Buzzfeed editor speaks to students on science writing

Buzzfeed News science editor Virginia Hughes delivers the annual Hill Lecture on “Clickbait” for Social Media Week.

Photo by Courtney Anderson

While Buzzfeed is known primarily for its “clickbait” quizzes and listicles, its more serious categories— such as news, politics and science— are expanding to make the site a competitive source for current events and information.

Virginia Hughes, a science editor at Buzzfeed News, delivered the annual Hill Lecture on Tuesday night, March 29, titled “In defense of Clickbait.”

Before the evening’s lecture, Hughes hosted an informal class for students interested in science writing in the Communications building. This session was a condensed version of her writing class at New York University.

Prior to her job at Buzzfeed, Hughes worked as a freelance journalist for nine years and became an award winning writer. She has been published by The New Yorker, The New York Times, National Geographic and others.

Though she is now an acclaimed writer and editor, Hughes didn’t always see herself pursuing a career in journalism. She graduated college with a degree in neuroscience, but a semester abroad opened her eyes to a life outside of science.

“I studied abroad my junior year in Paris and because of the way the credit system worked I couldn’t take any science courses there. So I took a semester off from science and took art history and painting and food classes,” Hughes said. “I came back my senior year and I started taking journalism classes and I really liked it.”

Even though she never pursued a career in science, Hughes said her ability to understand scientific topics has given her a “leg up” on other reporters.

Hughes said that her real success as a freelancer stemmed from her willingness to write any story. “I think the key to it for me was that I didn’t say no to anything. I took every gig I could get,” she said.

As an editor, Hughes only writes stories about once a month and says she misses reporting.

“I really love reporting, more than writing actually,” she said. “I love digging up dirt and trying to find untold stories about science.”

Hughes said that her team at Buzzfeed tries to steer away from reporting on scientific journals or papers. They instead focus on the places where science intersects with society and things people can relate to.

“We try to focus on scoops and hard news,” Hughes said. “We don’t do a lot of ‘Gee whiz, isn’t this cool?’ science writing.”

While Hughes works in the more serious realm of Buzzfeed, she admires what is known as the Buzz team— the people who generate the viral content that floods the internet.

“They’re really good at what they do,” she said. “Making a quiz that will go viral in 20 seconds is a rare skill, and if you ever look at the Buzzfeed app, it’s addictive.”

Regarding the site as a whole, Hughes said, “The reason Buzzfeed content is so popular is because each story lives by itself and can get shared out in the world.”

Edited by Ashley Sharp. 

Featured image by Courtney Anderson