Among the gaggle of bankers and consultants that seem to overwhelmingly comprise Penn’s alumni pool, 1999 College graduate Doree Shafrir cuts a unique figure. Her position as executive editor of Culture at BuzzFeed has the ring of an emperorship to it — after all, the site is a pulsing pop culture dynamo, a byword for quirk whose content has become a staple of the Internet diet of millions.
Despite her position near the top, Shafrir described the process of BuzzFeed’s content production as a highly collaborative one, involving constant feedback to writers and an active exchange of ideas.
And meetings. Lots of them. “The increasing number of meetings,” she said, is “the sad little secret of advancing your career.”
Anne Helen Petersen, a former academic and current BuzzFeed staff writer who works regularly with Shafrir, outlined the details of the process. Petersen writes both long-form features and short ideas pieces, and “whenever I have an idea for a shorter thinkpiece,” she said, “I email [Shafrir].” The two go back and forth, discussing the idea and putting the piece through multiple rounds of editing once it’s in progress. “We do it all remotely, too,” she said.
Petersen is based on the other side of the country in New York, and the two share a Google Doc which is continually retweaked. Shafrir’s edits play a huge role in enhancing and developing her pieces; recalling one article, Petersen said “[Shafrir] kind of performed surgery on it, in a pretty substantial way.” After each piece is completed, the two always start a new conversation to “fling ideas back and forth.” And so the process renews itself.
Before arriving at the Internet’s premier supplier of workplace distractions, Shafrir was a high schooler growing up outside of Boston, writing and editing for her high school newspaper. She joined The Daily Pennsylvanian “right away” upon her arrival at Penn, eventually becoming the Editor-In-Chief of 34th Street, Penn’s arts and culture magazine. A double major in English and History, Shafrir returned to the University shortly after graduating to begin a doctoral degree in the latter.
Leaving after three years with a master’s, she worked at Philadelphia Weekly for about a year and a half before enrolling in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Then followed her extensive ricocheting through New York’s media biosphere, where she confesses she didn’t really know anyone after she graduated.
“I had kind of a funny career, in that there was a lot of a two-steps-forward, one-step back kind of thing,” she said. Her employment history, though, is an impressive cross-section of the culture-mag industry — she interned first at Radar magazine, now defunct, which she described as nearing a combination of “the old Spy magazine and Vanity Fair.” She then moved on to Slate magazine, then scored her first full-time writing position at media and pop culture guide Gawker, where she stayed for a year. There followed a stretch at the New York Observer, some freelancing and a spell at Rolling Stone before she landed a job at BuzzFeed.
She went for coffee one day with Ben Smith, the current editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, with whom she “hit it off right away;” he shared his vision for the site and she got onboard, winding up the overseer of what is arguably the company’s beating heart — the entertainment, music and ideas sections. She is most heavily involved with the third, which requires “constant communication by email and IM” with writers, as well as copious brainstorming.
After a year at BuzzFeed's New York location, Shafrir finds herself at the West Coast company in the midst of its bold reorientation. In August of 2014, its editorial team was restructured into three sections — BuzzFeed News, BuzzFeed Life and BuzzFeed Buzz. The last of the three continues to produce what Shafrir called “traditional BuzzFeed content” — the hyper-specific lists, elaborate quizzes and curiously mesmerizing composites of gifs that are its signature product.
The emerging News section, however, is “covering everything from the conflict in Ukraine to the 2016 presidential race,” she said, and “[the] investigative team is doing very ambitious articles on everything from domestic abuse to national security.”
It’s a refreshed, omnivorous model of content presentation — “an opportunity for us to grow both horizontally and vertically,” Petersen, the BuzzFeed staff writer, said. “All of us have the same mission,” she added, “to be the place you go to get not only the news, but a recipe for dinner, a movie review” — in addition to the beloved standard of cat memes.
Half of BuzzFeed’s audience is between the ages of 18 and 34, Shafrir said, and more than half view the site on their mobile devices. “We’re getting people who might not necessarily have paid attention in the same way [to news] before,” she said. “[The] older generation doesn’t understand that you can have two types of articles on the same page,” that is, lighthearted content alongside more somber, nuanced news coverage.
Her advice to future journalists was to “be as curious about the world as you can be, and seek out experiences that will make you a more knowledgeable and interesting person,” she said. It’s fine to follow the typical trajectory of getting an internship and landing a job, she added, but sometimes those who seek out a different kind of experience “form a different base of knowledge [and] actually make better journalists.” Moreover, she said, you should be “a good listener, genuinely curious about your subjects,” and “ask good questions.”
Finally, those who succeed at BuzzFeed are “enthusiastic and ambitious,” and “coming up with their own ideas.” There is a fine line between this sort of ambition and “seeming entitled,” she said, but having some of it is necessary to succeed in journalism. It’s safe to say we can take her word for it.
Correction: a previous version of the article said that Shafrir was initially located at the Los Angeles article. Shafrir actually moved to the Los Angeles office of BuzzFeed following a year in the New York location. The DP regrets the error.
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