What it’s like for publisher Mark Schoofs to take over BuzzFeed News during a global pandemic

What it's like for publisher Mark Schoofs to take over BuzzFeed News during a global pandemic

Even before his first official day on the job, Mark Schoofs attended an all-hands meeting about permissions derived from the economic impact of the pandemic. But Schoofs was up for a challenge at a media company he already knows well. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist joined BuzzFeed in 2014 from ProPublica to lead the investigative team. In 2018, he went to teach at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism but returned to replace Ben Smith, who resigned as editor-in-chief in January to be the media critic for the New York Times.

Schoofs spoke to CNN Business about his decision to join BuzzFeed and what he hopes to change internally.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The reason why I took the job is really simple. I mean, it’s a great job, but also frankly, because of the crisis. The times you miss being in a newsroom is when there is a big crisis. I remember that on September 11, for example, all the people were leaving the Twin Towers. Like it was something out of a movie, like a Cecil B. DeMille movie. There were thousands of people walking north to get away from the burning tower, and I was riding my bike in the opposite direction towards the towers. Now I feel like this. We are in the midst of a pandemic and economic depression. That is a great story.

What has changed on BuzzFeed since you left? And what have you noticed that has not changed?

So what hasn’t changed: It’s still a great news organization that constantly gives news on some of the day’s biggest stories. So much of the credit goes to Ben Smith and the other people who ran the newsroom after he left. And, of course, reporters just did an incredibly good job of covering the pandemic and now the economic crisis, too. That is the main thing that has not changed. It is still a fantastic, powerful kinetic news organization.

I think the things that have changed is that you’ve seen it become a news organization that knows how to mix planes. I remember when I first came to BuzzFeed, it was a very nascent newsroom that was still developing rhythms, which at the time, was developing a breaking news desk. It is now an organization that when something breaks, responds as quickly and if necessary with the entire newsroom and that those muscles are much better developed now than when I started.

How do you want the newsroom to change and how do you see yourself operating differently than Ben?

First of all, what Ben was so amazing about was dynamism, those kinds of fast twitch muscles. You wanted, as he put it, to win the hour. That dynamism is something that I hope we can continue because that is the heart of any newsroom.

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I think I’d like to focus on different coverage areas that maybe Ben had the opportunity to focus on when he was here. Be a little more deliberate in the way we coordinate desktops. These stories are now often huge and involve different parts of the world. They involve politics, they involve technology, they involve the economy. If you look, let’s say in the New York Times or The Washington Post, you will often see two, three, four, five, seven lines, one story. There is a reason why they are doing that because all those reporters bring experience and skill and supply to that story. We have to improve our ability to combine forces. We are a small pirate ship that faces large aircraft carriers. So we have to be able to be super agile, super agile and collaborate really well.

You will stay at USC. How can you balance that role with your full-time position as editor-in-chief?

I think the good thing about Annenberg and BuzzFeed is that they are both agile organizations that can see the potential benefits of unprecedented collaboration. So yeah running BuzzFeed News is a full time job, but I think it’s perfectly possible for me and BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti to teach a course every year. I think it is something that is not available to any other news organization. He has the ability of a CEO and editor-in-chief to engage students, immerse them in the real newsroom, challenge them with real-world journalism and the real-world issues facing the news industry and that kind of learning. and actual tutoring is incredibly powerful. That’s what the students hope they get from the courses that Jonah and I will teach.

It is based in Los Angeles, while much of its reporting team is based in New York. How do you plan to lead from the west coast when there are so many people on the east coast?

I think we are all leaving our houses now. I am not sure that at the end of this epidemic we will return to the same type of offices that we had before.

I think many people are realizing two things and they are contradictory things. One, that they like working from home and then, somehow, they are more productive working from home, and two, that they missed the social aspects of work that arose when they were all in the same place. The way people will work will not be as it was before. I would guess that there will still be a great job from the domestic component. I think Zoom is only a permanent part of our lives now. I think managing remotely is something that literally everyone in every industry is doing, except maybe those who are dealing only with essential workers. I think in a weird way, this time you are preparing the template of how you can manage a global team largely remotely.

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When one can travel, again, I plan to travel. When we have an office again, I plan to go to places where we have an office or if we don’t have an office where we have a considerable number of people and we meet with them in person and meet face to face. sites or whatever because I think there is value in actually being able to see people and not just see their square on a screen. It is a hybrid response, but I suspect we are going to end up with a hybrid culture.

You are taking over BuzzFeed during a delicate time in our industry. How do you maintain morale among employees?

Number one and most importantly, I promised you that I will be honest, that I will be honest and will not sweeten. If there is a question I cannot answer, I will tell you that I cannot answer. If there is a question I don’t know the answer to, I will tell you I don’t know and try to find out. But if there is information that I have and can share, I will share it and share it directly without sweetening. In a time of crisis, I think people need that, and ultimately I think people respect that even if what you say is really awful.

I think if you level with people, if you share financial information, we have shared more financial information with the news team than has ever been shared with the news team before, so that we are transparent or explain why we are taking actions that We’re taking the most important thing, when we got to the union, we said, “Listen, we’d like to make shared work work. This is how far we’ve come. Let us show you the work we’ve done and then let’s take it from there and see if working together, we can find a way to make that work and save some jobs while still achieving the cost savings we need to achieve. “

(One day after this interview, the union and BuzzFeed News management agreed to a shared work program.)

The third way to maintain morale is to focus on work. Everyone in this job does it because they love journalism.

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Why are you starting an inequality desk?

Inequality has been a major problem in American life and a growing problem in American life for a long period of time, and now COVID-19 has deepened those divisions in our society and made them more neon too. Everyone is aware of these problems. They are aware that if you are an “essential worker”, they often treat you as a disposable worker. Everyone is aware that there is a big gap in who is receiving and dying from COVID-19 both economically and in terms of race, which is obviously a bright red thread running through the history of the United States. We are facing an economic depression in which almost a quarter of Americans have lost their jobs, and that will lead to a very acute awareness of those who have and those who do not have and how our society improves and worsens. It is structured .

What do you think of Ben Smith’s work in the Times?

I never read the Ben Smith columns. [laughs] Ben always has an interesting and provocative point of view. So of course I read his column every Sunday.

Any favorite so far?

I would say that that of the unions was really interesting. I want to be careful here because I don’t want anyone in a union, ours or any other union, to misinterpret what I’m saying. His point was that unions are fighting for waste. There are many companies, media companies and news companies that are in financial difficulties and part of the reason that they are in financial difficulties is that the big platforms have received a lot of publicity and have not returned as much as they have taken. the right direction and I want to commend the platforms for taking those steps, but it’s still not enough.

It got me thinking about one of the biggest missions I have, which is to make sure that BuzzFeed as a company and BuzzFeed News as a division have the best possible financial level so that we never have to go through a license period again and that we can make sure May all our great journalists continue to have great jobs. Honestly, these days I think about it at least as much as anything else and probably more.

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Cory Weinberg

About the Author: Cory Weinberg

Cory Weinberg covers the intersection of tech and cities. That means digging into how startups and big tech companies are trying to reshape real estate, transportation, urban planning, and travel. Previously, he reported on Bay Area housing and commercial real estate for the San Francisco Business Times. He received a "best young journalist" award from the National Association of Real Estate Editors.

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