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Number 1 Shimbun

What's the Fuss?



Japanese media may be about to receive a wake-up call from BuzzFeed's new Japan operation

by Richard Smart

BuzzFeed is one of those things, like Snapchat, that older people just don’t seem to get. Ask anyone over the age of 35 what the site is about and they are likely to mention cats, lists, viral videos and not a lot else. But the young have gone to it in droves for news and entertainment.

The site has made a name for itself in the U.S. with coverage of issues such as the Black Lives Matter protest movement, its staunch support for the rights of people in the LGBT community and opposition to the Republican candidate Donald Trump, with whom the company terminated an ad deal in July.

In January this year, BuzzFeed arrived in Japan after an agreement was signed between the company and Yahoo Japan. “Overseas – particularly in the U.S. – BuzzFeed’s brand is very strong and well known,” says CEO Max Ueno, clad in a red sports jersey featuring the company’s “trending” icon. “It also has impressive technology. Their editorial experience means the company has the knowledge of how to release articles in ways that increases readership. [And] Yahoo Japan, which is a very strong media company, has a platform that can bring traffic and influence to BuzzFeed here.”


Politicians have been trolled in creative ways, issues that were unreported by other media in disasters have gone viral and identity politics has a new platform.


Seven months into the company’s Japan venture, the signs are promising. Politicians have been trolled in creative ways, issues that were unreported by other media in disasters have gone viral and identity politics has a new platform.

Buzzfeed has proven it means to shake things up. When Tokyo Governor Yoichi Masuzoe came under fire for his spending habits, BuzzFeed Japan was shut out of the city assembly's news conferences. The company was effectively told that it was not considered a media organization by the city administration. “It was very confusing,” Ueno said.

So BuzzFeed published an article describing how it was shut out. It also used the occasion to report on Masuzoe and his shenanigans in ways unimaginable in more traditional media outlets. “Many people wanted to know how Masuzoe was involved in the scandal, and the facts, so we did write quite a lot,” said Daisuke Furuta, founding editor of BuzzFeed Japan. “We also posted a quiz about how lawyers determined what spending was improper and proper using political funds. For example, he bought an oven to bake pizza, which was regarded as proper by the lawyers.”

Journalists at BuzzFeed also found a 1992 Nintendo role-playing game that the former governor had helped to produce, titled “Yoichi Masuzoe: Until the Morning,” in which players act as company employees and have to work their way up the corporate ladder while dealing with slippery co-workers, pesky journalists and the sort of office politics that will be familiar to anybody who has ever worked in Japan. At the time, Masuzoe was working as a writer and consultant, as well as making a name for himself as a talking head on the prime-time current affairs shows of the day. He appears as an advisor to the player’s character during the game.


Making a buzz
BuzzFeed Japan’s CEO Max Ueno, top, and its editor Daisuke Furuta
, below



BuzzFeed had a field day. “We tried to use that software to show what kind of person Masuzoe is in a way that is interesting to our audience,” Furuta said. “Our intention was not to tease Masuzoe, but we wanted to convey that there was such a game and that the content showed the very stereotypical business practices in Japan. We objectively covered that in our article and left it up to readers to interpret what the game meant.”

Those business practices – sexism, after work drinks with clients, dealing with harassment through bland iterations, forcing people into jobs they would not want to do and the like – leave little to the imagination about the sort of person, at least at one time, Masuzoe was.

It would be unimaginable to see the Yomiuri Shimbun devoting column inches to such coverage of a game. But Furuta says BuzzFeed sees traditional media as a source of inspiration for stories that can entertain and inform. “I come from a newspaper background,” he said, “and certain stories are not run for various reasons, such as space restrictions. But our media can post those sorts of stories. That we can provide such different kinds of content means that there is room for BuzzFeed in Japan, and the audience has taken to it very well.”

Furuta’s optimism may be justified, but his company does face competition. Other companies, such as the Huffington Post have also moved into the Japanese market. And homegrown companies such as SmartNews and Gunosy also provide content that is primarily aimed at smartphone consumption. SmartNews, a news aggregation app, has raised $90 million in investment since its founding, including $38 million in a series-D round of funding announced in early July, led by the Development Bank of Japan. The Huffington Post, meanwhile, is a collaboration between the Asahi Shimbun and the U.S. site; last year, it surpassed 15 million unique users per month. Gunosy, which also aggregates news, went public in April and has a market capitalization of around $37 million.

