This week I interviewed Megan Paolone, deputy copy chief at BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed’s style guide has some pretty big fans at my student papers. It’s functions well as “a style guide for the internet” that I’ll refer to for things not yet in the AP that the DTH or Southern Neighbor don’t have a stance on yet. (It also has some clear and concise explainers of copy basics — check out their guide to possessives!) Megan also writes BuzzFeed’s style newsletter, Quibbles and Bits. You can check out BuzzFeed’s style guide here, Quibbles and Bits here and BuzzFeed’s style guide Twitter here.
Alison Krug: Can you tell me what the workflow of copy desk is like at BuzzFeed?
Megan Paolone: So there are seven of us. There’re three of us here in New York, including me and our copy chief, Emmy Favilla, and then we just have one other copy editor here. And then we have two people in the U.K. who handle a lot of the international copy but mainly U.K. stuff that’s sort of the overflow from the U.S. And then we have two people in LA who pick up a lot of the late night stuff coming out of New York and then LA stuff because we have a pretty big operation out there — and then even sometimes some very early morning Australia stuff. We’re currently trying to get a copy editor in Australia because they’re kind of just on totally opposite schedules from us.
Basically our workflow has changed a lot since I’ve been here. I’ve been at BuzzFeed for about three years, and actually just three years this September was my one-year full-time work. I started as an intern in June 2013 as the second copy editor on the staff. So when I first started a lot of it was just searching around the site and looking for things that hadn’t been edited, and we really didn’t have a way of keeping track of that, so it was kind of a free for all. There just was really no copy structure in place.
We had the beginnings of a style guide that Emmy had put together when she got hired about six months before me, and so a lot of it was figuring out what people wanted and how frequently they wanted to interact with us and some sort of edit desk email where people could send stuff to be edited. The only real structure we had was at that point in time, BuzzFeed was publishing a longform story once a week on Thursday nights, so we knew, OK, Wednesday/Thursday we’re going to have one big story to edit. And then as time progressed and team got bigger and the editorial team was a lot bigger and it became slightly more organized, we realized we needed a more streamlined structure and system for people to submit drafts and ask us questions. We basically did for a really long time all of our workflow through email where we have a copy desk email where people can ask us questions and send drafts, and we basically just sit on that all day. But I think a lot of our workflow is still very much, or it was, checking Google Analytics, seeing the things that were trending or things that were getting the most eyes on them and making sure those were edited because we were so small and we simply couldn’t get to all of the content on the site. And then gradually the team grew to seven people, and we started working more closely with the tech and product teams to sort of be like, “Hey, what can you guys do for us to make our lives easier?” And so very gradually we gotten some new technologies that have totally changed what we do.
So the first big one that was just really great and helps us sort of keep track of everything is built into our CMS: We have a little button that’s only accessible to the copy editors, though everyone else can see it, and it’s basically just a “copy edited” button. It has the name of the person who copy edited it and the timestamp, so if updates were made after that timestamp of the original edit, you can go back in and switch it and say you’ve gone through the updates. And there’s also a place in the CMS where you can leave notes for people, which isn’t as used. Usually we’ll just email or Slack someone if we’ve made any extensive changes to a post that’s already live. But it’s just another really useful thing that the tech team has built for us and for other people on staff. And the other thing that’s really, really changed our workflow and really just made it super easy and keeps us accountable to each other and everyone else is Slack, which is our group chat client that so many people use now. It’s kind of amazing how customizable it is. We have a chat room where (the copy desk) hangs out all day to chat about issues and keep track of who’s doing what and delegate and also ask each other questions like, “What’s our style for this?” “Have we talked about this word before?” “Does this sentence sound weird?” So that’s a lot of what we’re doing. And we also have a channel for requests where people can not only send us emails for drafts but they can drop them in requests. And the other really cool thing that’s revolutionized our workflow is this thing we call Copy Bot. It’s this little Slack bot that our tech team built, and basically it scans the site every 15 minutes for posts that are trending or are about to start trending and have not been copy edited.
AK: Oh that’s so cool.
MP: Yeah, it’s amazing. And we each kind of keep track of what we’re doing. We all have different emojis that we use — little reactions. I use a little octopus; one person has a cat; another person has a little whale. So it’s easy to keep track of who’s looked at what, and it also shows us how many views the posts have, so if there’s something that comes in that has a ton of views, but it comes in at the same time as 10 other posts, you want to get to the thing that has the most views first. And obviously that’s for posts that are already live. And like I said, the majority of the things still that we look at are backreads. The only things that we definitely, definitely read before they get published are really sensitive news stories that have been vetted by legal that could use another set of eyes on them, things that have gone through multiple layers of edits and someone just wants an extra set of eyes, but especially longform features and graphics and things like that that are over a thousand words and need that extra work. And we’re publishing a lot more of those than we used to. We originally just did Thursday nights like I said, but then went to Thursday nights and Sunday mornings, and now we’re kind of publishing a feature a day, which was kind of daunting at first, but I think we’ve done a really good job of managing it and working with people.
