An Interview with Shani Hilton, Executive Editor at BuzzFeed News
Shani Hilton is the executive news editor at BuzzFeed News, where she’s worked since February 2013. Before joining BuzzFeed, Ms. Hilton worked at the Center for American Progress, the Washington City Paper, and NBC. She also has worked to establish a clear set of guidelines for journalistic ethics within Buzzfeed.
The Politic: Having worked with the Washington City Paper and NBC’s Washington, D.C. news station, you’ve certainly come a long way from founding The Paw Print in seventh grade! What have been your favorite moments along the way?
Shani Hilton: Overall, it’s been a lot of fun to learn about new kinds of journalism, and there are definitely some reporting moments that have stood out more than others. But it’s just been fun to grow as a journalist and learn how to handle both really intense breaking news situations as well as more complicated, deeply reported features. One of the very big moments when I was still at NBC was reporting on Sandy Hook; that was one of the biggest situations of my career that I’ve ever had to deal with. Another one was the Boston bombing, which happened shortly after I started with BuzzFeed, and learning how to serve your readers in terms of providing the most up-to-date information quickly and accurately, or telling stories that they may not have experienced before by sending reporters, whatever the case may be. In terms of deeply reported pieces, I’ve written longer articles that have been really fun and challenging. I once wrote a story about Georgetown and the surrounding community for the Washington City Paper. That was a fun experience, just hanging around Georgetown at night to see if the kids were acting as crazy as the older neighborhood residents thought they were.
The Politic: What attracted you to BuzzFeed, both as a publication and an organization?
Shani Hilton: When I started two and a half years ago, BuzzFeed really wasn’t in any way what it is now. It was a much smaller operation; we probably had fifty people altogether on editorial, and now we’re more like 350, internationally. At the time I just thought I should see what was in New York; I thought I’d be a culture editor who would start off editing pieces. There was this new place that was hiring – that a friend had recommended to me – and I thought, “Well let’s see how long this lasts.” It’s been a good two and a half years, and I’ve actually come to like it a lot more than I did when I first started.
The Politic: It seems that BuzzFeed has lately been working to rebrand itself as an internationally renowned – yet still experimental – news source. What, in your opinion, prompted this initiative?
Shani Hilton: The Boston bombing was a really big moment in terms of realizing that our audiences were coming to us directly to find the most up-to-date information. Having seen this huge spike in traffic, this was probably the first time when we recognized that we could actually serve our readers not just through news about politics, which is what we had started with, but also through reports on breaking news. And then Jonah Peretti, our founder and CEO, decided it was time to start pouring resources into these news operations. I feel really lucky to work in a place that’s growing, not shrinking.
The Politic: As “the youthful conscience” of the company according to Jeremy Barr, what do you envision to be the website’s defining identity going forward?
Shani Hilton: I think the thing about BuzzFeed that’s really cool is that we have a bunch of different identities, and you can see that both in the types of people who work in the newsroom and the content we produce. We really try to reach people where they are. And that means that we have to maintain a lot of different identities at once.
The Politic: How do you see older, more traditional news sources (e.g. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal) adapting to millennials’ demands for faster, newer, and more diverse types of reporting?
Shani Hilton: I think that they’re doing interesting work that you can see through things like the NYTimesNow app, and I think that the imperative is just going to become clearer and clearer in terms of variety in reporting. It’s not enough to reach your one audience that’s middle-aged and of a certain income, or whatever the case may be. They need to think broadly about people at any age and whether they can reach them.
The Politic: Aside from publishing pieces ranging from “How Did This Picture of the Backstreet Boys Happen?” (Jan 2013) to “The Black Experience Isn’t Just About Men” (July 2015), you are responsible for continually updating BuzzFeed’s “Editorial Standards and Ethics Guide.” Could you tell us about how you, in collaboration with your writers and editors, came to set these standards?
Shani Hilton: Luckily, I don’t have to update it myself now – that’s mostly done by our managing editor. But thinking about it and the way it came about was extremely collaborative. It was something that I had proposed early on to my boss at the time; he didn’t really see the point and was like, “Ethics are don’t lie, steal, or cheat.” But I thought, “Yeah, but there’ll be complicated situations that come up, and it’d be worthwhile to have a guiding spirit of what we’re trying to do.” We really want to make life as easy as possible for these reporters to do their jobs. So we worked on it for a couple of months and circulated it among the managers for a bit. Then we distributed it internally throughout all of Editorial to give everyone a chance to weigh in and see how it worked in practice. And then we published it!
The Politic: You have written and commented extensively on the struggle to structurally diversify the newsroom. What can individuals do to effectively disrupt this (or any) network that inherently tends to exclude women and minorities?
Shani Hilton: It’s really hard – a large part of it is demanding representation in what you’re reading. Some friends of mine were pitching their podcast to an agent, and when the company decided to go with another idea, they were curious as to why they didn’t get picked. And the response was that they didn’t have any women in leadership positions. I think that leveraging whatever kind of power you have – even if it’s small – and being able to say “Hey, I’m not seeing my voice here. I’m not being heard,” is really more powerful than you might think. Diversity is on the minds of a lot of editors right now, and so the more they hear from people who read their articles or their publications that many groups aren’t feeling represented, the better.
The Politic: How would you suggest that we, as young journalists and readers, create spaces for diversity within our own media diets?
Shani Hilton: I think partly it’s seeking for yourself, and partly it’s reaching out to networks and seeing what other people are reading. I think the statistic is that out of a hundred friends, the average white person has one black friend. And that’s really representative both in the networks that end up hiring people and the media that we consume. If we’re not hearing about things like Married to Medicine or whatever TV show that’s really popular among black audiences, you may think it’s not important. And so it’s really critical to try to branch out and find a diversity of information that’s outside of your experience.
The Politic: Lastly, which must-read listicles do you recommend?
Shani Hilton: One really good list that we’ve published is “70 Classic Black Films Everyone Should See At Least Once.” That one was really fun. And then I’m also really obsessed with this quiz that’s called “Can You Guess Every Michael Jackson Single in Five Minutes?” and you literally just have to type in the names of all his songs. There are sixty of them, and it’s really hard – there’s a timer going – and it’s super stressful. I think I got maybe eleven of them.