Q&A with Lisa Tozzi of BuzzFeed News

Lisa Tozzi is global news director at BuzzFeed News, a position she has held since 2013. She previously worked at The New York Times, contributing to coverage of the 9/11 attacks, the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina. In this interview, conducted by email, Tozzi discusses her work at BuzzFeed and offers advice to student journalists.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?

A. I oversee the breaking news, newsroom operations teams and curation (the team that helps manage and grow BuzzFeed News’s presence on various platforms) and work with the editors and reporters from other BuzzFeed News desks like world, investigations, politics, tech, etc. to coordinate news coming from their reporters. I also have the great fortune to be media editor Craig Silverman’s editor and to work with him and Jane Lytvynenko on fake news and debunking.

Breaking and curation is a 24/7 operation, and we have a reporters and editors in New York, Los Angeles and London and hand off to one another, which is especially critical when big news happens overnight or early in the morning.

I tend to loudly and nervously laugh when someone asks me what a typical day is like because I don’t remember typical days. Most days begin with looking at Twitter too early in the morning and needing a lot of coffee.

But every day is a bit of a wild ride, particularly over the past few years when the world feels increasingly chaotic and it is more important than ever that we are providing people with clear, reliable information around the clock. Luckily, I work with a magnificent team of reporters, editors and producers who are incredibly creative and smart and collaborative and just make me feel I won the lottery when I come to work no matter how crazy things get.

Q. Before working at BuzzFeed, you were at The New York Times. What was that transition like?

A. It wasn’t a shocking transition as I had long been more digitally focused at the Times and loved doing breaking news. But there were definite differences I noticed immediately.

One was that I suddenly didn’t have to think at all about a legacy product. I love The New York Times, I grew up reading the New York Times, I still get the print paper delivered to me on weekends. But it was interesting — dare I even say liberating — to not have to think about cutting a “web story for print” or ordering column space for Sunday on Thursday afternoon anymore. Stories didn’t need to be held for a slot on Page One, we could run them when they were ready to go. (I should note that The Times has changed a lot in the five years since I left.)

Also five years ago, news at BuzzFeed was very small and newish, and I had a chance to help build an operation and a culture rather than try to change a long-established one. Oh, yeah: There was also the whole bit of reporters having to constantly spelling B-U-Z-Z-F-E… when on the phone with sources when identifying themselves (DOESN’T HAPPEN AS MUCH ANYMORE!) and reading stories about BuzzFeed that talk about whether a site that is “known for cat GIFs” can do news. (STILL, SHOCKINGLY HAPPENS!)

Q. BuzzFeed is known for its headlines. What trends in headline writing are you seeing?

A. I don’t have any clear-cut trends to report, but we’ve always talked about writing stories people want to read and share at BuzzFeed. Some of what goes into that is thinking about how you frame a story vis-a-vis the headline.

We always stress that headlines should be conversational and not include jargon, as if you are telling a friend about the piece you’re writing. We experiment with different headlines in a story to see how they perform which can teach us a bit and help us inform future decisions. (Sometimes the headline conventions that a lot of people claim to hate are the ones readers respond to.)

Q. What advice do you have for journalism students interested in working for BuzzFeed?

A. I think a big mistake some journalists make is they come out of school and expect to immediately be an investigative reporter or think that they must immediately have a beat as if they’re picking a college major. At BuzzFeed News specifically, and for journalists in general, it really helps to be flexible and to experiment with different types of reporting and writing styles.

One of the many tragedies about the collapse of local newspapers around the country is that they were the best training ground for new journalists. I got my start as a general assignment reporter at a newspaper in New Jersey and covered everything from City Council meetings to crime to courts to political campaigns, and it was incredibly valuable to learn to be fast and versatile.

Reporters and editors on the breaking team at BuzzFeed News need to be able to write about everything from natural disasters and mass shootings to how YouTube and Instagram are changing celebrity to the viral story about a woman flushing her hamster down an airport toilet. We take social news really seriously and apply the same rigor we do with “hard news” to the quirky talker, and readers respond to that. Newsrooms shouldn’t think they’re above a certain kind of story if it is something that readers really care about, which is something we’re really conscious of.

Also: Learn how to spot misinformation and fake images. And read a lot.

Follow Lisa Tozzi and BuzzFeed News on Twitter.

