BuzzFeed today will announce a pair of additions to its foreign reporting staff, continuing a build-out that started in mid-2013. Coming aboard the massively trafficked digital news operation will be Ali Watkins, a Huffington Post reporter who will work the national security beat for BuzzFeed out of its D.C. bureau; and the Guardian’s Monica Mark, who’ll be based in Senegal.
“Foreign coverage and investigative journalism, which are overlapping categories, have been integral in the context of a strong business. It’s a healthy key to a large editorial operation,” BuzzFeed Editor Ben Smith told the Erik Wemple Blog today. Watkins shared a finalist designation in Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture. For the Guardian, Mark covered stories in West Africa ranging from the Boko Haram atrocities to those who fight against anti-gay sentiment in Nigeria.
The hires bring BuzzFeed’s foreign reporting staff to 15, an operation that’s headed by in New York by BuzzFeed World Editor Miriam Elder, a former Moscow correspondent for the Guardian. The site’s foreign correspondents aren’t all arrayed around the globe the way legacy world-covering news organizations have traditionally operated. For example, reporter Jina Moore covers global women’s rights and is based in Nairobi; J. Lester Feder, who’s based in D.C., covers LGBT issues worldwide. Sheera Frenkel covers international cybersecurity from San Francisco. With the addition of Mark, eight of the site’s world staffers are based overseas (Mark starts in January) in the following cities: Berlin, Nairobi, London, Istanbul, Dakar and Mexico City
So where’s the hole? China, says Smith. “That is a place we would hope to at some point have a bureau,” says Smith, “although it’s a very complicated place to do journalism.”
BuzzFeed’s editorial additions shouldn’t surprise anyone who has looked at BuzzFeed’s financials, as has Gawker’s J.K. Trotter. Between 2012 and 2013, BuzzFeed progressed from multimillion dollar losses to multimillion dollar profits — $7,038,721 in 2013, to be precise. BuzzFeed has also raised big sums of venture capital, including $19 million in 2013 and $50 million in 2014 from Andreesen Horowitz; NBCUniversal invested $200 million in BuzzFeed over the summer. The revenues and investments come courtesy of a business model that leans on massive traffic generated by BuzzFeed journalism and by its famous listicles and visually driven fluff.
Smith notes that the site’s move into global coverage came “before the investments.”
BuzzFeed’s expansion comes as others contract. Late last week, news broke that McClatchy Company, which runs more than 30 newspapers, would be closing its last four overseas bureaus, in Beijing, Mexico City, Istanbul and Berlin. It had already closed several others. Let’s not pick on McClatchy, though: At least 20 news organizations shuttered all their foreign bureaus between 1998 and 2011.
Bureaus at BuzzFeed aren’t the bureaus of legacy newspapers, however: The site does foreign reporting on the cheap, which means little physical plant and other, unspecified cost-saving measures. “We don’t have offices in a lot of the places where our world reporters are, and we have the ability to tap into our international editions where we need to,” writes BuzzFeed spokeswoman Weesie Vieira in an e-mail. BuzzFeed doesn’t hire fancy drivers, says Smith, who also notes that BuzzFeed’s correspondents come from a generation that “grew up as really aggressive, thrifty freelancers.” Separately from its foreign news staff, BuzzFeed has international editions in Mexico, UK, France, Australia, Brazil, India, and Germany that peddle BuzzFeed-style viral content to those countries. Japan is next. Sometimes the two parts of the organizations team up.
Another point of distinction is that BuzzFeed eschews the classic newspaper foreign correspondent story about the “fisherman whose children have moved to city,” as Smith refers to the indulgently written “yarns” that seek to contextualize life abroad. The goal is to poke a finger in the eye of the powerful, says Smith, citing the thinking of Elder. When Smith was interviewing applicants for Elder’s job, some hopefuls said, “‘Oh, you should do lots of lists, like the worst dictators,'” Smith recalls. “That’s, like, the answer they think you want to hear.” Elder told Smith, “‘We need to be more aware that there’s evil in the world.'” Hired.