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

Ben Smith. (Daniel J. Sieradski.)
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When the popular political blogger and reporter Ben Smith broke the news to his nearly 60,000 followers on Twitter a little after midnight on Dec. 12 that he'd be leaving Politico for a site called BuzzFeed, the reaction among New York media professionals was a combination of shock and fascination.

"What is BuzzFeed?" were precisely the words one established New York editor wrote to me in an email the next day, and that question or a variant filled my inbox throughout the morning.

"Whoa", was the first word of the headline on the site Mediaite. "I would kill to hear the pitch @peretti made on the future of @buzzfeed to lure @benpolitico over. Fascinating move," tweeted Andrew Golis, who made his mark at upstart Talking Points Memo and now runs the digital operation for PBS' "Frontline."

It was, to many, a bit as though Jane Lynch, at the height of her popularity on "Glee," had announced that she was leaving the cast to participate in a season of "Celebrity Apprentice."

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A first look at BuzzFeed doesn't give much of a clue where Smith, whose knowing-but-not-snarky takes on public power and campaign politics have helped define the voice of Politico, would fit in. BuzzFeed is organized via a navigation bar at the top of the page into categories that include LOL, win, cute, fail, OMG, geeky, trashy and wtf?

So why did he do it?

What Smith said, when I kept coming back to the question, was that he sees how digital media's moving on from its old formats and wants to be a part of it. And most importantly, that the founder of BuzzFeed had been incredibly, irresistibly "persuasive."

That would be Jonah Peretti, a co-founder of The Huffington Post who founded BuzzFeed in 2006, and quickly made it a fixture outside the self-regarding media universe I travel in. (Peretti's last link to The Huffington Post was severed by mutual agreement after the site was purchased by AOL earlier this year.)

So I tried to get the pitch from Peretti himself.

At Huffington Post, Peretti told me, "I used to think a lot about how search engines work."

The site is famous for finding news and structuring content and curating pages to maximize the number of people who reach its pages through search terms. So how search engines work is the very foundation of the business.

"But I was never that interested in it," Peretti confessed. "It was an addiction, not an obsession."

"In terms of why I founded BuzzFeed, it was really because I was trying to understand why do ideas spread and how do they spread?" he said. "I wanted to see how they spread and how ideas and content spreads through networks."

And so BuzzFeed was built on technology that finds the content on the web that people have shared most with their networks, rather than the number of web pages that have succeeded in attracting the most clicks. What emerged on the BuzzFeed homepage was a bottom-up view of what was important to people who read the web every day.

It was a prescient move back in 2006. As web sites struggle to make it into your bookmark bar for daily visits, BuzzFeed is built on the premise that your real homepage for news, information and entertainment content is quite likely your Facebook wall.

"It used to be you go to the front page of a site or a search engine and you're doing it all by yourself," Peretti said. "Increasingly there's a social context."

"Could you create a site that does things that people haven't even thought were possible because the world has changed, and the way content spreads has changed and you can get your reporting you can get your entertainment you can get you content from [your network]?"

But a funny thing happened after a few years of posting lots of reblogs of cute animals, blooper videos and inspiring stories (a category that ages ago the brilliant old website Snopes lumped together as "glurge", mostly in reference to those cute, wtf?, win, fail, lol emails you were getting from your aunts and cousins and alumni networks before they took to Facebook).

"What we've found is that our front-page traffic is growing really fast but the reason people are coming is changing," Peretti told me. "They come to see what's the zeitgeist … but increasingly they're coming for something to share. They come to the site looking for things their friends will like. They aren't coming to consume content they are coming to share content."

It's an important and subtle point he's making. Many web editors think of sharing as the natural behavior of a reader who is so moved or entertained or angered or intrigued by a piece of content that their enthusiasm bubbles over into a tweet, a Facebook post, an email to a group of friends or coworkers.

But sharing has become such a function of everyday life for so many that in fact readers are acting like producers. They have to keep their feeds alive, they have to keep their friends engaged, to talk to them about the world, which is being experienced so universally through the medium of the web. In other words, BuzzFeed went from being a document of what's being shared on the web to a sort of wire service for citizen publishers with a network they want to keep engaged. BuzzFeed goes from being a chronicler of what's being shared to an arbiter. And in that there is an opportunity to place real reporting on top of an incredibly powerful platform.