Another thing that helps us keep really organized is a features calendar and just being really reliant on our Google calendars and keeping everyone updated and just communicating. Slack has been — Slack and email, but Slack especially — has been super super super useful for us because it’s easy just to shoot off a message to someone because everyone’s sitting on their computers all day.
So that’s the basics of our workflow. There’re some things that still come through email. A lot of questions still come through email. But also people will direct message us individually. And we also do — I know you said you subscribe to the newsletter — so we do that, but we also do internal newsletters for the staff. I do one where — we call it the Copy Q&A — where we publish for the staff basically all of the questions we’ve been asked over the last couple weeks because if one person has a question, there’s a chance another person has a really similar question if they’re having an issue with some sort of grammar topic or even just a common style thing. People find those really helpful. And we also do copy roundups. We sort of rotate weeks to do each of those on Fridays. This is a copy roundup week. That’s just basically common errors we’ve been seeing, things we’ve added to the style guide — basically just updates from the copy desk. And it’s kind of cool because we’re the one remaining or one of the few remaining universal teams who sort of work with everyone. We work with the news team, and we work with the features team which is under news, but we also work with the traditional BuzzFeed content like the lists, and we also work with original projects, and we work a little bit with video, and we work with social, and we work with the apps. So we’re even editing things like push notifications or Twitter text occasionally or cards that are going to go on Twitter or Facebook. So yeah, I think the communication has been a really, really an important thing in just trying to stay involved and show people that we’re there but not be overbearing. I definitely don’t like to think of us as police officers. We’re just kind of like consultants, and there are people use us frequently and some people don’t use us at all, and that’s fine. We know the writers who are really messy and whose work we have to look out for, but there are also people who I would trust copy editing my work. So it just sort of runs the gamut.
AK: What response have you seen from the newsletter and the Twitter?
MP: The Twitter’s really fun. We always joke not to ask us questions because it’s very much a secondary fun project for us. I’m kind of on Twitter all day, but I’m also not monitoring it minute to minute if we’re getting questions, so we always tell people to email us or Slack us for questions, but a lot of times we just joke around with us. For people outside of BuzzFeed, it’s been really positive, like, “Oh, BuzzFeed has a copy desk, that’s cool.”
The newsletter was kind of like a pet project of mine. Someone suggested, “You guys are doing this anyways. You should make a newsletter out of this.” And then I sort of like took it upon myself to approach our newsletters team — which there’s about five of them, and they patrol all of BuzzFeed newsletters — and conceptualize and talk to a few people about what they might like to see. And I’m the one who writes it every week with input from a few other editors. But that has been really positive too, and we’ve had people emailing us and tweeting at us their favorite part and suggestions. And I know a lot of the staffers subscribe to it because it’s a little different from the things that we send out to them. So it’s fun, it’s like a little window into our brain. It’s given us a fun creative thing to do outside of everyday editing, but it’s also made us more accessible to both the staff and people outside of BuzzFeed who may not know that we really existed before. A lot of the news editors especially who are older and have had more experience in other journalism-type jobs are sort of amazed at the copy desk that we’ve built here that it’s like super accessible, and I think we’re all really easygoing and just want to work well with people and make it easy for everyone. And we’re pretty flexible — if there’s a certain style thing that you want to change and you have a good argument for why, we’re probably not going to fight you on it. We’ll hear you out and take it into consideration. And we’ve heard from people that were just super easy to work with, and it’s sort of like day and night compared to other copy desks they’ve worked with at other places where copy editors are sort of at odds with a lot of the other writers and editors.
AK: Do you have a formal process for changing the style guide and then letting the staff know when changes have been made?
MP: Not really formal — a lot of it is just us talking all the time, and we’re constantly fighting about things. There’s a lot (Emmy and I) added (to the guide) a long time ago that as new people have come in, they’re like, “We should change this; this is weird,” and we’re like, no way, we put that in there ages ago. The one we’ve been fighting about lately is roller coaster, which is two words in the dictionary, and it’s two words if you Google it pretty much everywhere, but everyone wants to change it to one word. It’s just — it just looks wrong as one word to me. And that’s usually the argument: “It doesn’t look right.” But I mean if there’s a compelling reason why, we’ll usually just talk about it a little. But sometimes it’s as easy as, oh yeah, this is a word we’ve been seeing a lot, and we should probably add it to the style guide. So I think we added “butt plug” to the style guide today because it wasn’t in the dictionary and we’d been seeing it in a lot of posts, so that’s a good inappropriate one for you to use as an example.
We have an internal Google doc that’s sort of just among the copy desk that we keep that goes back to probably the beginning of the style guide that is everything that we’ve added, where it was added and when it was added. So that’s been really helpful to see where our heads were at at a certain time. But also the style guide wasn’t always public. For a really long time it was an internal document. When I started it was internal; it was just a Google doc that we shared with staff and we were pretty much constantly updating and at that point not reporting the updates because they were reported in a Google doc.
