Q&A: Saeed Jones Feeds the Buzz

Cat Richardson
From the January/February 2016 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Saeed Jones, formerly the literary editor of BuzzFeed, recently stepped into the newly created role of executive editor of culture at the media company. In his new position, Jones oversees the creation of cultural content—including, for the first time, original poetry, fiction, and lyric essays—as well as the newly launched BuzzFeed Emerging Writers Fellowship, which Jones helped establish last year. The annual four-month fellowship program will provide four writers with a twelve-thousand-dollar stipend and mentorship from BuzzFeed editorial staff. Leading up to the announcement of the inaugural fellows (read more about them at www.pw.org/content/buzzfeed_announces_inaugural_fellows), Jones spoke about his goals for the program and diversity in publishing.

What are you hoping to accomplish as executive editor of culture?
I see amazing pieces of cultural work all the time that exist in silos, and I’m interested in getting them to people. We aren’t just one single thing as readers, as writers, as thinkers. We naturally have all of these different interests, and what I love about BuzzFeed as a platform is that it creates opportunities to look at different facets. Is this piece a podcast? A long-form reported story? A personal essay? My focus is both to energize the body of cultural coverage we’re already doing and also to push it out into different spheres.

Is the Emerging Writers Fellowship the first step?
Yes. I wanted to look at what we could do to create more opportunities for writers to get financial and editorial support. It’s about investing in emerging writers and in diversity. No one’s saying anything about diversity in publishing and media that people weren’t saying twenty years ago. The conversation doesn’t change. What changes is when people decide to put their money where their mouth is. So I think that’s something I have to do too. 

Is it difficult to take on that responsibility?
I don’t want to just get by. I’m well-off in my career. And so if I say, “Well, I’m okay, and I don’t want to rock the boat,” that’s not a neutral decision. That actually keeps things from changing. So I think it’s really important to power through any discomfort and have the conversation anyway. Creating change is about having a critical mass of several influences, but one is the right people, and creating a space where people feel that they can speak up and have these conversations and experiment. That’s an amazing ethos that is present at BuzzFeed. Launching the fellowship wasn’t a matter of pulling teeth; it was just seen as something we needed to do, which I’m really proud of and really hopeful about.

What do you hope writers will gain as fellows?
Our aim is to give them more assets, so that they can write different kinds of pitches and find different opportunities to get clips. One thing you see is people from wealthier or more connected backgrounds showing up with a list of clips and accreditations, and then you meet a really brilliant person who just hasn’t had the opportunity to cultivate that kind of résumé. This is especially the case in New York City, because it has never been more expensive to be a writer here than it is now. If you are from a working-class background, or from another part of the country and don’t have that network; if you are a parent, or if you are transitioning out of a different industry, it’s just not going to be feasible. It takes money and mentorship. My hope is that with this fellowship these writers who are so close, who have their hands on the door, will push the door open to get to where they need to be.

Cat Richardson is the managing editor of Bodega Magazine and a poetry editor at Phantom Books. Her work has appeared in Four Way Review, Tin House, Sonora Review, and elsewhere.