Shani O. Hilton is executive editor at BuzzFeed, where she heads the news department. In addition to leading BuzzFeed’s expanding news division, Hilton is currently developing a code of news standards for the entire media company. Prior to joining BuzzFeed, Hilton served as the morning editor for NBC Washington’s website and as a staff writer at Washington City Paper. Shani spoke with the current class of Nieman Fellows in November. Edited Excerpts:
Let’s start with the question of branding. How do you dive in to building a news brand for BuzzFeed, coming from where BuzzFeed comes from? What’s been the learning curve on that for you?
There’s obviously a really high level awareness of the fun stuff that we do, the entertainment, because it’s so viral, and it’s so huge. Our biggest news story might have 1.5 million views, which is a lot of people, but it’s a fraction of the biggest entertainment story that we have ever done, which was a quiz about which state should you actually live in. That had 45 million people or something crazy like that. It’s really just a matter of scale. Even though we’ve got a lot of people reading on these stories, we don’t have as many reading it as are reading our entertainment stories.
A big part of branding is just letting people know that it exists. There’s a lot of really good journalism on our site every week. They’re publishing great stuff constantly and it’s a matter of letting people know. Once you tell people there’s good journalism, their opinion shoots up and they’re like, “I didn’t know. That’s really cool.”
One of the things we’ve done and we’re continuing to do is trying to have awareness modules on the website on desktop and on mobile. It’s really clear this came from BuzzFeed News, highlighting our biggest stories that are going up right now. We have a page that’s buzzfeed.com/news which has all of our news content, but 12 people go to that a day. We might eventually launch it as its own thing, but we haven’t yet.
Do you find yourself in the position of having to explain some of the basic tenets of news judgment to BuzzFeed staff?
Not really. Not to the journalists on our staff. They all pretty much know and they have great editors who know. When it comes to people on other sections, in Buzz or Life, who dabble in journalism, they’re completely welcome to and encouraged to do journalism if they would like. We will always have an editor read their work and give them advice. Sometimes, it’s basic. It’s like, now call the other guy and see what he says.
That’s actually really rewarding. People who want to do journalism and try this stuff out and play around with it have the support to do so and also can do it right.
How do you know when something’s not working? How do you identify that maybe this isn’t the right fit?
We experiment a lot, as you may be able to tell. The experiments don’t always pan out. I think the thing that we’ve learned is that things conventionally you think you should have, like a sports desk, don’t necessarily make sense. We ended blowing that up a little bit and changing the structure of it, because you realize that, with sports, there’s not a thing that’s called “sports.” There’s baseball, there’s soccer, there’s track, and there’s the Olympics, and all these other things. There’s not someone saying, “I want sports content.” We think there is because that’s what newspapers do, but newspapers also focus in on particular teams.
We transitioned to having people who do what we call “buzz” around teams, for example, instead of just doing this sport thing that happened today, because there’s no way we can cover all of it. Then we have one writer who just focuses on telling really long, winding sports stories, Joel Anderson, who wrote a story about Michael Sam, the first out gay football player who just got cut from the Cowboys. Then we were like, “We do actually need somebody to cover big sports events, so let’s just put a person on our breaking news desk.”
That’s what we’ve done. That completely changed the structure. I think the thing that’s really great in our culture is there’s no reason to hold on to things just because. There’s no “this is the way we’ve always done it” because we haven’t always done it, we’ve done it for two weeks. It’s really easy to shift gears, but it’s getting harder the bigger we get and the longer we’re around. It’s still a thing I’m figuring out.
How does BuzzFeed encourage staff members to produce more? Does it require a certain number of articles per day?
That’s a really good question. We’ve been really lucky to not have very many lazy reporters. They’re so young. Even among the older and more experienced reporters, there’s a real hunger. I think part of how you escape lazy reporters is by giving people a lot of freedom and encouraging them and hoping they won’t take advantage of it.
We do ask people to let us know what they’re working on. Every morning, the editor of a section will send an email to one of the editorial assistants, “Here are all the things that are coming from my section.” Then, she’ll send it around to all of editorial so I’ll know what’s coming from business and politics and all these sections.
We have conversations with people who are not performing at the level that they need to be. That’s the standard thing. Sometimes, there are reasons for it. We try to be really flexible. People have personal issues or whatever else is going on in their lives. But, there does come a point where you say to the person, “Look, is this what you really want to be doing? Are you in the place where you want to be? Is this the job that you want? If not, then maybe you should think about moving on to something else.”
I don’t have an easy answer. We’re just optimistic that people won’t take advantage of us. We’re pretty careful about monitoring, but not in a crazy way.
Let’s touch on staff diversity. How have your thoughts about that developed since you started thinking about it as a person who has the power to hire?
It’s interesting. My philosophy still hasn’t changed. It’s basically been the same in terms of it being about networks. The fun thing has been in practice that means that the more diversity that you get in your office, the easier it is to get more diversity, because you hire people, you trust them.
You say, “Hey, I’m looking for this position to be filled.” Then their networks open up to you in a way that is really great. It’s been really nice, because we’ve seen this kind of accelerated growth, in terms of diversity on staff, and it’s just really rewarding. It’s reified my philosophy. I feel good about myself.
When I started at BuzzFeed, there were three black employees. That number has grown dramatically. It’s really nice to be a place where you don’t have to agree with the other black person out of solidarity. You can disagree with them publicly, and it’s fine. That’s really great. That can’t be underscored enough.