As BuzzFeed continues its quest to develop into a grown-up news organization, the media company famous for its listicles and Animals vertical has made another milestone hire: a foreign editor.
Miriam Elder, currently the Moscow bureau chief for The Guardian, will start work at BuzzFeed’s New York office on July 25. Her appointment is the first step in a commitment to international reporting that will see BuzzFeed making a footprint in at least four countries by the end of the year, according to editor Ben Smith.
Smith has long had an interest in international reporting, having spent two years as a stringer in Latvia among other international assignments. He has wanted to bring foreign correspondents into the BuzzFeed mix since joining as editor in December 2011. Finding the right person to head up a foreign news department, however, has proven to be difficult, because there are not many great foreign correspondents who also have a deep understanding of the social Web, he says. Elder seems to fit the bill, having more than 14,000 followers on Twitter, and being the first reporter to cover dissident Russian punk group, Pussy Riot.
Smith says BuzzFeed has noticed more people have been coming to the site for news, just as Twitter is becoming a more important venue for news events. It’s not just that Twitter is helping to spread news, he says, but that it has also become a place where news happens. For instance, the President of Estonia recently made headlines for criticizing economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman on the social network. The Israel Defense Forces has also used Twitter to issue threats to its enemies. BuzzFeed sees an opportunity to report on those newsworthy Twitter conversations while advancing the discussion.
“Over the last year the ecosystem keeps changing and the social conversation is getting broader and more global and at the same time people are coming to us for news,” Smith says. That convergence of forces pushed the organization to put a foreign news team on the frontburner.
As well as having reporters based in non-US countries — Russia is a certainty, and the organization is considering options for Asia and the Middle East — it will have US-based reporters who will cover what is being talked about on foreign-language social networks such as China’s Sina Weibo. That’s a model already employed by China-focused Tea Leaf Nation, which last year started a partnership with The Atlantic. BuzzFeed reporter Kevin Tang frequently reports on social media in China, as seen in a recent post about how social media netizens there commemorated the 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti has told Foreign Policy that the impetus for the foreign desk came on April 15 after the Boston Marathon bombings. “With the Boston bombings, we saw something new,” Peretti told the site. “People started tweeting from the scene, and the front page stats jumped.” BuzzFeed’s top five stories that day were all hard news stories.
Elder’s hire is just one of a slew of recent moves to beef up BuzzFeed’s serious reporting credentials and shift perceptions away from it being a mere listicle factory. In recent months, BuzzFeed has launched new tech and business verticals; added ex-New York Times reporter Lisa Tozzi as its first news director; forged a YouTube channel with CNN; and hired former Spin magazine editor Steve Kandell as head of longform.