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Student guest post: My experience at the Salisbury Post

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the fifth of those posts. Savannah Morgan is a junior studying journalism and English. She is also a member of the piccolo section in the Marching Tar Heels and the Athletic Bands.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to work at The Salisbury Post as an intern. The paper serves Rowan County — a mostly rural county in the southwestern part of North Carolina.

Having the privilege to work at a functioning paper was a very good experience not only because I could take notes on what the paper did well, but also because I could learn from the paper’s problem areas. One of the struggles that I observed during my time at the Salisbury Post involved news judgment and news curation.

The editor and reporters at the Post felt it was important to serve each part of the diverse county equally. This involved giving each school (especially the high schools) in the county equal press time, reporting on things that rural readers would care about and reporting on things that readers in the more urban and suburban areas would find interesting. This included an article about the retirement of the local school system’s nutrition director one week and an article about the summer’s crops a few weeks later.

To combat the problem of giving all parts of the county equal coverage, the Salisbury Post also runs an interesting story series, which I was able to see in progress during my internship. The series is called The Dart, and the paper describes it like this: “The Dart is a regular feature that requires reporters to throw darts at a map of Rowan County and use the locations to find a story.”

Not only does this interesting story series allow reporters to give a voice to people who may not otherwise have ever been featured, but it also allows for a diverse blend of stories to come from diverse parts of the county. Although I never wrote a Dart story during my internship, I did find it fascinating to hear updates from the reporters as they looked for stories.

Another problem I observed during my internship dealt less with the Salisbury Post specifically and more with a general problem that I am sure many papers face. Keeping readers’ interests from week to week can be difficult—especially in the summer months, which I found were often slow for news. This problem can be heightened by the fact that it is often necessary to keep the same topic relevant for more than a few days or a week.

For example, the summer I was at the Salisbury Post, two people drowned in High Rock Lake in the eastern part of the county. After the initial stories about the drownings broke, the editor felt it was important to keep the story relevant.

So she had me to interview the head of the emergency department at the local hospital to learn more about drowning and then to speak with the head of the Rowan County Rescue Squad to learn what to do in a situation where someone might be in danger of drowning. After that story was written, the consensus from the newsroom was that High Rock Lake had been getting a bit too much bad press.

To balance our coverage of the lake, the editor assigned me a positive story about it. I wrote about the lake economy and the many ways the people of Rowan County enjoy the fun the lake has to offer. The two stories ended up running alongside each other.

Providing equal coverage for all of the readership area, choosing stories that interest all readers and keeping the readership interested are all problems that many small or local newspapers frequently face. My experience at the Salisbury Post working under the experience of the editor, Elizabeth Cook, and her staff helped me to learn how to combat these obstacles.

Pushing the news

Each semester, I ask students in my courses at UNC-Chapel Hill how they get their news. I encourage them to be honest, and I tell them that there are no right answers.

As in recent years, several mentioned The Skimm, an email newsletter. Others said they regularly read CNN.com and the digital versions of The Washington Post and The New York Times. A few said they still like to get news in print via The New York Times or The Daily Tar Heel.

No one mentioned regional newspapers such as The Charlotte Observer. Same for radio and television.

Several students said that they rely on push notifications on their phones. In previous semesters, I had never heard that answer. Those students said that they relied on the notifications to let them know about big news. They catch up on other things later.

Like a headline, a push notification should match the tone of the news and the tone of the organization. Editors must use news judgment to decide when and how to send such notifications. Too many can be overwhelming.

I will keep an eye on how news organizations are exploring how to push news in this way, perhaps incorporating that into my editing course. If students receive news that way, they should know how to send it.

The public editor, before and after

The recent news that The New York Times was cutting the position of public editor prompted me to think about my time at The News & Observer. I worked at the Raleigh newspaper twice: from 1992-97 as a copy editor and from 2001-2005 as wire editor.

For most of that time, the N&O did not have a public editor, a role also known as an ombudsman or reader representative. That changed in 2004, when the newspaper added that position and hired Ted Vaden, a longtime journalist who had served as editor of The Chapel Hill News, among other jobs.

Before Vaden’s hiring, I got feedback from readers via email, voicemail and phone calls. Some of these communications were hostile and unproductive, but some led to helpful conversations about how the newspaper operated and what we could do better. I also looked at letters to the editor for responses from readers on how we covered national and international news.

