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So What Do You Do, Jeff Leeds, Editor-in-Chief, BuzzMedia Music?

Leeds dishes on remixing traditional music criticism and the power of social content

- June 9, 2010
Traditional media outlets are floundering because more and more readers are getting their news from the Web. This is not news. But what is news is how Web outlets are drawing readers and advertisers and making money.

BuzzMedia is one of the largest independent publishers of online content -- and it's one to watch. Its portfolio is a mix of music and celeb news sites, like Just Jared, Celebuzz, Idolator and Stereogum, and the personal websites of celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Britney Spears. BuzzMedia's model of blending celeb-created content with original and breaking celebrity and music news has been so successful, the company was able to recently acquire three music blogs and form partnerships with three more to expand its portfolio and reach.

This newly expanded music portfolio, which currently reaches 6.7 million users a month, is headed by editor-in-chief Jeff Leeds. A former New York Times music reporter, he says he made the leap from print to the Web because he saw the writing on the wall early. But is his snark-loving band of misfits tapping the final nail into the coffin of arts and culture journalism? Not so fast.


Name: Jeff Leeds
Position: Editor-in-chief, BuzzMedia Music
Resume: Started his career as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, where he worked for nine years, covering a variety of beats from white-collar crime to politics. Covered the music industry from the business desk at the LAT for two years before moving to the New York Times' L.A. bureau, when he covered music and the business of the music industry. Left NYT in 2008 and joined BuzzMedia.
Birthdate: December 15
Hometown: Fairfax, Virginia
Education: Bachelor's degree in American government from University of Virginia
Marital status: Married
First section of the Sunday New York Times: "I never miss the wedding section."
Favorite TV show: 24
Guilty pleasure: Batman comics, Millionaire Matchmaker on Bravo.
Last book read: Iron Fists, by Steven Heller
Twitter: @jeffleeds

How did you make the move from a traditional journalist into the position of editor-in-chief of this group of music blogs?
I left The New York Times in mid-08 as a result of the company reorganization of the editorial staff. At the time, I really felt like there would be some interesting opportunities in the digital music space. BuzzMedia was one of a couple of companies that I thought had figured out or was in the process of figuring out how to create really compelling programming for the most passionate, engaged music fans. I knew the company a bit just from reporting on the music industry. I just wanted to be close to an experience that was social and offered the chance to create something new.

What does your job entail?
In my job here, I help create editorial features, secure exclusive content like song or video premieres, monitor the performance of specific programming and our sites overall, develop new site concepts and designs, advise our sales and marketing teams on campaigns, and scout and analyze new site acquisitions. It's sort of the "fixer" role -- if the company needs to figure something out in music, I try to help. Our portfolio includes really leading sites in different genres and fields of music: Stereogum.com, Buzznet.com, AbsolutePunk.net, and Idolator.com.

"I do worry sometimes about the overall health of traditional music criticism. But at the same time, I'm incredibly excited by the passion and creativity that I see on all of our sites."

Do you interact with any of the other BuzzMedia sites that aren't music sites, like Videogum, The Superficial or Just Jared?
As a whole, we do try to operate together when possible. Sometimes there is overlap that can work in places like pop music where Celebuzz, which is our big celebrity entertainment hub, can work with Idolator, which is our pop music site. There's always been a lot of overlap there. So, where possible, those sites create content together, link back and forth and hopefully deliver more readers to both sites.

BuzzMedia also owns the official blogs of celebs like Kim Kardashian. How does the company internally differentiate between sites like Idolator and KimKardashian.com?
Our talent sites are really run separately. Each of those celebrities has their own site and has someone here who is here to help them produce it. But they don't really work directly with us, and certainly not with the music sites.

How has the transition from print to the Web been for you?
I think it's been refreshing. There's so much that the print world is only beginning to learn about how to operate on the Web. Before I came here, I was really fascinated with the Web, and I think it was clear to everybody that writers and editors in traditional media needed to find ways not just to produce content using the Web, but then actually using the Web to distribute that content. At the Times, we had a weekly music podcast, and I was really trying to think of interesting segments and content for that. And around 2007, I was also really interested in creating content exclusively for the Web. It was increasingly clear that so many readers consume content basically on the Web. One endeavor was before the SXSW music festival. We planned out a series of stories that we decided to tell via special Web-only videos, mini TV segments essentially. So I worked with a producer and went to Austin and shot a series of segments.

Do you still get to write?
I do [write] a bit. I do a fair bit of line editing and a little bit of writing, a little bit of production of other kinds of content including photo and video content. But I try to prioritize the strategic needs of the sites.

Do you miss writing long-form pieces?
Sometimes. I think that I don't really see a clear avenue for me to write that kind of piece at the moment, but sooner or later it might be fun to try that again. I think that obviously the open question for everyone is: Where are people reading that kind of content in large numbers?

"Artists and record labels are slicing their songs and videos more and more finely in order to try to pique interest several times… The reason it works sometimes, of course, is that the audience's appetite for information remains gargantuan."

Do you think that the 2,000-word celebrity profile or 500-word music review is obsolete?
I don't. I think whether you call it a review or not, there's a great deal of intelligent discussion going on around music and around new releases, in and out of our portfolio. I do worry sometimes about the overall health of traditional music criticism. But at the same time, I'm incredibly excited by the passion and creativity that I see on all of our sites, up to and including content created by users.

It seems like more and more artists and celebrities break news themselves through Twitter and Facebook. How has covering breaking news changed since you were doing it at the Times?
In terms of competing on news itself, I think breaking news is still vital and I think truly great stories will always command eyeballs. But it does feel like the pace of the news cycle just doesn't allow for stories to have the ripple effect, or to create weeks of discussion the way it once did. I actually see one example of that, and a response to it, in music, in that artists and record labels are slicing their songs and videos more and more finely in order to try to pique interest several times, instead of just once. You may notice -- at least in certain genres -- the artist or label will first release a series of images from a new music video, then maybe a snippet of it, then a behind-the-scenes clip, then a related playlist, then maybe the video itself. The reason it works sometimes, of course, is that the audience's appetite for information remains gargantuan.

What advice would you give someone who wants to get into music writing and reporting?
It almost goes without saying, but I'll say anyway, that anyone who wants to be a writer simply needs to write as much as possible. Pursue internships, freelance, start a blog and treat it seriously, all of that. I also think it's essential for writers to find a way to get really comfortable communicating directly with readers, to hearing instant feedback, to arguing their own cases, if you will.

I think it's also a good idea to be active in an online community someplace, and to really try to build an identity there. In music, I've seen some strong young writers emerge from the readers of sites like Absolute Punk and Buzznet, two of our sites. I think the writer's life is always going to be a little lonely, but I think that participating actively in these kinds of distinct communities can provide great inspiration and remind you that you actually are part of a wider world.


Amanda Ernst is deputy editor at Crushable.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2010. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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