BuzzFeed editor: Brexit calls for European media cooperation

Alberto Nardelli [John C Thompson/ Flickr]

BuzzFeed UK Europe Editor Alberto Nardelli advocates for more translation and localisation of media content, as well as more cooperation to balance out the often biased English-speaking press.

Alberto Nardelli is Europe editor at BuzzFeed UK.

He spoke with EURACTIV founder Christophe Leclercq as part of the #Media4EU editorial series.

You previously worked for The Guardian with several other journalists now at BuzzFeed. Why did you decide to switch to your current position?

I can tell you that for me it was about the position, because I got the chance to cover European politics more broadly and found a space to write more original stories, which is a luxury in traditional media.

How would you define BuzzFeed’s positioning versus the mainstream media? And can you define better your social media strategy?

When a politician gives a speech, anyone can read it on the BBC, The Guardian, The Telegraph, etc. That is why BuzzFeed UK doesn’t focus on stories that are reported pretty much anywhere, but rather on original reporting and also on giving a voice to points of view which often aren’t covered in traditional media.

Clearly there is also an important social media element but it concerns mainly the distribution of our content. We see social media as an additional distribution channel and not necessarily just a way to have people clicking back to our website. Actually, lots of effort goes into formatting content in ways which are relevant not only for social platforms, but for different types of demographics and mobile as well.

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BuzzFeed‘s network strategy is indeed receiving a lot of attention. But if your content is used primarily on other platforms, then what’s the main element of your revenue strategy?

The news site is not really involved in the commercial side, which in turn doesn’t consist of traditional advertisement. The commercial team works on content creation similarly to the way an agency works and then basically uses the network distribution strategy to make sure that its content reaches both the right number of people and the type of audience with which brands want to engage.

So there is an important element of sponsored content, also known as ‘native advertising’.

Yes, I think that the slight difference between the way that sponsored content is traditionally produced and the way BuzzFeed does it, is that plenty of effort goes into the agency-like process of creating very high quality commercial content. The news team does not produce any of the commercial content, it is completely separate.

Buzzfeed is often referred to by other media companies and vice versa. Are these mentions typically only ad-hoc or are there also more structured partnerships?

No, we have many partnerships. In fact, some of our latest investigations were conducted together with the BBC, including one of the most recent examples, the investigation on RBS.  These programs were offered by banks during the financial crisis and kind of forced certain products and services on small businesses, often with damaging effects.

And are you part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists?

No, but I think that lots of people who work here are linked to it. There will be examples of potential stories that could be done together.

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When you cooperate with other media and also within the BuzzFeed network in different countries, how important is the translation and localisation of content between different languages?

Really important! What’s interesting about BuzzFeed’s system is that articles are not translated, they are adapted. So in addition to translating an article in another language, lots of work goes into adapting that article for a local audience and context. This process is very important, because otherwise some of the nuances may get lost when you move straight to translation.

I assume the UK site is not completely typical because of the common language with the US. If we take BuzzFeed France or Germany, for example, could you give us a rough idea of the proportion of content that is translated from other BuzzFeed sites or other media organisations?

Well I don’t know the exact figures but it all depends on the stages of development. Outside of the US, the UK outfit is the largest one with about a hundred people. After that, Paris is the fastest growing branch.

Originally the focus was on entertaining a buzz but what France is doing right now is really ramping up the news content and hiring a couple of political journalists. If you consider the German operation in that sense you can see where it might be headed. Right now, most of the German content concentrates on entertainment. This might be expanded in the future if Germany becomes one of the priority countries, which is a vision I don’t share.

I think the triangulation is less about numbers and more about relevance: when a suitable story is published, the idea isn’t to retake everything, but rather what could potentially be of interest to people in that country. That’s when it will get translated.

Recently I did a big piece on authoritarian populism and that was translated into French because the research also covered France. However, I also wrote a guide to Article 50 and that content was actually translated into Japanese because many guides already exist in French while in Japan there was more of a gap.

Lots of effort goes into just trying to not replicate stories that can be found on other media websites and really focusing on adding value and something that is original.

Do you know if your colleagues in Paris or Berlin use translators or if it’s entirely done by journalists from the original in English?

There is an adaptation team whose job is to implement the process that I’ve just described.

And you don’t know if it includes any translators?

Translators must be part of it because otherwise they would not be able to adapt the articles, right?

Well journalists could do it directly, that’s my question.

No it depends, in short it is both. Sometimes it’s done directly by a journalist if it’s a shorter story, in that case as we say, the article gets flipped. However longer pieces are prepared by the adaptation team are in the US.

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Based on your previous experiences with Unlimited World, with The Guardian and now with BuzzFeed, you have probably developed some views about the evolution of the media sector in Europe. Could you share some of your impressions for the future?

I think there are various challenges that news organisations face today. The most obvious one, which everyone is very much aware of, is the commercial challenge encountered by traditional media, specifically in terms of commercial models like simple online advertisement.