After Vaden was hired, I still received phone calls, voicemail and emails from readers. I also heard from Vaden, asking me why we covered a topic a certain way or why a story had not appeared in the pages of the N&O.

On at least a couple of occasions, I was interviewed by Vaden for columns that he wrote for the N&O addressing concerns from readers. One that I recall was about how the N&O had covered the Terri Schiavo “right to die” controversy. Some readers complained that we had approached it as a political story rather than a medical one. I told Vaden that I saw it as both and that our coverage had tried to address each angle.

His column suggested that we had fallen short. I disagreed with that assessment, but I appreciated how Vaden went about his work. He asked good questions and came up with conclusions based on evidence and analysis.

Vaden left the N&O in 2009, taking a communications job at the state Department of Transportation. The role of public editor at the N&O was lost amid a wave of layoffs.

I recently caught up with Vaden, who has left the DOT and has written columns on various topics for The Chapel Hill News in the past few years. In light of the news from The New York Times, I wondered what he thought about his time as public editor in Raleigh. Here are my questions and his responses:

Q. How did you approach the job of public editor at the N&O?

A. I suppose I tried to assume the role of “honest broker” between the readers and the paper, serving as intermediary to hear readers’ concerns, communicate them to the people inside the paper and explain the journalism of The N&O to the public. I felt that my first obligation was to the readers – to ascertain their concerns about the issues shoved into their consciousness by the paper, and to hold the paper accountable in areas of fairness, taste, ethics and professionalism.

I tried to do this in two ways – in a Sunday op-ed column that usually focused on the most controversial coverage of the preceding week and in a weekly report (I can’t remember what I called it) that I distributed by email inside the building relaying the issues large and small raised by readers during that week.

That inside column was distributed not just to the newsroom but to all 900-plus employees of the paper. I thought it was valuable for the entire enterprise to hear what the readers were saying about The N&O, and I was gratified to get a good deal of response, questions and ideas from non-editorial employees.

Q. You were public editor for five years. What did you learn doing that time?

A. I learned that it is a very difficult balancing act to straddle the divide between people out in Readerland and the journalists inside the paper. Journalists as a breed are very defensive about their work, and it was quite ticklish to bring the same kind of watchdogging to them as they did to the public.

I tried to rely on my instincts, but if anything, I erred on the side of being too critical of the paper, in order to maintain credibility with readers. Nevertheless, I’m sure I let my bias and identity as a journalist creep into my opinionating.

I believed independence was the most critical asset of a public editor, and I was fortunate that I was in the position of reporting directly and only to the publisher (Orage Quarles III), who created and appointed me to the position in the first place. He read every column before it was published. He occasionally disagreed with my conclusions, but in five years there was only one instance in which he directed me to change my column. Even then, we ended with a compromise (which I still didn’t like).

I felt that if there were not always some journalists inside the paper who were not happy with my columns, then I was not doing my job. I’m proudest that I took a critical stand early on over the N&O’s coverage of the Duke lacrosse case, even when that angered some editors.

But there were also instances of which I was less proud, when I wasn’t forceful enough. I still remember a comment from one reader that I wasn’t “tough-minded” enough. Ouch!

I thought it was very important for the public editor to stay in close touch with readers. Over those years, I developed a database of 300-400 readers whom I would survey regularly to get a sense of broader opinion of coverage that I could relay to the newsroom and discuss in the column. The newspaper also created a Reader Advisory Panel that met every month with me and different journalists from the newsroom. Both the journalists and the readers learned from those interactions. I think it still functions.

Finally, it’s a mixed legacy to say that I was the first and (presumably) last ombudsman of The News & Observer. It was bold of Quarles to create the position – to open the paper to regular criticism. But it was a sad commentary on the state of journalism even as early as 2009 that the role of in-house critic was one of the first positions to be determined to be dispensable.

I agree with Vaden that the role of the public editor was valuable. His presence in the N&O building was a reminder that it was the readers that mattered most. Unlike their emails or voicemails, he could not be ignored.

In lieu of a public editor, The New York Times says it will look to social media for reader feedback. It will certainly find plenty of it there, starting with tweets from the president. But how will journalists hear signals amid the noise? Will they fail to hear alarm bells as they tune out the trolls?

Student guest post: Don’t give up on the truth in the face of fake news

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the third of those posts. Elise Clouser is a senior from Matthews, North Carolina, majoring in reporting and minoring in biology. She wants a career writing about science, and in her free time, she can usually be found hanging out with her cat.

