Buzzfeed is a company that attracts millions of teens through interactive quizzes, recipes, and videos online. But Buzzfeed News is a side of Buzzfeed that is rarely focused on. It’s the serious side of a company that’s main center is social media and entertainment. Even though viewers may have qualms about trusting the journalism on Buzzfeed News, the reporters behind the scenes take their jobs seriously and are adamant about finding the truth.
Recently, I sat down with Will Alden, Buzzfeed’s Senior Business Reporter, to discuss his career in journalism— I asked him about his writing process, the advice he has for future writers, and what drives him to keep writing.
Katie Gorton: First of all, how did you become involved in journalism, and what’s a basic timeline from when you found an interest in it to where you are now?
Will Alden: I approached journalism from the perspective of being interested in writing. It wasn’t that I was interested in a particular subject. I was mostly interested in becoming a better writer and found interest in all kinds of topics. I studied playwriting in college, and I also worked on my school newspaper eventually becoming an editor. I discovered during college that I really like journalism, so I transitioned from playwriting to non-fiction prose. I took a course in reporting and investigation type stuff and really late in my college experience, I discovered that I liked it opposed to the art criticism that I originally worked on.
I was lucky enough to get an internship, funded by my school, at the New York Observer and eventually got an entry-level job at the Huffington Post doing write-ups of other people’s new articles on their website. After a month of that, I told them I wanted to do original reporting instead of rewriting, and they let me do it. I think the key is finding a place that lets you do original reporting so you can actually find information that people are unaware of and might be interested in. That’s the best way to stand out, I think, as a young journalist.
What’s a typical day like for you?
I wake up, and I usually have some coffee at home. I try to go on a run if I can or some kind of exercise. I bike to work usually because I live not too far away. I aim to get to the office before 10, and I leave around 6 or so. You know I might be doing meetings during the day—going out somewhere or people might be coming in here—I might be on the phone or doing emails all day or writing. It kind of depends. Some days, I’ll just be focused on writing. Other days, I’ll be doing reporting or writing up a quick post if something’s happening. I’m generally in the office 5 days a week. Sometimes, I’m traveling or out in meetings, but usually, I’m in the office.
How do you go about finding stories to write about, and how do you usually research them?
My story finding process is a combination of all kinds of stuff. You have to read a lot. You have to read a number of different news sources, and you also have to be familiar with what’s going on most days in the news. You don’t have to be glued to your computer at all times, but you have to be familiar with what’s happening and know the important aspects of the story (people, companies, etc.) in whatever area you’re interested in writing about. As a journalist, you have to listen to what your gut tells you as well as your interests. If there’s a topic that you read about that’s interesting, you might reach out to the people mentioned in the piece or see if there’s more to that story. Or if there’s a company that’s getting coverage and it seems like there’s more to that story that’s not being said, you could find employees on Linked In or elsewhere and reach out to people that way. There’s really no one way to do it. It’s becoming familiar with an industry or a topic and then actually talking to people (i.e. picking up the phone, sending people emails) that kind of thing.
What are some challenges you face as a writer?
A big challenge is organizing my time efficiently and effectively. Journalism requires a lot of looking down pathways that might not lead anywhere, so it can sometimes be frustrating when you get a tip that leads to a dead end.
In general, writing and research require a lot of time, so it’s important to know how to manage time effectively and not waste it on Twitter and Slack.
I personally always find it a challenge to balance how I spend my time. It’s definitely manageable, but it’s also just something I think about a lot (i.e. how should I be spending my time and which tasks should I be working on?).
What inspires you to pursue investigative journalism and writing?
I’m interested in learning what the truth is of a given situation. I think the truth is very interesting, and I’m interested in compelling stories that reveal something about the world, a company, or a person. I’m just interested and curious, and I think journalism is a good field for someone who’s interested in that way.
What do you think is the best story you’ve published so far?
I was proud of the first Palantir one I did which was about a year ago. It was the first major look at how the business of that company was doing. People knew about who some of the customers were and roughly what they did, but they didn’t really know how the company was doing and what it was like when it interacted with customers. When I started writing, it was— I think it still is—the 3rd biggest of the privately held unicorn startups. This piece was fun because people hadn’t really written too much about Palantir, so that’s why I was attracted to it. I thought that was a good opportunity to write something that people hadn’t seen before which is what I try to do, and I’m proud of how that turned out.
After you uncovered the truth about Palantir in your article, would you say you became more of an advocate for privacy?