The second very big challenge comes from sites like Facebook, Google etc. and I think it is not simply about competition. It is also about defining the role of traditional and upcoming news organisations in a media environment which is so polarized and where lots of the information which is being produced and shared is often misinformation.

What’s your answer to this issue?

It is very complicated. German Chancellor Merkel recently gave a speech about this and I think politics is only now realising that this issue has a very practical impact on democracy itself.

For example, in the UK, if you look at some of the coverage on issues such as immigration and more recently the judiciary you see how it can lead to very slippery slopes. it’s very hard to strike a balance between regulation and a system which is more effective than the current one. In the UK, for example, if a newspaper publishes something inaccurate they are allowed to publish only a small correction months later. Clearly news organisations think that this is a price worth paying, so the incentive to avoid this behaviour is missing. It’s not that they are unaware of what they are publishing, in many cases it is a not a mistake.

So are you advocating for continuing self-regulation or stronger regulation?

I want to stress that these are my personal views not those of the organisation. I think self-regulation is always better but at the end of the day an argument can be made in favour of public intervention.

This is a big problem which the media have underestimated because they’ve only seen it from a commercial point of view, but we need to find another set of solutions. Germany, for example, is having a discussion on fining companies that are not quick enough to remove hate crimes from their websites.

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To play the devil’s advocate for a moment: you are talking about some form of regulation of the media, be it by itself or by an authority, whereas users on social media platforms are not regulated. Isn’t this putting a disproportional burden on the media?

No, my point is valid for social media too. The German case I mentioned above has been brought against Facebook. They might need to pay a fine if they don’t remove hateful content in time. Social platforms have always said ‘we are not responsible for this’, but actually the problem has such a big impact on democracy that they cannot get away with not being held accountable.

If you were the publisher of a big continental media group, what would be your strategy be for the coming years?

I think having a clear focus is really important. So much time in legacy news organisations is spent on creating content which is wire-like or BBC-like. Few can really compete with the BBC on those types of stories. I think I would focus on originality.

Given what you say and building on my earlier questions on cooperation between different media organisations, would that speak for specialisation of people also across media networks?

I think you have very talented people in many news organisations who are doing very basic day-to-day reporting when they can do a lot more than that.

Today, a journalist needs to have various types of skills to some extent: data journalism is very good example. Many of our political journalists don’t fully comprehend data, which is why sometimes a lot of attention might be dedicated to one poll. This is usually not a good way of covering statistics. So I believe that we do need more a new skills but also to use better existing skills.

Most media groups are essentially national or at least in just one language zone, as is the case for some German-speaking publications. Is this something you would change if you were the publisher of a large media group?

Yes. I think that non-English newspapers should ideally understand two things. Firstly, most of the issues that they report on are cross-border issues, which means that if they want their voice to have an impact on shaping those questions, it needs to go across their borders.

The refugee crisis is a very good example: in my view in Germany it has been covered by the media in a much more factual-based way compared to parts of the British press. This is an issue which affects every country in Europe, so in my opinion it would be helpful to have some of the German coverage translated into English.

This first point concerns more the journalistic aspect of the question, while the second relates to the commercial point of view. At the end of the day, newspapers will be competing often times for the same advertisement money, so if global narrative is entirely created by English language media you’ll eventually come across competition challenges.

Do you think that there would be better commercial opportunities for media on the continent if they were pan-European, cross-border or even pro-European?

I think that is two very different things. I don’t think they should be necessarily pro-European. I do believe, however, that you have competing ideas of Europe in different countries: the idea of Europe in Germany is different from the one in the UK, in France etc. From a cross-border point of view, the only vision that really travels is whatever is written in English. Now it happens to be that lots of the English writing around Europe is very distorted and even false many times, yet those are the type of stories that get cross-border attention. It is not about being pro-EU or anti-EU, it is about having a debate over Europe that is not disproportionately influenced by English-speaking media.

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So we need to translate content across borders because English-speaking content is sometimes or even often biased?

Exactly, because if there is bias, it will travel across borders, while any partiality by the German media wouldn’t, for example.

In the US, traditional media tend to take a view ahead of elections, like the Trump vs. Clinton debate. In the UK, has BuzzFeed taken a view regarding Brexit?

No, not even in the US. Obviously we have written many stories about Trump’s lies and outrageous comments but they are reported in a factual way and no endorsement has been issued[1]. However, I think it is interesting that BuzzFeed is often accused of taking sides when, if you look at the actual coverage of the US election, our platform was much less sensationalistic than other outlets. In my view this has contributed greatly to the rise of Trump. Same goes for the Brexit coverage in the UK, our content is in many ways less exaggerated than traditional media’s reports. Again, I believe this has contributed to multiple sentiments that are felt in UK towards issues like immigration.

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So is it fair to say that your entertainment and celebrities coverage is sensationalist but the political coverage is more serious?

I think that even our celebrity coverage isn’t as sensationalist as what is reported on traditional media. In fact, it is entertaining, but we never focus on personal stories or on how people look.

[1] Ed. However, they refused to run Republican political advertisements and produced an anti-Trump video similar to a campaign ad.