Kosuke Takahashi, the former editor of the Huffington Post Japan, noted last year that as the digital news market was growing, it was beginning to split into separate market segments. “Gunosy targets people in their late teens and early 20s,” he said, while “SmartNews targets those in their early 20s to early 30s. HuffPost’s selling point is international news, so we get people in their 30s and 40s, company workers.”


He claims BuzzFeed has a completely different way of thinking in terms of editorial, distribution and marketing.


Where does BuzzFeed Japan fit in? “The people we want to reach are the millennials, aged 18 to 34,” Buzzfeed’s Ueno said. Additionally, he claims, BuzzFeed has a completely different way of thinking in terms of editorial, distribution and marketing. “On the business side, younger generations are spending more time on smartphones,” Ueno said. “But despite that, there are still not sufficient media to satisfy that demand. There is also a lot of possible improvement with content quality. By satisfying those needs, we can attract advertisers, who are aware there are audiences they cannot reach through traditional media.” The company will launch its advertising section later this year, with a sales team of slightly less than 20.

Though contracts have yet to be signed, Ueno sees companies such as Canon, Procter and Gamble, Toyota and Nestle, all of which have previously advertised with the main site in the U.S., as potential advertisers. “Thanks to BuzzFeed’s success in the U.S. and Europe we have received inquiries from companies with international brands who have run adverts on BuzzFeed,” he said.

There are, of course, reasons to be skeptical about the company’s expectations. BuzzFeed in the U.S. halved its revenue target to $250 million earlier this year as traffic to its site fell by 14 percent, leading some to suggest its peak is over. Ueno, however, is unfazed. “We are a private company, so we are not disclosing specific number for sales targets, for example, or how much we are trying to make,” he said. “But Japan is one of the important strategic markets [for BuzzFeed], and that will not change.” The company also has the benefit of the backing of Yahoo Japan, which is 35.5 percent owned by its U.S. namesake and has seen continual growth in recent years in sectors such as e-commerce, online advertising and listings.

Part of the appeal of BuzzFeed is its lack of a real home. There is, of course, a website. And then there is also a Twitter stream, a Facebook page, an Instagram feed, a Snapchat section, Line notification and probably more. “We are trying to create content that makes a buzz on social media,” Furuta said, “so we have to understand what the audience wants. More specifically, we want to know what the audience wants to know at this precise second; what will be useful to them; what will surprise and move them.

“We keep these factors in mind when looking for subjects to cover,” he added. “After articles have gone out we check data on reader numbers and share volume, and we look at the comments. We use this data to learn about our audience and use it to decide on our next stories. It’s a constant learning process. This is probably the biggest difference to how things are done at newspapers.”

Jonah Perretti, BuzzFeed’s founder, explained in an interview for the online magazine Matter in 2014 that BuzzFeed does not favor the use of metrics as a measure of popularity. “As soon as you try to actually optimize,” he said, “particularly for a single metric, you end up finding that the best way to optimize for that metric ends up perverting the metric and making the metric mean the opposite of what it used to mean.” In other words, a focus on click rates, for example, will lead to staff finding ways to cheat the system. “Our idea is to deliver content to our audiences, rather than bringing people to our sites,” Ueno said.

Issues that the company has found get traction include LGBT rights – they were clear from the start that the recent massacre in Florida was primarily homophobic – and unreported issues surrounding the Kumamoto earthquake. BuzzFeed was the first to report on the extensive damage in neighboring Oita Prefecture after the earthquakes.

“Our coverage of the Oita onsen town of Yufuin got huge shares and was read by a lot of people,” Furuta said. “At the time, the media was only looking at Kumamoto, but part of Oita was also badly hit.” The story ran with the sort of tagline that makes waves across social media: “Don’t forget about Oita.” Buzzfeed also got a scoop on how food rations in Kyushu were withheld in order to ensure all evacuees were treated equally.

One rule, Furuta says, governs all stories: Do not sling mud. “There’s a message on Perretti’s public blog where he makes it very clear that the purpose of BuzzFeed is to create a positive impact. For instance, when we look at LGBT issues in our global editions, or the rights of women, we will release a variety of content [that is supportive of these communities]. In our editorial guidelines, we clearly state that our political stance is neutral. But where human rights or discrimination are concerned we do not write from both perspectives.”

And that brings us back to those cat photos that BuzzFeed is often linked with. “Having a positive impact brings about so many possibilities,” Furuta said. “Articles do not need to be serious. An image of a kitten, which people will consider cute, has a positive impact, as do funny videos. We are always thinking about what we can do to make a positive impact.”

Richard Smart covers Japanese business, science and the economy for publications around the world.



Last modified on Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Published in: NUMBER 1 SHIMBUN 2016

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