Being a journalist is a more dispassionate role. I would say I care about press freedom, but I don’t advocate for particular issues when it comes to the areas I’m writing about. When you’re a journalist, there’s a tacit understanding that you leave your personal beliefs out of your work in service of telling readers something true, and I think that’s a worthwhile trade-off. Being a journalist is an important and powerful role.
How are you able to keep up with the latest issues in tech?
I use Twitter a lot, but I try not to use Twitter too much because you can easily get sucked into it and can get really distracting. I do find it more useful than Facebook because I can curate my feed better and follow certain journalists and news outlets. I also used an app called Nuzzel, and it’s really good because it allows you to sign in with your Twitter or Facebook feed. You connect your account to Nuzzel, and then, it shows you just a feed of the articles that your friends are tweeting skipping the step of combing through all the tweets. This app is smart in that way that it does that work for you, and it’s less distracting than Twitter. I find that really helpful. I also use apps like the Buzzfeed News app, which is really good, the New York Times is good as well. I probably use those two apps the most for as far as news apps.
Who are your go-to people on Twitter?
Well, I try to follow a bunch of really good journalists:
- Katie Benner at the NYT has been doing great work on the sexual harassment story that has been happening in venture capital.
- Mike Isaac at the NYT is doing great work on Uber as well.
- Nitasha Tiku who used to work with us at Buzzfeed but now at Wired is really good.
- Casey Newton from the Verge is very good.
- Amir Efrati also at the Information is super good.
- Ellen Huet and Mark Bergen at Bloomberg are both good.
There are also a great number of reporters here at Buzzfeed whom you can follow. For example in our office, there’s Caroline O’ Donovan, Ellen Cushing, Alex Kantrowitz, and Ryan Mac.
There are a bunch of great journalists. My favorite thing to do is follow reporters as opposed to news outlets because reporters tend to be more selective and smarter about what is actually interesting, so I find that to be a really great aspect of Twitter.
What do you think is the best way for a teenager to become involved in tech reporting?
I think the best way to become involved is to definitely read articles, magazines, newspapers, etc. and also journalism that’s not singularly tech reporting too. Read all kinds of journalism because I think the best tech journalism uses the techniques of good journalism. It’s not just in the tech sphere. Subscribe to newspapers or magazines if you can and also try to write original stuff whether it’s for your own blog or a publication even if it’s a small publication especially if they give you the opportunity to do original work that’s really the most important thing. I would say it is important to be on Twitter even just to follow certain people, so you’re aware of what people are doing and talking about and also just to be interesting and curious.
What are some general tips you have about how people can improve their writing?
Find an editor whom you trust and ask them to go through a piece of writing line by line changing and correcting your work. I’ve had that experience only a few times when I was a student, and it was amazing. Most writing classes, I took, didn’t have teachers who would actually go through writing—sentence by sentence—and tell you how to make things better. I think that experience is invaluable.
There are a few books you could read like the Elements of Style by Struncan and White. It’s definitely worth reading and very short. It’s been around for almost 50 years, and it’s the definitive book on writing. There are a few other good ones: On Writing Well— that’s a very good one for nonfiction prose writing—Stephan King has a great book called On Writing too that you should definitely check out.
I think reading a lot helps, and writing—clearly and directly— helps a lot just in practice.
Do you know of any tech-related books that you can recommend to readers?
There have been some good books written recently about tech people like Ashley Vance’s book on Elon Musk and Brad Stone’s book about Amazon. I’m sure that there will be more books that will be written about the current environment that we’re in, but those are two good ones that I’ve read.
What other books do you read, and who do you think writes well?
I read lots of novels and other nonfiction books. I just read the Lost City of Z by David Grand, who’s a New Yorker writer, which is a great nonfiction book. I recently read This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolfe who actually teaches at Stanford. It’s his memoir which I definitely recommend. It’s beautifully written. I love the novels of Elmore Lenard, who’s a crime writer. He writes beautifully. His dialogue is incredible; his characters are hilarious and amazing. I’m just obsessed with his writing style. I really like books where there is a very strong and clear writing style.
Do you ever listen to podcasts, and do you have any recommendations?
Yeah, I love podcasts. There’s a bunch of Slate podcasts that I like. I like their Trumpcast. I like their politics podcasts. I also like their Lexicon Valley podcast. I love the Still Processing podcast from the New York Times. I love the Longform podcast. They interview writers. I always find that really interesting. I like the Recode Decode podcast about tech which Kara Swisher hosts. Buzzfeed has a bunch of really good podcasts. The New Yorker Radio hour is good. Containers was really interesting that was like a mini-documentary podcast about container shipping. Newsfeed is my editor Ben Smith’s podcast which is always fun.
Here’s a look inside the offices!