Ryan Broderick - You Can Tell a Story in a Million Ways

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Sep 26, 2018
by Stephanie Quon
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Ryan Broderick - You Can Tell a Story in a Million Ways

Deputy global news director of BuzzFeed discusses his experience as an international reporter in the field during the age of distrust in journalism Ryan Broderick during his talk at the 2018 Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change

Ryan Broderick started his career at BuzzFeed writing stories about memes and breaking international news. Now, as deputy global news director of BuzzFeed, Broderick continues to report on ongoing and convoluted international events stemming from online connections and engagement. “That’s like every single story right now,” says Broderick. “It’s just some insane crazy thing that has no geographical borders because the internet is bringing weird people together.” 

Given the complexity and interconnectedness of international stories, Broderick offers a new perspective on what makes an important story. He explains “the old guard” of international reporting focuses on large formal events while the new guard focus more so on covering a story while it is in motion, building engagement through various social media platforms.

The ability to adapt to different reporting styles is also telling of the interests and participation of audiences in modern storytelling. “Our generation has a lot of more interest in street-level protesting and political movements and human storytelling,” Broderick says. “People want context; they want to understand why people care about this stuff; they want to hear from people. It’s a very different… philosophy.”

Broderick was a guest scholar for this year's Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. During his time here, Salzburg Global spoke with Broderick about his experiences at BuzzFeed and his perspective on the current state of journalism.

This Q&A with Broderick has been edited for length and clarity.

Salzburg Global: You’ve spent six years at BuzzFeed, and already there’s been a lot of change. What are some of the biggest changes in terms of your job and BuzzFeed’s presence online?

Ryan Broderick: I would say very little is the same from when I started to now. I’d say in six years my job is totally different; my point of view on the world is totally different; I think BuzzFeed’s idea of itself is totally different. When I started, we had a small beginning news operation. The big idea was: do some politics, write a few news stories… lists and quizzes and fun articles and blog posts and just have a good time and make stuff people want to share. Over the last six years, every time we’ve come up against a thing where we’re like, ‘Oh we’ve never done this before,’ instead of saying ‘Well, let’s not do it,’ we’ve just said, ‘Well, let’s try it’… We invest in things that we find interesting and we’re not afraid to scrap stuff we don’t.

SG: You were asked about the launch of BuzzFeed News’ stand-alone website. Why is it important that there’s a distinction between this and other features of the website?

RB: In this new really hyper-competitive, hyperintense media world, the need for kind of saying to people, ‘This is a news story, this is factual, this is non-fiction, this is real, this isn’t fun’ was worth doing, and it was worth making that distinction for people. And I think it’s a good idea, but it makes me upset that a lot of the reaction to it has been by like - I saw a journalism professor tweet, ‘I’ve been telling my students for years that this was a good idea. Finally, BuzzFeed is respectable!’ Like, f**k off. Seriously, if you can’t handle the fact that your news article is touching a story for a young woman in the sidebar, you have much bigger problems than the design of BuzzFeed.com.

SG: You used to work at BuzzFeed in America, and now you cover international news for BuzzFeed and live overseas. Even though your focus is on a global perspective of news, why is it important for you to continue to bring in the perspectives of the United States in your reporting?

RB: I sort of believe still that America… its best hope is when it looks outward. Like, when America becomes too insular, you have really disastrous things happening, but I think when America realizes that they are part of a much larger society and there are things to be learned from other countries, things are a lot more interesting.

I was trying to make that clear in the talk today… every country is going through very similar things, but they’re different enough where you can learn a lot.

As I traveled around, every time I’d go to a place I’d be like, ‘So, tell me about your memes, tell me about your vloggers, tell me about your election history, tell me about your fake news,’ and I’d learn a lot of cool stuff. And then I would try to incorporate that into my stories which I thought would make my stories a little more interesting than the normal like ‘Cambridge Analytica has your data!’ Instead it’s a lot more complicated than that, and I would like to think that the readers sort of find that interesting, and I can say that traffic wise they typically do.

