BuzzFeed editor Matt Ortile: ‘I write about being an immigrant, being gay, being young’

‘What BuzzFeed does is considered journalism.’ Photo by Mia Fermindoza

‘What BuzzFeed does is considered journalism.’ Photo by Mia Fermindoza

By Christian Catiis

Matt Ortile, the Philippine-born editor of BuzzFeed Philippines, is by now a resident of Brooklyn.

He went to Ateneo de Manila University until Grade 5. From Manila, he and his mother moved to Las Vegas where he went to middle school and high school. His stepdad eventually joined them from Manila. Matt earned a bachelor’s degree in Media Studies and English from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

He is grateful to his family, especially his mother, for “always being very supportive.”

“My mother was the one who always pushed me towards success,” he said.

In the following interview with contributing writer Christian Catiis, Matt spoke about his job leading BuzzFeed Philippines, which he said has 200 million monthly readers, and “getting the pulse” of Filipinos on the Internet.

Christian Catiis (CC): Did you always see yourself as pursuing writing and being an editor or did you have something different in mind?

Matt Ortile (MO): I initially thought I wanted to be an actor, so I majored in theatre performance in high school. But then I realized I was a better writer than actor, so I switched gears in college and focused on creative writing and literature. I completed several internships in the magazine world, then I moved over to digital with a fellowship at BuzzFeed. I haven’t looked back since.

CC: What do you hope to accomplish in 2016 as editor of BuzzFeed Philippines (BFPH)?

MO: I think the main thing that I try to do is to really measure the pulse of the Filipino Internet and make publishing decisions responding to that. If people are talking about Miss Universe or Netflix or the elections or Jollibee, then the work that BFPH produces will be reflective of that moment on the Internet. And as for 2016, we just hope to keep entertaining Filipinos; I want our audiences to think of BuzzFeed Philippines, and smile and feel connected to other Filipinos on the Internet.

CC: How did you get to be where you are in your life today? And did you have any mentors that helped push you into your current direction?

MO: There’s no magic formula. You just really have to put in the work. For me, that means writing constantly. Even if it means writing pages and pages of things that no one else will ever read. Every mistake or wrong word is a stepping stone to something better. One of my professors in college taught me that. He was always very good about encouraging us to set achievable goals. And the more goals you complete, you build a foundation of little successes that can lead to something greater.

CC: What themes do you write about?

‘I initially thought I wanted to be an actor.’

‘I initially thought I wanted to be an actor.’

MO: I write about myself, really. So that means I write about being Filipino, being an immigrant, being gay, being young. I like to speak from the “I,” rather than prescriptively. Because, as a writer, unless you’re an absolute authority on something, it’s dicey telling people what to think. But, I believe, when you write about your own experience and write about it authentically with equal parts honesty and skepticism, you leave a lot more room for people to engage with your work. It’s up to them to determine if they relate to what you’re talking about and glean something useful, or they can say, “This isn’t for me” and move along.

One of my favorite pieces is an essay called “Why I Ended A Perfectly Fine Relationship” published on BuzzFeed Books. It really helped me determine my style, my voice, and what I like to write about. And people received it really well and it traveled on the Internet, so I’m proud of that. It’s still something that I look to when I need to return to who I am as a writer.

CC: What inspires you?

MO: I get excited whenever anyone tells me that they can relate to my writing. When people comment on my work, they all come from different backgrounds and walks of life. It’s so cool to me: people who I may have very little in common with at first glance found something that connected them to me through my writing. One of my favorite comments that I received was from a woman saying how even though she was a straight Latina woman, it was so cool to her that the writing of a gay Filipino man really resonated with her. Moments like that give me confidence. It reminds me that when you write for yourself, you end up being honest and true, therefore, you’re more likely to reach others.

CC: How do you react when people say BuzzFeed is not serious journalism?

MO: I think of journalism as the practice of documenting and commenting on the cultural zeitgeist — so yes, I think what BuzzFeed and BuzzFeed News do is considered journalism. We’re doing what we like to do best: keep a pulse on Internet culture at large, whether that involves pop culture, or political news, or anything in between.

If people don’t think we do “serious journalism,” then they don’t read our whole site. But that’s fine; if they want to miss out on an exposé on match fixing in Wimbledon, or an incisive investigation on the H-2 visa program, or a thoughtfully written feature on the aftermath of the Jennifer Laude case in the Philippines, well, then that’s their loss.

CC: Any advice for aspiring writers?

MO: The best way to get through writer’s block is to just write. Write whatever about anything. It’s just like going to the gym: start with small weights and you work your way up to push yourself. Writing is an exercise and a discipline. It’s also incredibly awesome.

CC: What projects are you working on?

MO: I’m working on a collection of my essays, talking to agents and editors about the best way to move forward. I’m excited for 2016!

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