Follow my lede: I’m LOL and, OMG, look at that swimsuit issue! Today’s stops: Buzzfeed and Sports Illustrated

Sizing Up the South is catching up with Meredith Cummings on her journey through hundreds of newsroom this summer throughout America.

By Meredith Cummings, SPJ member and past president of SPJ Alabama

Meredith journey 4
BuzzFeed office. Photo by Meredith Cummings

Thursday, March 16

11 a.m. BuzzFeed, New York City office

BuzzFeed is exactly as buzzy as you think it would be. At the reception desk/security check-in I am offered stickers that say omg, wtf and lol, along with mints. Nothing starts a day off right quite like being offered a wtf sticker and a mint, both of which I take.

Even before I go into the building, the giant block font that greets me at the door and in the elevator area says, “This is going to be fun and very, very big.” Because the font is very fun and very, very big. I imagine all of my friends who geek out over typefaces would love and appreciate the clean lines. I have weird friends.

BuzzFeed office. Photo by Meredith Cummings

I log onto the wireless guest Internet access and even the guest password is catchy and cute. From the moment I enter, Buzzfeed is a carefully cultivated image of hip. At 44, I have never felt so old.

I have not been given clearance by BuzzFeed’s public relations department to shoot video while at BuzzFeed (despite my attempts), but my very quick tour gives me a sense of the place. No. It slaps me in the face with a sense of the place.

As I am whisked up several flights of stairs, the culture clearly screams “WE ARE YOUNG AND HIP,” which is exactly what I expected. Not in a “We are young and hip and better than you” kind of way, just in a matter of fact manner.

On every desk is a yellow circle, just like the ones on the top right of the BuzzFeed home page, with each employee’s name on it. On each floor a kitchen area offers various drinks and snacks, from giant plastic containers of various nuts to a row of cereal that would make Seinfeld jealous. These are my people because they love food. But their food is way cooler than mine.

The newsroom is like many newsrooms in America, with televisions (that day turned to CNN, at least at the moment I was visiting) and people milling about, but mostly sitting and typing.

In a large, open room I sit down with my friend to chat, but not before noticing the chalkboard, upscale-bar-like signs for Guinness. While we talk, a giant (and I mean giant) wall-sized screen interrupts us, as various people in one part of the building talk to people in another part. It is very Orwellian, but in a happy, IKEA-fied way, as the furniture and decor, from tables to chairs to lamps, look like high-end IKEA furniture. Much of it is blue and orange and yellow and there is color everywhere. This is interesting because the floor, ceiling and walls are gray and industrial-style, except for the walls that were Expo-marker friendly that employees can write on. (I’m totally doing this to one of my walls when I get home because now all I want to do is color on the walls.)

BuzzFeed office. Photo by Meredith Cummings

For all of its embracing cat videos and text message abbreviations, Buzzfeed’s split into a separate entertainment and news division has allowed it to come into the news business like a bull, and not do things in a business-as-usual way. Remember when it dumped a Trump dossier? (Which, by the way, I ethically disagree with because it violates the SPJ Code of Ethics, but my students and I have had healthy debates with each other and with a Buzzfeed employee who visited.) This is the second time during my project I am reminded that media companies, in some ways, cannot do journalism in the same way they once could.

Journalism has clearly missed the window for the time to step back, take a breath and think. So it strikes me that many media companies are trying to see what might stick. (In college, we used to throw spaghetti at the wall to see if it was done. If it stuck, it was done.) In Buzzfeed’s case, the expansion into seemingly endless new territory (See Tasty and Nifty) seems to be working. But in many companies I feel like lots of spaghetti is being thrown at walls.

Maybe it’s because I saw Aladdin on Broadway the night before I visited Buzzfeed, but I wish for a lamp and a genie so I can see into the future 10 years and see what journalism in America looks like. Will we even know what ROFL means any more?

2 p.m., Sports Illustrated, Time Inc. Building

Time Inc. office building. Photo by Meredith Cummings

If part of my goal is to take a snapshot in time of 2017 media companies, Time, Inc. juxtaposed with Buzzfeed is a good study in that. The differences between the two are subtle and important.

Time, Inc. has carpeted floors, as opposed to BuzzFeed’s industrial look and is starkly more traditional. I feel no need to use abbreviations here. Or take a quiz.

I sense history, in part due to the photographs from years of SI on the walls and, downstairs at the entrance, a Time photography retrospective.

Time, Inc. is right by One World Trade Center and is imposing and corporate from the outside. I meet Kelsey Hendrix, Producer at Sports Illustrated (SI) on an upper floor after clearing security (something I’ve been asked to do at every media company in New York, but this one is particularly thorough). I’ve been here before, to visit Time magazine, where the elevator spits me out today, and there is very little differentiating Time magazine from SI.

The same colors and red filing cabinets, chairs and accents are sprinkled throughout the offices with standard issue cubbies. I’m no decorator, so I only point this out to show that newsrooms all have different vibes and this one is clean and corporate, except for that one random dog I saw walk through with its owner.

Hendrix runs social media, writes and edits articles, produces videos, calls talent (SI models), writes for Campus Rush (part of SI) and freelances for People Country. (I honestly had never heard of People Country, but in my defense I don’t enjoy country music. I might be the only person in Alabama like this.)

We talked a lot about magazines and the magazine industry — she works heavily on SI’s Swimsuit edition each year), and the magazine insider information will be helpful for my classes. I noted that there were no large posters of SI Swimsuit editions plastered to the walls any more than there were SI magazines everywhere, except one place:

Hendrix also runs several social media accounts. One of the challenges of her job is to not repeat herself on social media and use a different voice for various social media, while keeping her own voice in her personal social media. She said the two are widely different. Social media can be fun, but if you run a bunch of accounts for work, it’s not quite as fun when it’s for pleasure. (I may be interjecting some of my own experience in this, but it echoes what she said.)

What really strikes me, though, are her comments on diversity, but let me first put them in context of my week: Being in New York is always refreshing to me. In a cab my driver was from Poland. In an elevator a Swedish couple canoodled. Today I was on the subway and the man next to me was reading a newspaper in Greek. A group of young men wearing yarmulkes sat across from me. The man next to me spoke Italian on the phone. Frankly, these are things I don’t usually see.

Hendrix struggles to reconcile her surroundings with her work environment, something I’ve already heard several times on this trip from other journalists, and I’m just at the beginning of my journey.

Diversity in newsrooms is something that will come up again, as I am making it a point to ask every single person I talk to about this. Her comments need no explanation:

“In my personal life, diversity is all around me. I live in New York, one of the most diverse places in the world. There’s no escaping the fact that people from literally every part of the world come here and I think that’s the most beautiful part of New York. You’re on a subway car with people from 10 different countries at any given point in the day and that’s a beautiful thing. Diversity in the newsroom can still use a lot of work. As — and I don’t pull this card often — as a woman working in sports there’s definitely still a lot of room for more women to work in sports and for — especially women covering mens’ sports and men covering womens’ sports — for us to figure out the best way to cover those behind-the-scenes in depth, without being intrusive and without overstepping lines of privacy that should be there. But our industry could really use more diversity, for sure.”

Meredith Cummings

Meredith Cummings is past president of SPJ Alabama Pro and is Instructor of Journalism, Director of Scholastic Media, University of Alabama. @MereCummings