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BuzzFeed Wants to Beef Up Its Business News

BuzzFeed's business section wants to aim high and low at the same time. It's a tricky act, but editor Peter Lauria is getting some help.

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Everyone knows that BuzzFeed does lists and quizzes and videos you like to click on and share. Some people know that BuzzFeed also does reporting from far-flung places, and some delicate, thoughtful features.

But not many people know that BuzzFeed also does business reporting. This is a bit of a frustration for Peter Lauria, the veteran reporter BuzzFeed brought in from Reuters to launch its business section last year. But he’s plugging away at it, turning out a combination of scoops, GIFs and analysis.

Now he’s getting support, via a new hire from the Wall Street Journal — he’s bringing in Tom Gara, who has been running the WSJ’s Corporate Intelligence blog, as a deputy — and broadening his ambition, with plans to build out an outpost in San Francisco. (Welcome!)

Via email, I talked with Lauria about what he’s done and what he’s doing. Here’s an edited version of our chat:

Peter Kafka: You’ve been running BuzzFeed’s business section since the spring of of 2013. What was your plan when you started out there?

Peter Lauria: Launching a business vertical was something [BuzzFeed editor-in-chief] Ben Smith had been thinking about for a while, as a natural extension of BuzzFeed’s news coverage. But business represented a unique challenge for the BuzzFeed model, both because it is an over-saturated coverage area and because it is, by its very nature, niche. Readers interested in retail business news aren’t necessarily interested in media business news, for instance.

So the plan was quite purposely not to cover everything and not be a volume play, but to focus on a few areas that we can hit very hard in immediately and turn its niche nature into an advantage.

The benefit business news has is that its readers are intensely engaged. Not unlike Food Network viewers, for instance, the audience for any particular story is smaller but more likely to engage.

How has that thesis played out? What worked? What didn’t work?

In the beginning we weren’t sure what the appetite would be among traditional BuzzFeed readers for business news, and among the hardcore business audience for BuzzFeed coverage. The goal was to try to cover stories that would get those two distinct audiences to overlap as much as possible.

What we are discovering is that balancing smart and accessible and trying to appeal to the business neophyte and the business expert is challenging. What has worked best for us is when we really drill down and hyper-target a post to a specific audience.

So, for instance, using the traditional BuzzFeed style to explain short-selling through Mean Girls gifs or explaining compound interest through a quiz, or even crowdsourcing answers to basic questions readers have about the stock market have worked well for the traditional BuzzFeed audience.

Conversely, doing really insider-y posts, like how M&A reporters like to use sex and marriage metaphors or the eight steps to every hostile takeover rejection letter, have done well with the hardcore business readers who get that we are winking at them with those posts.

It has also been harder than I imagined to convince executives to see the value of the BuzzFeed platform and audience. Many of them still see business news such as the WSJ, NYT, Bloomberg, Reuters and CNBC as the top tier to reach investors and the trades as the way to reach their industry peers. They fail to see the value of our audience and reach.

None of this is to complain, but rather to illustrate that we have a big job ahead of us. I think in the beginning we benefitted from low expectations, and then we came out with scoops and smart analysis and sort of surprised people. But we don’t get credit anymore for just being around or being credible. We need to add more velocity to our reporting and quite simply break more news.

I follow BuzzFeed pretty closely, and I think I understand their mullet/high-low strategy. But I think most people have a vague idea that they are popular, and have lots of lists. How do you convince sources to work with you if that’s their impression of the site?

Well, that pretty much sums up the challenge I referenced about getting executives to work with us. To begin with, I hired a team of reporters who had a strong source network before they got here so that we weren’t starting from scratch.

But still, I spend a lot of my time going to companies and public relations firms/investor relations firms explaining our strategy and what BuzzFeed Business is all about. If they think that current or potential investors are only reading the WSJ or the FT nowadays, they are wrong.

Put another way, if you are looking at emerging markets for your company to expand to, you should also be looking at emerging media outlets to help spread that word to new audiences. Millennials are a huge market, with lots of current and future buying power, that invest and consume much differently than previous generations. We understand them better than most.

I also play up our ability to get news in front of more people faster than anyone else. The network effects of social media and mobile consumption allow us to reach readers more efficiently with breaking news than any news outlet I’ve ever been a part of. We can literally reach millions of people within seconds of putting something up.

And if none of that works, I just use the old Jon Steinberg [BuzzFeed’s former COO] trick, which is to ask an executive if they have teenage kids and, if so, to text them and ask if they’ve heard of BuzzFeed and if they should work with us. That has an almost 100 percent success rate — there’s nothing parents want more than to seem cool to their kids.

That story that sourced a Whisper tip while reporting on American Apparel — was that your team? If so, what’s it like working with Whisper as a tip box? Do you think you’ll do more of it?

That was my team. The process was quite smooth, actually, and my reporter Sapna [Maheshwari] and Neetzan [Zimmerman] from Whisper worked very closely and cooperatively on it. I would love to work more with sources on and in these new mediums, but right now they are providing more for us in terms of traditional BuzzFeed identity posts and things like that than hard news. But we do monitor these apps for leads and try to stand up interesting things we hear/see on them. In the end, it is no different from traditional reporting in that you have to verify the source and the accuracy of the information presented and separate rumor from fact before running with something.

So let’s fast-forward to a year from now: In one sentence, how will you determine whether you’re succeeding?

More new outlets are following us then we are following them.

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