Back in December, as the dust finally began to settle after the 2016 election, “fake news” grabbed hold of national attention, and it hasn’t really let go. It was straightforward enough in the beginning – fake news was any completely made-up news story written to sound like fact. Remember that time Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring from a pizza shop? One hundred percent certified fake news.

I remember how incredulous I was when the “fake news” story broke. Who actually believed this stuff anyway? My Facebook timeline was full of fellow journalists and other university folks posting perfectly credible articles from The New York Times, NPR and The Washington Post. Any editor worth his or her salt wouldn’t let a fake news story slip past their desk, right?

Hoaxes, half-truths and propaganda are certainly nothing new, especially when politics are involved. It’s practically accepted as fact that politicians lie. So what makes fake news different?

Fake news fits nicely into the narrative that we are living in a post-truth society. In fact, post-truth, meaning “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” was Oxford dictionary’s word of the year for 2016. And when “alternative facts” are now part of the mainstream American political rhetoric, it’s not hard to see why.

But fake news has evolved to mean more than just a false news story. It’s now been co-opted to mean “anything that contradicts my worldview.” Biases have always existed in news reporting. But when “fake news” is conflated with “anything that paints me in a negative light,” the line between what is real and what is fake seems even more blurred.

All of this is pretty disheartening to journalists and editors who have always strived for fairness and for reporting the truth. It feels as though we need to be on the defense, especially when we’re called the “opposition party.”

The role of the editor has evolved just as the media have evolved over the past few decades. But in the face of “fake news,” the editor must do what he or she has always done: dedicate himself or herself to the truth. Sensationalism gets the clicks, but I think that people still crave the truth.

People want to be informed. Yes, sometimes we want to hear things that reinforce our personal opinions, but we also simply want to know what’s going on. We don’t always want loaded language and jabs at the other side. Sometimes we just need the facts.

More than ever, editors must ensure that they publish the facts. There is still a place for facts in modern society. Editors are in the powerful position of making sure facts are out there.

Editors need to not only trust their reporters to be thorough and fair, but to hold them accountable if they are not. Editors need to verify information before publishing. They need to present both sides of the story. Editors will have to make tough news judgments in the coming months. It will be tempting to shun the facts when they don’t fit a certain narrative. But editors never give up on the truth. There is still an audience for the truth.

Restoring the public’s faith in the press is not a task that can be accomplished overnight. There are no easy answers for how to combat fake news or the filter bubble. Fake news may be here to stay, but so is good, truthful journalism. And we can’t give up on it just yet.

Student guest post: BuzzFeed should re-evaluate its news judgment

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the first of those posts. Luke Bollinger is a junior majoring in journalism and political science at UNC-Chapel Hill. He enjoys reporting for The Daily Tar Heel and all things “Game of Thrones.”

BuzzFeed’s decision to publish a dossier containing unverified information should cause journalists, especially editors, to contemplate the importance of sound news judgment when fake news is rampant and trust in the media is dishearteningly low.

The dossier contains uncorroborated information that Russia has damaging information on newly elected President Donald Trump. The dossier had been circulating among government officials. News outlets reported on the documents but did not disclose the specific details.

BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the full dossier instantly ignited a debate of whether they should have published the documents.

The question of whether BuzzFeed should have published the document, despite knowledge of its potential falsity (this sounds a bit like actual malice) is a question of news judgment and how it should be exercised.

BuzzFeed stated that the “allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors.” And the story does hold practically every news value editors consider when deciding what to publish: impact, magnitude, conflict, timeliness, proximity and emotional impact.

Yet, this looks like fake news.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics says: “Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it.”

It is not reporting if a journalist simply regurgitates information; there needs to be a process of verification.

This is not the fake news grounded in imagination that normally plagues Facebook and Twitter, but it has similar effects. Fake news sensationalizes, and BuzzFeed has done the same by publishing the dossier.

The story has been sensationalized; BuzzFeed has put itself at the center of attention and some of the more perverse contents of the dossier have been turned into internet memes.

There is definitely cause to report on the dossier circulating among senators and top intelligence officials. The dossier is concerning; the possibility that a foreign power has compromising information on President Trump is frightening. This needs to be reported on, but this is where exercising cautious news judgment is critical when considering the prevalence of fake news.

The BuzzFeed article said the reasoning for publishing the dossier was “so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government.”

