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Will cat GIFs fuel the future of journalism?

by Matthew Civico November 25, 2014
Will cat GIFs fuel the future of journalism?

You won’t believe the answer!

Let’s be honest, BuzzFeed probably isn’t the future of journalism. They are, however, all over the web and they’re doing something interesting. They’re adapting to the publishing realities of the internet age by using the internet’s most valuable currency: cats.

Here’s how they’re doing it.

BuzzFeed gets people in the door. They do this with cats, mostly, but also serve up a potent cocktail of sharable lists and frivolous quizzes. It turns out that they’re also hoping you’ll stay for the journalism. It’s true: there’s journalism on BuzzFeed, but don’t worry if you missed it. It’s easy for a climate change headline to look like a joke when you’re scrolling through 37 unbelievable cat-fails.

This new side of BuzzFeed isn’t so new, having begun in 2012, but it still surprises many people. I first noticed serious headlines on BuzzFeed last year but, like many, assumed they weren’t worth my time. Besides, I had photobombing cats to look at. My perspective changed when I heard an interview with Anne Helen Petersen, a Ph.D. who left academia for a writing career and ended up at BuzzFeed. Unbelieveable. There is at least one Ph.D. at BuzzFeed and she does thoughtful, long-form pieces on celebrity culture. Petersen cites the huge online audience for BuzzFeed as one reason for making the move, and that makes a lot of sense.

I don’t always know that I want to read a feature-length story before I see it, and I never know that I need to read it before I actually do. For instance: I once clicked a silly BuzzFeed headline while goofing off in the library; moments later I was enthralled. I was reading the harrowing first-person account of how American journalist Gregory D. Johnsen (he’s working on his Ph.D.) escaped a kidnapping attempt in Yemen, a country he had lived in and loved for years—on BuzzFeed! The clickbait headline got me in the door but I stayed for the insightful narrative journalism. Does it matter that I was carried in on the backs 37 cats?

I don’t have a degree from JMSB but this makes sense both from a business perspective and might (maybe) be good for journalism, an industry that’s still finding its place in the age of Facebook and Twitter. All those clicks and views of silly cats pay the bills for cultural critics like Petersen and perspectives from experienced correspondents like Johnsen. I like cats and I like insight, and I bet I’m not the only one. Go find their features online; you won’t believe you’re reading BuzzFeed.

I’m intrigued by the concept, but I’m not sold on it yet. BuzzFeed can be a useless time sink, but I believe it’s trying to be more than that. Their approach is novel, but it remains to be seen if this marriage of clickbait and serious reportage will last.

No one likes to see the weak exploited, so a serious question remains: how do all those cats stand to benefit from BuzzFeed’s growth? There’s a feature story here somewhere, and I hope BuzzFeed tackles it.

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