And then Emmy and I started the process of cleaning it up and making sure that it was OK to be a public-facing document. And that’s been great because it’s sort of kept us accountable and encouraged us to keep it updated and make changes and have this open dialogue with the staff but also with readers and other contributors to the site.
One of the big ones we changed was our style for suicide, reporting on suicide. For a really long time we used “committed suicide” as an accepted variation of that verb and act, and we had a lot of pushback from activists. The way that we explained it was we were using the word “committed” in its most basic dictionary definition, but for a lot of people, that can be construed as a crime, as in you’re committing a crime, so we have now changed it. We now have the language as “killed oneself” and “be specific, but use good judgement in terms of the extent to which specifics are reported.” So yeah, it’s a lot of open dialogue between the staff and readers.
As far as keeping the staff in the loop about what we’re doing, we do the newsletters every other Friday internally with the editorial staff, and we’ll detail changes in there, and we’ll also tweet the changes a lot, especially if it’s a big one. I’ll read you the last couple of things we added to the style guide: We added “dancehall” — one word — for the music genre. “Rickroll” — one word. “A$AP Rocky” — with the dollar sign — the rapper was added under the celebrity names section. We added “Big Oil” and “Big Pharma,” which we are seeing a lot in news stories. I think a lot of things we add are contrary to AP. So we follow AP, and Merriam-Webster is our house dictionary, so most of the stuff that we have in our style guide is stuff that’s for specific to BuzzFeed but also where we differ from those places, and a lot of times for specific definitions and style changes we’ll note that this is different than AP for people so they know because a lot of people here are used to writing according to AP or checking AP when they have problems.
AK: Our style guide right now for The Daily Tar Heel, well, it’s pretty messy right now. Basically when it was handed to me we had stopped printing it and we only had it as a Google doc.
MP: We actually in a couple weeks, all of the copy editors on staff are coming to New York, which is where our headquarters are and where I’m based and where the three of us in New York are based. We’re all going to sort of do like a copy editing summit, and one of the projects we have on the itinerary is go through the style guide and clean it up because we’ve noticed some little inconsistencies that probably only stick out to us.
One of the resources that we have for staff now is we have a page on the BuzzFeed intranet, which is like our internal resources just hosted on Google sites. We do a lot of specialized style guides, so for example we have ones for different editions of BuzzFeed. The U.K. editors put together a U.K. style guide. We worked with the managing editor and the news editor in Australia and put together an Australian style guide. We have a Canada style guide because they’re like a bastardized version of British and American English. This year I wrote a style guide for the Olympics. I wrote a Harry Potter style guide because I’m a big nerd and no one else on the copy desk knows anything about Harry Potter, which is crazy to me. But we have a lot of Harry Potter content so it was super, super necessary to sort of like standardize everything. We also as a project of probably about a year ago, now, we sort of did an audit on all sections and kept a record of the really common errors that we were seeing and have now put together like vertical-specific guidelines that are like, “These are the things you should be looking out for because these are the errors we see all the time from you guys.”
We have a useful links section that we give people like all the dictionaries and the style manuals that we use, great Twitter accounts, good podcasts to listen to, useful links writing on style and grammar.
We have this really great document that we use that we worked on with the health team about body positivity and how to write about bodies in a positive way and be really inclusive. That’s something that’s been really important to us: being inclusive and welcoming to different groups that have traditionally been marginalized. I think BuzzFeed’s done a really good job of that, and we’re very cognizant of it. One of the people we talk to the most on staff I think about changing and keeping guidelines updated is our LGBT editor. And we’ve been told by multiple people in and outside of BuzzFeed that our LGBT section — which is actually adopted from GLAAD’s style guide and media guide, but we’ve added a lot of stuff that’s specific to BuzzFeed — is just like super super inclusive and progressive compared to a lot of other media organizations.
We do a lot of education with the staff. We make ourselves readily available to them for questions and do the newsletters and emails obviously, but we also hold copy classes once and a while. For onboarding for new hires — we’re just starting to do this — we do sort of like an overview of BuzzFeed’s voice and copy and style guidelines for new staffers and basically anyone else who’s interested. We do a basic copy class on style and grammar and on how our style differs from other publications. And we do a sensitivity class, which goes again into the sensitive language. I think the title of it is basically like, “How to Write and Not Sound Like a Jerk.” We do a punctuation class — Punctuation 101, we have the U.K. and U.S. edition of that — and then some very specific grammar-based classes that only the real nerds come to.
We also do copy quizzes and do prizes. I think we do them every six weeks now, but we’ll do them internally first and then usually just host them on the site, and it’s like a little five question quiz. And that’s been a fun little experiment about how people engage with language content.