This makes BuzzFeed a different sort of proposition at a fundamental level from The Huffington Post. At the same time, it provides an opportunity for Peretti, and for Smith, that looks an awful lot like what's going on at Huffington Post now to the casual observer as it hires reporters and puts what it describes as a "layer" of original reported content over its incredibly successful blogging operation.

"How do you create content that's either informative, entertaining, meaningful, that people see and think, 'I want to share this with people I know?'" Peretti asked himself.

I asked Peretti why he bothered to have a website if totally distributed media really is the future. After all, the Facebook effect flattens voice and specialness and branding, doesn't it? When your BuzzFeed post is jostling on someone's wall next to a Times article, they look almost the same except maybe for negligible things like a logo or the way the text is capitalized.

"I think it's an interesting question and an interesting point," Peretti said. In the past, when he has spoken to people who sought his advice on launching websites, he said, he's often asked "Why don't you make a totally distributed site where it just lives in all these different places instead of on your website?"

The answer wasn't really clear to him until recently, when he had this revelation about how his site was functioning. Now, there was a new opportunity in his evolving audience. BuzzFeed had a voice and a brand, and it was fulfilling a service that it couldn't do as a 100-percent distributed brand.

"I also think brand matters too when you see something in your Facebook newsfeed," he said, "and you see it's from the Times."

"We're good at fun content, and entertaining content, and useful content, but the one piece that was really missing from the site was having a great team to deliver scoops, stories."

I asked Peretti why. After all, BuzzFeed's getting 20 million visitors on the strength of the glurge market. Why add this? And why have an editorial direction at all, if it runs counter to what's already seeping up through the bedrock of the social web to the surface of BuzzFeed on its own?

"The reason to have an editorial or a reporting team is that right now the biggest piece we're missing is telling people things they didn't know before because we are the ones finding it out," he said.

And, partially, he admitted, it would be more "fun," and engaged his own feelings about the value of journalism.

"Without really getting credit for it we've been doing a lot more original content … and getting better and better instincts about what it is that people want," Peretti said. "Beyond just telling people 'this is what's hot,' we've been finding that its a lot more exciting and a lot more fun and better for business as well to show people new things that … inspire them to share.

"The reporting is a huge piece of it," he said. "It's good for democracy, it's good for business, it's good for the world."

The "better for business" part was the confusing one to me. But Peretti explained it like this: If people were coming looking for something to share, why should BuzzFeed restrict itself to the things others produce? There's an audience for stuff they might find out themselves; if they originate content, they cut out the middleman (since they are the middleman).

Peretti is not the first but is one of the most avid opponents of one traditional idea about journalism on the web, which is that it's a zero-sum game, one where someone else needs to lose for BuzzFeed to win. The social aspect of news and media consumption only underscores that: BuzzFeed does not have to have a complete politics report, one that demands vast amounts of attention and removes the need to visit other sites to read about politics. It only needs to have some great stories and information and breaking news about politics. The former he calls "commodity news," and he does not predict a bright future for it on the web.

Commodity news, to Peretti, is: "There's a press conference and every big publication goes and everyone writes the same story. There's no reason to link to any of those stories or to link to one story instead of another." "Scoops and reporting have a bright future on the web but commodity news …"

THE IDEAS HERE ARE NOT NEW. IT'S A SUBTLER ART THAT BUZZFEED practices. 

Smith told me that once he started looking closely at the site, he had come to appreciate that there was lots more to BuzzFeed's glurge than meets the eye.

"The 45 most powerful images of 2011" sounds like an assignment that was spit out of a computer. But what BuzzFeed editor Matt Stopera did with it, Smith said, was incredible.

"It was all really compelling and often kind of horrifying news photography and put together very intelligently, and with just the right amount of text, a light touch," Smith said. "It was real photo journalism, different from a lot of what's being shared on the web."

That is, BuzzFeed discovered that they could post something important and it would get shared by lots and lots of people, instead of waiting to see what lots and lots of people shared and then putting it on their site.

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.

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