What We Talk About When We Talk About BuzzFeed

Illustration by Andre Gawan for Tech in Asia.

When I think of BuzzFeed, we don’t think of news first. We think of gifs, zodiac quizzes, and BuzzFeed’s bread and butter: the listicle.

BuzzFeed’s celebrity and pop culture coverage uses listicles liberally, but I hadn’t seen one yet in BuzzFeed News. Today, I found one, written by Rose Troup Buchanan.

The title: “A Bunch Of World Leaders Fell Asleep At This International Summit And The Photos Are Amazing.”

 

It’s exactly what it sounds like. The listicle begins with a description of the annual Arab Summit, where 16 Arab leaders gathered to discuss issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This article, though, isn’t focused on the topics of discussion. It’s about listing all the leaders who fell asleep during the meeting, along with funny pictures of them snoozing.

After that, Buchanan includes Tweets about the sleepy statesmen, some of which are indignant or sarcastic, but many are funny memes.

This isn’t the only time BuzzFeed News has covered the sleep habits of Arab leaders. In 2013, then-Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi caught some Z’s at that year’s Arab Summit, and BuzzFeed reported on that, too.

I’m fine with a goofy news story now and then, so I don’t mind these listicles. Plus, contrary to the views of some purists, I think listicles can be the best way to explain an issue to somebody, especially when they are just learning about it for the first time. This listicle isn’t a great example of explanatory journalism, but it made me laugh.

Let’s get an actual article about the actual summit to go along with it, though, BuzzFeed. Don’t let this be a standalone—we need the meat of the story along with the laughs.

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It’s (Final) Story Time

PHOTO: Warren Towers, a dorm at Boston University. Photo by Brian Chang-Yun Tsu from Wikimedia Commons.

For my final story for JO304, I’m going to be focusing on housing affordability at Boston University and cheaper alternatives to traditional dorms. I created a small Storify that I will be adding to as my research continues.

I’m going to try to focus on the Harriet E. Richards, or HER House. It’s a communal living house for women relying on financial aid at Boston University who want a more affordable housing option. I’m excited to get in touch with current residents to get their perspectives.

BuzzFeed, Don’t Forget the Internet!

This may seem like a weird title for a blog post about an online-only news outlet. Hear me out.

In previous newstrack blogs, we’ve established that BuzzFeed News is on its way to being better at the internet than any other news source. Embedded social media elements! Crowdsourcing data! Accessible formatting!

BuzzFeed doesn’t always incorporate these elements, apparently. And it should.

Take Paul McLeod’s Republicans Are Nearing A Last-Minute Deal To Save Their Health Care Bill for example. It is constructed much like any other online news piece. A headline, summary, and picture at the top, and then a big old chunk of text, uninterrupted by anything.

This is uncharacteristic for what I’ve seen from BuzzFeed so far, and I’m not sure I like it. The online elements BuzzFeed usually employs so well aren’t present here. Maybe it’s because a story about legislative deals doesn’t lend itself to multimedia—but I disagree. No embedded tweets from House members scrambling to get President Trump’s Affordable Health Care Act passed? In comparison, this piece is jarringly empty.

This is in no way a comment on the content of the article. It just doesn’t include what I’ve come to expect—and enjoy—from BuzzFeed News.

BuzzFeed Perfects its News-to-Brain Delivery System

Tonight, a federal judge in Hawaii placed a stay on Trump’s ban affecting refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it happened before. It’s a second ban and a second go around the courts.

BuzzFeed News has the development covered in a more accessible way than most legacy news outlets.

What’s the shortest route from screen to brain? Bullet points. BuzzFeed News loves them. For this topic, BuzzFeed introduces the new development in the first bullet point and follows it with other bullet points that provide background context and links to previous coverage. Another bullet includes a link to a piece exploring the differences between the first ban and the new one.

One of my main problems with established news sources these days is their opacity. They want new subscribers from new demographic bases, but their coverage remains opaque to those who want to start reading the news for the first time. BuzzFeed provides the much-needed handholding. (So did Vox, before it became a thinly veiled partisan vehicle.)

I could have used guidance like this when I first started reading the news, especially on issues as complicated as Trump’s immigration order court battle.  I hope BuzzFeed keeps this commitment to clarity as it builds its news organization.

Silber’s Way

On a Thursday afternoon, student and faculty protestors mixed with the flow of Boston University students on Commonwealth Avenue as they marched toward the university’s administrative offices on Silber Way.

The protest was organized in solidarity with the Service Employees International Union, the union that represents B.U.’s adjunct faculty. Several different causes came together for the protest, but demonstrators had a central message.

“B.U., come off it. Put people over profit,” they chanted.

Rachel Eckles led the chants using a megaphone. She is a student organizer for DivestBU, a group that wants the university to get rid of its investments in fossil fuels.

After rallying on Silber Way, the protest ended without incident.

Like many other universities, B.U. has a long history of protest. Under the late John Silber, who served as president of B.U. from 1971 to 1996 and is Silber Way’s namesake, the protest might not have ended peacefully. In 1971, Silber called the police to break up a student sit-in.

Silber warred with faculty, too, and some professors were not shy in speaking out. Neither are the professors involved in DivestBU today, albeit under different circumstances.

