Despite being very much "a digital native," I remained sceptical until recently of Buzzfeed's daily assaults on my Facebook feed. At face value, the “social media news site” hastens the dollar-hungry, Murdoch-driven, and HuffPo-exacerbated collapse in quality journalism - tempting us with “ten Breaking Bad scenes you’ll never forget,” “Twenty drunkest people you’ve ever seen,” cats, memes and lame gifs. All in a conscience-numbing pursuit of traffic.
The concern with Buzzfeed is that it will apply the same formula of “Ten photos to explain how” in politics, dragging politics from the frying pan of sleaze into the fire of crass simplicity.
Its political forays can seem niche, simplified and sensationalist, although their writing team does have some prodigious young scrappers - willing to go light on the detail so long as they can stake a claim on experimental (and already massively successful) “social journalism.”
But with a potential readership so high, I was excited to see the youthful, cranial Telegraph and Economist writer Daniel Knowles attempt to reveal “THE UTTER INSANITY OF BRITAIN’S HOUSING MARKET, IN FIFTEEN PHOTOS"
I both commentate and report for The Guardian on charities, social enterprises and housing issues, as well as working with the homeless several days each month. Perhaps this link, blasted onto my Facebook feed by someone I barely know in real life, would present a crisis well, to a new audience, in a new format and catalyse change. After all, what an opportunity to explain how messed up things are. What a way, after Brand's exhortations to young people to quit voting altogether, to get younger audiences re-engaged on an issue that is so relevant to them - the roof above their head, now and in the future. In fifteen photos, I thought it might be possible (tricky, but possible) to illustrate the gravity of two million households in arrears. The five million on housing benefit. The grossly unjust ravages of the bedroom tax.
We kicked off with some explanatory graphs (nothing too taxing, in fact excellently presented by Knowles) that showed how things got more expensive over time, then added some historical credibility with an archive shot of Clement Atlee, plus a portrait of Maggie looking nefarious. We saw skyscrapers of New York, portrayed as a UK house-builders pipedream (thwarted by Atlee and his silly planning laws). There was a shot of a grim T-junction in post-industrial Barking, and then some virginal countryside, ripe for construction. Both looked like they were taken on an iPhone, stopped for a pee break in the lay-by.
In short - the message, in pictures not words, had missed the complexity of the kerfuffle on housing. It had focussed on just one issue - planning laws. Fair enough - Knowles wasn’t afforded the inches he’d get in The Economist, he got one caption per photo and a hundred words at the end to wrap up. But the images also lacked any sort of emotional wham.
A picture is worth a thousand words, but a shit picture is worth only half a good one. Knowles squandered seven of his fifteen photos to just about describe the housing mess, but only from the numbers point of view - not the emotions (again I re-iterate the graphs chosen were good, but there were just too many of them for the audience).
We then went off on a policy red herring, copy-pasted from Cameron's barren rhetoric on housing - that planning reforms were the way forward. Loosen the green belt and we're fine. As the fifteenth photo was used up - we realise that the piece is over.
Knowles has got a mighty brain on him. He's also got sympathy for the damage that welfare reform is doing, as this thoughtful piece shows, and he understands how disconnected the Tories have been from the constraining realities of benefits life. I sense that he understands the plight of poor Britons.
And while Buzzfeed offers him a huge audience, by virtue of its professional approach to curating “The ten best photos of” pieces, it’s not going to realise its full potential until it starts investing into imagery.
John Pilger recalls The Daily Mirror of the Sixties in his book Hidden Agendas. He describes the impact of editorial director Harry Guy Bartholomew (Bart), who drank heavily, swore incessantly and slapped his editors over the head with "an eight-foot balsa wood plank."
Bart, for all his faults, heroically invented the modern tabloid. The picture-led layouts of the big splash, the double-page spread, were all his idea. He transformed how pictures were used to sell newspapers - captivating the imagination of the vast working classes, and securing the future title of "best selling newspaper in the world."
The political impact of this huge readership, coupled with an editorial conscience, is not to be under-estimated. While The Daily Mail decried criticism of Hitler as "a misunderstanding," The Daily Mirror was the first to notify Britain that the little man was about to cause a great deal of trouble. No newspaper at the time took this view.
Alone again, it unseated Churchill from office post-war, unsuitable as he was, giving way to a Labour government. Churchill, on reading a piece he disapproved of, reportedly threw his copy across the room and yelled "I wish we could buy that rag, it is doing so much harm!"
