Jim Waterson is a hard man to pin down, which presents a challenge when scheduling an interview. “Afraid I’ll be abroad then,” Jim messages me. “Hi am in Athens protest maybe next week.” The best text has to be when Jim apologises for being “up a mountain with no phone signal for two days.” Then again, it was always going to be a challenge trying to keep up with the man who’s paid to be one step ahead.
Deputy Editor of BuzzFeed UK at 26 years old, Waterson embodies the Bolt-paced world of digital news. It’s a world where stories go viral within minutes. A realm that – increasingly – dictates the agenda of long established print outlets. Yet of course, by the time newspapers have caught up with one story (take, for example, #Milifandom, which was first picked up by BuzzFeed), the world of digital news has already moved on. When we finally talk, Waterson apologises for the delay. “It’s fine,” I say. “When you’re up a mountain, you’re up a mountain.” I enquire about other odd experiences in his pursuit of news stories.
“There’s been a few actually,” he says. “During the election we were down in Exeter, following Nick Clegg on the campaign trail. We went to this ‘Go Ape’ outdoor adventure centre; suddenly we were flying on zip wires. I was going one way, and in the other direction, Nick Clegg was flying across the valley.” Waterson has a talent for finding the bizarre in otherwise dull stories. When working at the newspaper CityAM, he made headlines for frying an egg on the Walkie Talkie building. “That was just brilliant fun, a case of taking a very boring story – a building that was designed badly – and turning it into something that has ten camera crews around the world there,” says Waterson. “I went along and cooked my lunch on [the building] using a frying pan.”
The egg story happened just before BuzzFeed recruited Waterson. At the age of 24, he became Political Editor. Last year he was ranked sixth in The Guardian’s Top 30 Young People in Digital Media. When I say I’m impressed, he brushes it off, putting his success down to “being in the right place at the right time… I was lucky I joined BuzzFeed when I did… we’ve massively expanded since then.” It’s true that digital platforms have exploded in recent years. Sites like BuzzFeed and Huffington Post dominate our social media feeds. For those who never buy newspapers, these platforms have become their only source of current affairs. When I ask Waterson if he believes the future of journalism is going digital, he’s tells me “no”: it already has. “I don’t think there’s any debate over that. Newspapers… people just don’t read them in the same way anymore. So it’s happened, it’s over, the battle’s already lost,” states Waterson.
“Look at the readership figures. The Independent sells 50,000 copies a day: that’s nothing. But its website gets millions of readers.”
However, Waterson is keen to avoid the assumption that digital news is all gifs and ‘cats’, arguing that he “[doesn’t] think digital journalism is any different to traditional journalism.” He mentions BuzzFeed’s new investigative unit, headed by Heidi Blake, one of the journalists responsible for ‘The FIFA Files’ that exposed the corruption at the top of FIFA. ‘There’s a great story by one of Heidi’s team, about how the Bank of England is infiltrated by organised crime. It’s the sort of thing that wouldn’t be out of place in the Financial Times. We published it alongside the absolute daft stuff we’ve always enjoyed doing.”
When I ask if BuzzFeed will ever ditch the ‘daft stuff ’ in favour of more serious content, Waterson is tetchy. “We’ll always keep the fun stuff and we’ll always have the serious – people like both.” He compares BuzzFeed’s zany, listicle-style pieces to the “sport section and funny bits in the middle” of newspapers.
There are, inevitably, differences. Digital journalism is driven by online traffic. Whether or not a piece is on Taylor Swift or the Bank of England, if it doesn’t go viral, that’s it. There’s no room for “wordy, boring pieces about buildings being built and charity events. The internet is brutal. It judges you pretty quickly, and [if a piece doesn’t do well] you’ve got to just come up with something else or it’ll bomb. There’s no middle ground on that,” says Waterson. “The piece has to excite.”
Which is perhaps why Waterson found the general election so “rubbish… it was weird and boring. Everyone was waiting for Gillian Duffy to be racist again or something like that and it didn’t happen. Then the whole story was about the polls, and it turns out we were all basically reporting under false pretences.”
As the former Politics Editor for BuzzFeed, Waterson’s declaration that “politics is a really really dull thing” winds me a little. He believes that the expectation to be constantly engaged in politics is unrealistic, comparing it to “understand[ing] what insurance companies are up to every day of the week.” I link this to the media’s portrayal of youth apathy toward politics. Does BuzzFeed’s apparent need to use gifs and emojis in political pieces fuel this? “I think that’s bollocks,’ Waterson fires back. “Young people follow politics when it’s interesting and don’t when it’s not, as with most of the population.”
Still in his mid-twenties, one thing’s clear: Waterson’s predicted ascent to the very top of the media industry will be anything but boring.