 

Caryl Rivers has been a journalism professor at B.U. for so long, she tells people she’s part of the building. She was also part of the B.U. Five, a group of tenured professors Silber tried to fire during the tumultuous spring of 1979.

Rivers sat in her spacious office in the College of Communication, tucked behind a huge desk. The walls were barely visible under hanging tribal masks, old pulp novel covers, and posters for her own books.

Rivers said she got tenure around 1974 under Silber, who also hired her. Ironic, considering she was to become one of his most well-publicized opponents.

And he had many. In a 1980 interview with Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes, Silber said, “A university is certainly not a democracy if it is any good. The more democratic the university becomes, the lousier it becomes.”

Rivers saw that principle in action. She said journalism faculty were “very upset” when Silber cut all funding to campus publications, leading The Daily Free Press to become independent. Silber told Mike Wallace he cut funding to school papers so he wouldn’t have to censor them.

The great catalyst for the chaos at B.U. in the late 1970’s, though, was not just a journalism department problem.

Silber told Mike Wallace he had a strict policy of reserving benefits like tenure only for the best. Political science professor and Silber opponent Howard Zinn wrote in his autobiography about the faculty’s response, which was to unionize.

In April 1979, after contract negotiations failed, the faculty went on strike. Silber relented after nine tense days, but Zinn and Rivers—along with Murray Levin, Fritz Ringer and Andrew Dibner—held their classes outside so they wouldn’t have to cross the picket lines of clerical workers, who continued to strike.

Silber threatened to fire them. A controversial proposition, Rivers said, considering they had tenure, and they became known as the “B.U. Five,” garnering support from other universities.

Once again, Silber backed down. But it left an impression. Although Rivers acknowledged Silber’s ample positive contributions to the university, one quality of his came up again and again.

“Silber was a very authoritarian president,” she said. “He didn’t like people disagreeing with him.”

 

Silber’s obituary in The New York Times puts into perspective just how long he was in charge at B.U. He served as president from 1971 to 1996, and then  as chancellor from 1996 to 2003. After that, from 2005 on, he lived in a university-paid residence in Brookline as president emeritus. He died in 2012.

Despite Silber’s decades of influence, B.U.’s administration today is not nearly as confrontational. But that doesn’t mean that the faculty have stopped pushing for change.

A bicycle leans against the wall outside Edward Loechler’s office. The office itself, overlooking Cummington Mall, is lit by natural light. In 2014, Loechler and other DivestBU faculty circulated a divestment petition among professors that Loechler said got nearly 300 signatures.

Loechler, playing with his white beard, said his Episcopalian upbringing led him to a life full of social and political action: gaining conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War, working voter registration drives, and holding peace vigils in Coolidge Corner.

He came to the issue of climate change in the 2000s, “which is way too late,” he said. He called climate change “an existential threat to the world as we know it.”

Loechler decided to educate people about the problem and influence institutions like B.U. to take action.

He started giving a lecture on climate change every semester. At one lecture, he said, a student involved in B.U.’s divest movement approached him. After that, Loechler said he and other faculty members, like earth and environment professor Nathan Phillips and Jennifer Luebke of the medical school, became involved in what had initially been a student group.

After bringing the faculty petition to President Brown, Loechler said Brown told them the proper forum for their complaint was the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI). In 2016, the ACSRI recommended that the Board of Trustees divest from fossil fuels and develop a Climate Action Plan, a series of strategies developed to make the university greener.

The faculty petition, following two years of student activism, finally got divestment on the administration’s agenda.

After all, faculty are around longer than the students who start the movements. Masha Vernik, DivestBU’s media liaison, said this gives faculty voices greater power.

“The university administration is more likely to listen if they hear faculty support for it,” she said.

In the end, the Board of Trustees did not act on the ACSRI’s recommendation to fully divest, although President Brown wrote an email to the university last fall promising to avoid future investments in fossil fuels and to establish a Climate Action Plan.

Loechler said he was disappointed by the decision, but not by the course of events.

“I felt like this was a very serious, engaged, engaging process that was educational to a lot of people, and that moved this effort forward in a significant way,” he said.

Professor Jennifer Luebke, now a member of the task force charged with creating the university’s Climate Action Plan, agreed. She called the decision disappointing but said “significant progress was made by B.U.”

 

Caryl Rivers sees a stark difference between Silber and the current administration. She said she thinks the current administration would never respond to a labor issue like the response that caused the strike in 1979.

“It’s a real university now in terms of the way it’s run, when under Silber it was really one-man rule,” Rivers said.

DivestBU continues to stage demonstrations, which Jennifer Luebke identified as a shift away from the group’s original tactics. She said she supports student protest but also sees value in working within the system. Unlike professors involved in the 1979 strike who openly opposed the administration, Luebke stressed the fact that she does not see herself as a protestor.

“My point of view is faculty trying to get the institution to do the right thing,” she said.

 

Monuments to Silber

B.U. bears Silber’s mark in both its history and its campus. Here are the results of a Silber scavenger hunt.

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Midterm Quotes #2

This week I talked with Masha Vernik, the media coordinator for DivestBU.

“I basically was looking for some sort of like, activism, environmental activism. And when I say activism, I mean like community project-oriented towards attacking a system, like a pernicious system that is causing environmental destruction.” -On why she joined DivestBU

“But the university administration is more likely to listen if they hear faculty support for it.” -On faculty in DivestBU, which began as a student movement