Buzzfeed vs BBC – who will win the election

By March 27, 2015Uncategorized

A report from “Vote 2015 Journalism and Elections” the Polis Journalism Conference at the London School of Economics, Friday 27th March 2015

This was certainly one of the more lively debates at the #Polis2015 international journalism conference.

The question “BBC v Buzzfeed – Which platform will win the election?” has come to symbolise the battle between the new and the old, the traditional newspapers and broadcasters and the new kids on the block. 2015 is set to be the first fully digital general election campaign. It is of course wider than the two organisations highlighted in the title, as the chair Alistair Stewart puts it;

“It’s about mainstream versus social media.”

As you would expect, the panel reflected this, with representatives from the big beasts and the brave new world.

  • Jamie Angus – Editor, BBC Today Programme @grvlx001
  • Chris Birkett – Director, Digital Debate Campaign @inevermentionit
  • Jim Waterson – Deputy Editor, Buzzfeed UK @jimwaterson
  • Helen Lewis – Deputy Editor, New Statesman @helenlewis
  • Lucy Fisher – Political Correspondent, The Times @LOS_Fisher

Jamie Angus kicked off in robust form, quoting some impressive statistics. The day before the discussion, the BBC News website, recorded its highest number of unique users, an impressive 23million in one day.

He admitted a large part of this could be a result of Zayn Malik leaving One Direction and the tragic crash of the Germanwings aircraft in the French Alps. It does however illustrate, the amount of traffic coming to the BBC and the number of people still listening to the radio and watching the television.

He contrasted this with the ten thousand people, who watched Jim Waterson’s Buzzfeed Brews interview, with the Prime Minister on March 16th. In the numbers game, it appears the BBC still wins. Round one to the old guard. Or was it?

Jim Waterson hit straight back, saying Buzzfeed has had more than 23 million unique users in one day, several times. He also pointed out, his interview with David Cameron, should not be seen as a one-off event. It’s the number of people who engage with the story in all. The interview was re-versioned and shared across all platforms and social media, reaching a far wider audience than those who watched the live-stream. It’s a very different event to the traditional BBC interview; it’s a new way of treating political reporting.

Helen Lewis entered the fray, saying the numbers game was irrelevant. You’re not comparing like with like. Buzzfeed makes news accessible to a whole new audience. It builds a base on entertainment and puts news on top. It does however have a credibility problem. People love its great viral content, but it’s not trusted, in the same agenda setting way, as the 8.10 interview on the Today programme.

New school gets to new people – but is not trusted in the same way as the old school.

Lucy Fisher argued for the power and importance of the pure journalism, carried out by her and her colleagues at the Times and the quality press. They will do the digging and the get the old fashioned exclusive stories. People want curation as opposed to the white noise of twitter.

Jim Waterson did make clear that Buzzfeed is investing heavily in quality journalism. They have reporters in Syria and Iraq and are recruiting foreign correspondents. In the past couple of months, they have hired high profile and respected journalists, including the former Sunday Times Assistant Editor, Heidi Blake.

This is essential for their business model, as Jim explains.

“You can get 35 million hits for putting a dress on the front page and ask people what colour it is, but you don’t get the advertisers. They will only go to organisations with credibility.”

Chris Birkett represents an interesting place. Five years ago he helped to change the political campaign, through his involvement in the leaders’ debate. This year he hopes to change it again, by securing a digital leaders’ debate streamed live on social media.

He also pointed out it’s not a numbers game. It’s about setting the agenda. The leaders’ debate did that in 2010, followed by the notorious ‘bigoted woman’ story. There will no doubt be a social media moment that defines this election campaign, we don’t know what it is yet, but it will happen.

He added that we won’t be able to tell which platform had won, until the turnout was calculated. If there is a noticeable increase in the younger vote, then new media and Buzzfeed will be the victors. If this does happen then democracy will also win. On this, the whole panel agreed.

We are of course not talking about a clear fight between the old and new, social media and the mainstream. Both sides have been influenced by each other and they freely admit this.

The Today progamme has had to adapt the way it engages with the audience; social media is an essential part of all news operations. The BBC and the traditional media are not investing in digital as an obligation. It’s because platforms are changing and they need to do this to survive.

The influence of Buzzfeed has been to force the mainstream media to sharpen its storytelling and its newsgathering techniques.

The two sides are different, but they what they have done, is to force an entirely new engagement with politics – and with this election. The Times, the New Statesman and the BBC appeal to a very different audience than Buzzfeed and Vice News. This is very important because if their reporting of the campaign is successful, then this could be the most significant of a generation. Making politics engaging and appeal to a younger audience can only be good for the democratic process.

To end the discussion the panel was asked for their one prediction for the election campaign;

  • Jim Waterson – This is the election that the population will hate political journalists.
  • Helen Lewis – There will be a huge amount of anti-media, anti-London sentiment.
  • Jamie Angus – There will be many social media stories like the Emily Thornberry white van moment.
  • Lucy Fisher – This is about 650 by-elections, not the national picture.
  • Chris Birkett hopes this is the last election he sits across the table from political parties trying to negotiate and leaders’ debate.

This article first appeared on the BBC College of Journalism website.