategy and planning from the start. … When Essays are built, such content will be “baked-in from the beginning,” supported by a team – consisting of the writer, and multimedia, design, interactive and user experience team members – working collaboratively throughout the production.

Digital pure-plays such as BuzzFeed are addressing the challenge from the opposite direction: by adding editorial depth to their traditional listicles and other bite-sized media that fueled their early meteoric growth. BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith offered some insight into the site’s long-form strategy earlier this year in a post on Medium:

Online, each story is at best its own magazine, sent out to find its own temporary audience. One article may absorb people who subscribe, or would once have subscribed, to Foreign Affairs; another might absorb devotees of Wired or Men’s Health or Glamour. The author and the story choose their audience, and the editor’s role is to begin the conversation over who will read and share the piece — not to rework it for the group of people who happen to subscribe to your magazine.

This is a wonderful insight on how long-form journalism is evolving. One can only hope that, as the pendulum shifts from quantity to quality, sustainable business models will follow. It’s good to see digital media growing up – but we still have a long way to go.

BuzzFeed BuzzReads

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