Presenting the people with the information and letting them make their own conclusions is something journalists should work toward every day, but not to the extent that a journalist no longer practices accurate reporting.

Fake news is a huge problem, a problem that diminishes the value of accurate information and jeopardizes the effectiveness of journalists that actively seek to provide the truth. BuzzFeed should have considered how publishing the dossier would work against journalists who verify their information.

Many journalists took offense. Columnists and commentators scolded BuzzFeed Editor-In-Chief Ben Smith for his decision and news judgment while CNN released a statement distancing itself from BuzzFeed.

The next four years will most likely hold plenty of controversy. Situations such as the dossier complicate editorial decisions when you have the responsibility of keeping an audience as informed as possible, as well as the responsibility of seeking the truth. In the era of fake news, finding a balance should rely more on truth. Not the possibility of truth.

Q&A with Bob Bryan, reporter for Business Insider

Bob Bryan at the Chairman's Room at the New York Stock Exchange.

Bob Bryan at the Chairman’s Room at the New York Stock Exchange.

Bob Bryan is markets reporter for Business Insider. In this interview, conducted by email, he discusses his beat and headline writing and social media at BI.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?

A. As a markets reporter, my team usually gets an early jump on things. Four of us are in the office by 7 a.m., looking at overnight news in European and Asian markets or covering quarterly earnings that are announced before the opening of the market.

From there the day can really be anything. Since Business Insider has a relatively slim team, we have a lot of freedom to explore topics that interest us, For instance I could write about Obamacare, the Wells Fargo scandal and how inflation is impacting the Federal Reserve all in one day (and have before).

Posts usually come out of three places: breaking news (which can come from anywhere: Twitter, press releases, email tips); research from banks and economic analysts such as the International Monetary Fund or the Fed; and interviews done with market followers, economists, and major investors.

I’m usually on the go until 3 to 3:30 p.m. when I stop to start planning the Facebook Live broadcast I host every day at 430 p.m. That involves going through the headlines of the day selecting what I want to talk about, getting graphics and charts made up by our markets graphics guru, and planning chyrons with the video team. I typically write myself a rough outline, but ad lib most of the show.

The show usually wraps at 4:50 p.m., and afterwards, I check some emails and maybe finish a post I was working on. Typically, I leave the office anywhere from 5:15 to 6:00, though I may do some work at home if news breaks afterward.

Q. You are active on Twitter. How do you use social media as part of your job?

A. Social media is incredibly important for my job, Twitter being the most prominent.

Not only is Twitter a source of ideas, but for financial journalists, there is a robust conversation between finance media and those in the markets world. There is a great group of economists and traders that use Twitter and are active in conversing with others. Heck, even current Fed president Neel Kashkari takes question on Twitter from time to time.

Obviously, Facebook is also important not just as a source of traffic, but it’s also where I do my daily videos.

Q. How do story editing and headline writing work at Business Insider?

A. Everything starts with the writer. At BI, the reporters write their own headline, tweet, pick their picture, write the captions. Even the short browser title you see from search engines is done by the writer.

Stories are then sent via Slack to an editor, unpublished, to be looked over. It may go by a second editor occasionally depending on the subject matter. For longer features, the copy desk will look over the text before it goes live. If it is a normal, shorter post, the copy desk looks over the story after it goes live. We strive for speed, so the copy desk is incredibly quick at making edits to a story once it goes live.

Headlines are usually collaborative as well. If we try a headline that doesn’t get a lot of reader attention, we may change it or try a different construction to connect better with readers. This is usually discussed with the editor who read the story via Slack or, more likely, verbally. A lot of changes are discussed verbally since the office is open with shared tables and most of editorial is in one big space.

Q. You are a 2015 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What advice do you have for the class of 2017?

A. Say yes. When you’re starting out, always be the first to jump on something when it’s offered. If there is a story idea thrown out, say yes even if you’re not sure about it. It’s a great way to learn, prove your capable, and add value to whatever newsroom (or any other job) you’re in.

For instance, I said yes to a story about UnitedHealthcare’s quarterly earnings in which it turned out they were leaving a majority of their Obamacare markets. Now six months later, I’m the primary Obamacare and health insurance reporter, which draws a lot of reader interest. If I had said “I don’t know too much about that,” then I would’ve missed one of the best opportunities of my career so far.

Read Bob Bryan’s posts on Business Insider and follow him on Twitter.