I did a lot of live video over the last two years which I just like doing. I find it’s an easy way to get people to - well it’s an easy way to build trust because it’s live, so people are just like, ‘Oh yeah it’s a live feed’ … People will call me fake news in [Periscope recordings], and I always talk about it on camera. I’ll be like “How am I fake news? Is it [a] green screen? Where do you think I am right now? Come hang out with me if you think I’m fake!” So, I’ve been really interested in [figuring out] how do you make Americans feel more connected to the rest of the world? … How do you make them trust things better? And live video helps a lot with that.

SG: Fake news is a global problem. How can we begin to tackle it at an individual level? How do countries come together to tackle a problem that has no borders?

RB: On a practical level, I have no idea. On a philosophical level, I think it just comes back to if enough people want it, it will happen.

If people want reforms for information technology, they will happen. Historically, that seems to be the way it goes… The problem and the big if is if people want real news. I would like to believe that they do, but on a fundamental level, I sort of don’t think people want real news. I think for the most part people think that they want the truth until the truth is something that makes them feel bad, and then they don’t want it.

Most people on a day-to-day basis don’t even want to think about whether their news is real or fake, but in most societies that lose the ability to tell what is real or fake in their news bad things follow.

All these things are giant “what ifs?” that I don’t know, but there are things that are happening that are promising... The EU [and its] fights with Google and Facebook are good, India’s fights with Facebook are good, the UK has been sort of successful in certain ways in dealing with Cambridge Analytica once they discovered it… we’ll see. I think we’ve got a couple years’ worth of watching, but I think we’ll see.”

SG: How do journalists reach parts of societies who instantly dismiss their outlets as fake? Where does that conversation begin?

In the US it’s easier, you can just say you’re lying, and then that’s it. In other countries it’s harder… report the truth, build credibility, be transparent with your readers, but also good luck.

When I say be transparent, I don’t mean take a camera into the newsroom and film journalists at their computers…we use a term internally at BuzzFeed called ‘showing your work’ which is like, if you come to a conclusion in your piece it should be clearly understandable by reading your piece how you got to that conclusion… If you write your stories like that, readers aren’t confused, and they can figure out how you got to that point so at least they can get mad at you for the facts.

SG: You mentioned in your lecture that you had been a comment moderator for BuzzFeed. What was your biggest take away from that experience in regard to internet culture? Has that influenced your approach to news writing at all?

RB: Yeah, it totally influenced it. Basically, I just started to realize that the internet was a series of communities that basically would fight with each other. So, I became really interested in the anthropology of the internet - the sociology of the internet. When I write stories I’m always thinking about ‘Okay, what is this group? How are they built? And how are they colliding or not with another community?’ The best stories in my mind are when like one community accidentally slams up against another and then you have tension there. I think a lot of great stories are like this one part of the internet accidentally [colliding] with another and now we all have to deal with it... A lot of stories right now are between social groups, and I think the internet is creating that because it’s so easy to form a social group.

I think the internet brings people together, you can then form a little community, and then those communities can fight with each other… It might not stay that way but for right now… that’s what I learned as a community moderator. Once you can look for the communities, then you can find cool stories.

SG: There are many reasons to be pessimistic about the future of journalism and this year’s theme for the Media Academy is re-imagining journalism. In your opinion, where can we be optimistic to re-imagine journalism?

RB: I think we are at a time of unparalleled creativity… you can tell a story in a million ways.

You can tell a story with a live video - with an edited video. You can tell a story with a photo album, you can tell a story with a list, or a long-form essay, or a breaking news post or a huge retrospective long-form feature piece. There are so many ways to tell a story right now that it’s like you should never be bored. You could tell a story on a Twitter thread! A super viral Twitter thread. You could tell a story in one Facebook post; you could tell a story in a YouTube channel… There are so many options. It’s up to journalists to learn how to use them because bad actors are doing it faster.

The fact that media organizations are dragging to keep up with that is embarrassing. Because it’s not complicated, these are all free things. It doesn’t cost any money to start a YouTube channel and then take your 22-year old news desk person and say, ‘Can you vlog the news story for the next five days?’ Kassy [one of the members on my team] is trying an experiment on Instagram where if users ask questions a lot in the comment section of a post, she’ll then bring on one of our reporters, and they’ll just like do a Q&A on Instagram, and the engagement is huge! … It’s a really exciting time to do a million things… So that I’m optimistic about.


Ryan Broderick was a guest scholar at the 2018 Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change.