For years, Summer Anne Burton has been expanding the guide to Austin she created as a shareable Google Doc. Whenever her colleagues at BuzzFeed—where the native Texan serves as executive creative producer—would visit her hometown, she would offer them an extensive directory advising them on her favorite neighborhoods, where to go swimming, recommendations for can’t-miss restaurants, what local businesses to check out, and more.
“It’s pretty overwhelming,” Burton admitted. “I’ll have people be like, ‘I’m going to Austin for a convention, and I have an extra four hours. What can I do?’ And I’ll send them this 5,000 word document about where to get vegan breakfast tacos.”
As side projects go, sharing her love of Austin after five years of living in New York is pretty on-brand for Burton. Her “35 Things Everyone Should Do In Austin, Texas Before They Die” list is a classic of the BuzzFeed form, and one of the most popular examples of the format that, in her leadership role at the media giant, she helped shape.
But starting next month, Burton won’t be doing her Texas evangelizing from afar. She’ll be able to keep that list updated by actually personally visiting all of her favorite spots as she opens BuzzFeed’s first “small, experimental office” in Austin.
BuzzFeed’s headquarters is based in New York, but they have creative and editorial offices around the world: in Los Angeles (where they focus on video), San Francisco (where they cover the tech beat), Washington, D.C. (where the politics team is based), and internationally in London, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, Sydney, Dubai, and Rio De Janeiro. The Austin office, though, will be focused on creative output—including BuzzFeed’s branded content—and learning how to tap Texas talent and identity in order to establish a way to work outside of world capitals and America’s coastal megalopolises.
“We want to reach audiences all over the country, and really all over the world,” Burton said. “And as a lot of people who live in the South, or in the Midwest have observed, there’s sort of a coastal thing that happens where everyone writing most media is based in California or New York, and so I definitely think it’s an advantage to be in Texas. Something we’ve talked about a lot over the years is how we do what we do when it’s so important to us to be authentic—when we talk about writing about identity, we talk about about how there’s no real secret other than you have to be authentic to yourself, and then other people connect with that. And physical location is another part of that. I happened to have a ton of success when I started at BuzzFeed with writing about Texas, and it came from a really authentic place of loving Texas and loving Austin.”
Burton started at BuzzFeed as a weekend editor in 2012, working remotely from Austin part-time while she still waited tables at the Alamo Drafthouse on Sixth Street. She quickly ascended the company’s leadership ladder, becoming a senior editor (with a focus on the site’s “animals” section) for a few months, before being tapped as managing editorial director and then editorial director of the “BFF” team she founded to crack social platforms. In March 2016, she took over the branded team as executive creative director. She’ll continue in that role from the Austin office—she’ll just be doing it a bit more remotely, as her initial office will consist of herself and BuzzFeed Editorial Director Jack Shepard, along with some “residents,” which Burton describes as “sort of like an internal internship” where current BuzzFeed staff will cycle into Austin for a few months of working in the Texas office.
“What we’re leaning into is ‘What is the advantage of an office that is in a totally different part of the country from our big, scaling operation?'” Burton said. “We have two people who’ve been thinking about making content for so long between the two of us—we’re like really old school in BuzzFeed years—and Jack and I both spent four years on the edit side of BuzzFeed, and then the past year leading the creative branded team. We’re going to be working on branded content, and also do a lot of experimentation with unbranded stuff. One of our values is being really experimental and testing and learning and innovating, and as we get bigger, there’s often an advantage to being in a new place and doing that with a really small team.”
If all of that sounds kind of vague, well, Burton is aware: “It’s almost intentionally vague,” she said. “We’re going to try something, and then try something else, and then try something else. If we see a need for us to try understand a particular type of partner, where we need better ways to partner with entertainment clients, or we need a format for a platform that’s getting really big, or we’re doing more and more with Snapchat—it’s sort of going to be a group of people that we can kind of tap to figure those things out are working in the way that we’ve always sort of experimented at first, and then double down when things are working.”
BuzzFeed’s Austin office will initially be set up in a temporary space as Burton finds the ideal location for headquarters in the city. Resettling in Austin has long been a dream of Burton’s, but the Austin office isn’t a reward for a rising star in the company—it’s a chance to establish BuzzFeed as a player in Texas media and to incorporate some of that into the site in ways that may not seem obvious at first glance.
“We’re really trying to just tap into how cool Austin is,” Burton said. “We saw Austin as full of so many creative people, there’s such an interesting scene, and we don’t have any people creating content anywhere in the South right now. It’s really us trying to make stuff, be part of the Austin scene, and go from there. It’s a culturally interesting city, where people are doing interesting things. There are interesting people doing animation who are based in Austin, or people who were doing some of the really early sort of pre-YouTube experiments with digital video that have come out of that scene, like Rooster Teeth.”
What all of this ends up looking like is anybody’s guess. But when BuzzFeed launched in 2006, it published things like a recommendation to check out a band’s MySpace page; now, it’s breaking major political news even as it turns items like “the dress” into a global obsession. The fact that you can’t really predict what BuzzFeed’s Austin office will end up doing is just an example of BuzzFeed being BuzzFeed, in that way. In the meantime, though, Burton is psyched to be in Austin as she helps figure all of that out.
“I’m definitely very excited,” she said. “I moved to New York, and I did it for my career, and that has been really great—but I’ve always been a Texan, and miss being home, and I’ve felt that deep breath of fresh air when I land. I’ve been an ambassador for Austin, and for Texas generally, and I’m ready to prove how great this can be, and how cool Austin is.”