And it opposed Eden's invasion of Suez (the only newspaper to do so), before going on to dominate the Sixties media scene with reportage on the plight of the elderly, back-street abortions and poverty "down pit" (where Pilger himself was sent to report). Then it stood against Vietnam - headlining "How can Britain support a war like this?" Once more, it was the only paper to do so.
Pictures were absolutely key to success and to arguing the paper's contrarian view. At it’s peak, the newspaper boasted more ABC1 readers than The Times, but still the vast majority of readers were working class, happy to read if well written (and boy was it well written), but also keen on photos to tell the story quicker than even the wittiest wordsmiths could.
The iconic image of St Pauls defying the Luftwaffe was published first in The Daily Mirror. Churchill's unsuitability for office was demonstrated by a front-page with a revolver and the headline "Whose finger?" - implying that a trigger-happy wartime Prime Minister wasn’t what Britain needed now Europe was at peace. Pilger's own piece, entitled “The Miners,” was given an incredible eight pages of images and text.
In a eulogy to The Daily Mirror, Pilger described:
“a campaign in my first year, in 1963...it was remarkable because it ran every day during the week that saw the Beatle's first appearance at London's Palladium. On the front page of the issue of October 14th, beneath the single-word banner ALONE, was an almost three dimensional photograph of the clasped hands of 94-year old Kate Malone, who, said the caption, lived alone in a top-floor flat in Bristol.
“The next day a photograph and caption ran alongside the popular Beatles story – ‘in this room, a man lay dead for six months.’ The campaign ended with a photo of a ‘teen-angel’ caring for her elderly relative and an editorial that implored: "in a curious but very real way, old and young speak the same language and have very much to give each other.”
In a similarly curious and unreal way the youthful stance of Buzzfeed has much to offer the ancient art of politics. Daniel Knowles’s piece was simplistic - but he works in a tough environment. To his credit, he picked graphs which illustrated his points plainly and without pretence.
I think his piece, and many others like it, are hamstrung by a lack of quality imagery and an unwillingness to invest in photographers, illustrators and animators. Realising the potential of their 'Ten pictures which show…' format, compelling as it is, may require a moderate investment into premium journalism. Buzzfeed can afford it, they’re on track to generate $60 million in revenue this year; as one media analyst described it, “they’re the media industry’s worst nightmare - profitable, growing and investing in news.”
Imagine showing photography of an aged and helpless victim of the bedroom tax, a husband and wife with their three young children, evicted last week in Hartlepool, a hard-working hospital porter unable to afford a home for his family. Perhaps a light-hearted poke at the pinstriped property developers lack of engagement with the affordable housing sector - a two frame animation of their money grabbing ways.
Animated gifs are common-place on Buzzfeed, the last one I came cross showed David Beckham’s evolution from teenage dreamboy through football hero to chiselled super-celebrity, iterations of his headshot taken at various points of his life placed one after another in an endless biographical loop.
This visual mechanic of the animated gif can be powerful - it could be used to great effect to animate simple graphs, mildly more complex relationships, ideas which are hard to photograph. But investing in proper animations, which are both funny and engaging, could also work well. Many non-profits are already doing this in the US to great effect.
But the general standard for imagery should be the old reportage of The Daily Mirror, or The Sunday Times Magazine of today, Wired magazine or Monocle. It should demand attention and spark anger, it should shock and impress.
"The same person is interested in light fare and in serious fare,” says Buzzfeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti. "I think people who grow up Facebook and Twitter are used to having all of those things mashed together."
“We have the potential to be a defining company, the same role the traditional media companies played decades ago."
He is principled about “respecting the reader,” something which the editors of The Daily Mirror also adhered to throughout their coverage.
He also wants to keep standards high: “We could juice our traffic and revenue by dropping everything and focusing entirely on the short term. But when you are building something enduring, you have to care as much about next year as you do about next week.”
His words are of significance when you consider how Murdochism took over the Mirror, it devalued rapidly - introduced topless models, focussed reporters on entertainment and sleaze, went for short-term gains not long-term respect and brand-building. The numbers reading The Mirror now pale in comparison to when it was “the largest newspaper in the world.”
In fact, so much of Peretti’s vision for online media is echoed by the genesis of The Daily Mirror and the modern tabloids. Given time and the right application of resources, Buzzfeed could re-engage youth, dish up the cat memes, but also make an impact with high power imagery. But Google Images just isn't going to cut it.