The Ben Smith hire, and Jonah Peretti’s plan to take BuzzFeed way beyond glurge

It wasn't the Pentagon Papers. But more significantly, in terms of Peretti's nascent experiment, it wasn't glurge.

What happens when the editors take initiative against a backdrop of viral web media is, Smith thinks, demonstrated by the success of Stopera's piece, which received more than 7.7 million page views, 4 million of them from Facebook, and delivered the site its highest traffic day to date.

"What it is now is a very intelligently aggregated set of things that people want to share," Smith said. "And they've really figured out what it is that people like to share. Jonah and I agree that one of the things people like to share that isn't really on there is new news. Breaking news, things you didn't know. And good explanatory reporting and good writing."

"Good reporters are all writing for the social web now, basically," Smith said. "I don't think it's some exotic thing. I get my news on Twitter. Lots of my acquaintances who aren't obsessing about politics tell me they saw things on Facebook. I don't think people pay as much attention to where the news came from. This isn't futuristic, it's obvious."

Smith, who's always been restless in whatever medium he's working in, discovered early that he could beat the print reporters at major news outlets by publishing iteratively on the web. When he was at The New York Observer (which was also when I was at the Observer) he managed, by starting a local-politics blog at a time when none existed here, to insert a paper into the daily news cycle that only even published once a week.

And so, by going to BuzzFeed, Smith hopes once again to be ahead of things to be casting off the legacy-constraints of existing news web sites. He wants to write for, and deliver news for, the social web, which has no real geographic location.

"Jonah is persuasive and understands incredibly lucidly … that the stuff people share isn't necessarily the same stuff people click," Smith said.

He offered a modest proviso before continuing: "[BuzzFeed] didn't hire me because I'm an expert on that; this is the code they've cracked," he said. But: "It's stuff with a little more emotional punch. People are more likely to share good news than they are to click on it. Positive news." "The site has a voice and has an identity and has a huge audience," Smith said, "but I would like to see reporters voices coming through pretty clearly."

"This is what I've been doing wherever I've been," Smith said. "To hew very closely to the values of traditional journalism like fairness and speed and honesty and accuracy. But not the conventions."

"How your stuff is distributed is certainly not the most important thing about reporting or writing," Smith said. "It's very important but it's liberating to be focused on what is in fact the right approach for the distribution method." 

It wasn't wrong for print reporters to be obsessed with "beating" the competition in a sudden-death round on the newsstand, where each paper gets one shot (at its print deadline) and can't pick up again til the morning. But it's wrong not to seek the most edifying platform and distribution method for the work you want to do as a journalist, and once you're there, wrong not to gear yourself toward it.

How will he make this stuff fit into the BuzzFeed brand? Smith said there would be a lot of trial and error. And that BuzzFeed would have to stretch and change.

But: "The newsroom conversation of jokes among reporters, you know, I think BuzzFeed has this very authentic voice that will be great for interpreting these conversations in very straightforward comprehensible funny ways."

That's the big thing: "Politics is very funny and often isn't covered as being as funny as it is," he said.

He had just been in New Hampshire at a diner yesterday when I talked to him, with presidential candidate Mitt Romney and watched as a man in a red plaid shirt and a black cap proclaiming his status as a Vietnam vet asked Romney what he was going to do about gay marriage in New Hampshire. Taking his cue, Romney assured the man he'd do what he could to get the law changed.

"Then the guy reveals that he's gay, and the guy Romney is sitting next to is his husband, and it seems to me that's a great video and that's something people would like to share. I think that's a great scene."

"It's not like some great insight I'm sure it will be all over the place today."

Precisely the point, no?

"I don't think were gonna reinvent the wheel," Smith said. "Jonah has a team that has this great sense of what people like to share and has built a site that is incredibly astute about that. And increasingly what people are looking for to share is news."

If it's successful, it will change BuzzFeed a lot.

"We are going to have traditional verticals; we're not gonna say what they are yet but I think you can guess," Smtih said. "We're also interested in doing not-obvious ones, content areas people don't think of as a beat but that are shared that way. I don't think we have to hew to the A,B,C,D sections of the Times."

And the rollouts will be determined in part by the people Smith hires and their strengths. A dozen hires are planned off the bat with scaling up planned but not yet determined completely.

"It's a great site and I think while people may roll their eyes if they look at it for 30 seconds, if they look longer they'll see," he said.

"I think great reporters will have a lot of fun playing with the medium and sitting next to these really talented editors who are really adept at telling these kinds of stories," Smith said. "I think at this point generationally there are a lot of people who came up comfortable with this and it's maybe a little less of an issue, so its important to let people do what they're good at, so I'm not gonna force brilliant video editors to spend the day on the phone or reporters to edit videos."

"I really do think that we're gonna have more fun than anyone else on the big stories of 2012," Smith said.