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OMG, BuzzFeed Is Investing In Serious News Coverage! Is It FTW?

BuzzFeed's content is created by both paid staff members and users of the site.
Matt Haughey
BuzzFeed's content is created by both paid staff members and users of the site.

Anyone who has hankered for a list of 10 of the most life-affirming dog rescue stories ever can rely on the social media site BuzzFeed.

That list of 11 classic horror films that should never have been remade? That's from BuzzFeed too.

BuzzFeed's digital traffic is stratospheric: It cites Google Analytics figures that show it drew more than 130 million unique visitors to its site last month. But the social media outfit is in the process of building up a team of journalists to offer original news reporting, raising questions of just what it intends to be.

"When we look at with whom we're really competing — look at The New York Times, look at The Guardian — these are stories that people are sharing," says Ben Smith, the charismatic BuzzFeed editor-in-chief hired away from Politico two years ago. "These are meaningful stories that are advancing the news."

Under Smith, BuzzFeed has hired reporters to cover politics and culture and added reporters in Cairo, Istanbul, Russia and, most recently, Nairobi, Kenya. The promise: to offer stories with distinctive takes, not just the latest development.

Yet most visitors clearly arrive for the viral posts that made BuzzFeed famous. The conference rooms at its new Manhattan headquarters are named for some of the most important players in its early history: "No No No Cat," "Kitten with a Tiny Hat," "Birthday Cat," "Business Cat" and "Lil Bub." They are unlikely to be household names -– unless your household includes social media junkies younger than 35. As it turns out, many tens of millions of houses and apartments do.

Jonah Peretti, founder and CEO of BuzzFeed, was also a founder of The Huffington Post.
Brad Barket / Getty Images for WIRED
Getty Images for WIRED
Jonah Peretti, founder and CEO of BuzzFeed, was also a founder of The Huffington Post.

Many of BuzzFeed's several hundred editorial staffers create animated GIFs — the brief video clips used to comedic effect, or sometimes to do more, to illustrate current events. The reality show The Hills illustrates strife in Syria, and countless posts invoke Tina Fey's movie Mean Girls. The whole thing is pretty hilarious. But therein lies the rub.

"Retail outlets have brands. Target means one thing, Wal-Mart means another, Saks Fifth Avenue means one more thing," says James Bankoff, CEO of Vox Media, a network of sites focusing on such varied topics as sports, technology, video games, real estate, food and fashion.

Bankoff says he enjoys grazing on BuzzFeed posts. But he argues that the site has a brand, too, and stands in some peril of blurring it.

"A brand that at once floods the zone with a lot of interesting, cute lists and also has aspirations to be a journalistic outlet really has to reconcile how they can do that and build brand identity around two things that might not be compatible in a lot of cases," Bankoff says.

Smith argues that there's no confusion. More than half of BuzzFeed's traffic comes from people's tweets, Facebook posts, emails and other referrals, so Smith says many people don't experience BuzzFeed as a unified publisher or website.

Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed's CEO and founder, points to the site's creation. "The joke used to be that you'd share what you had for lunch on Twitter and Facebook, with pictures of your friends getting drunk," he says. "Then cute animals and jokes and humor and Internet geek culture started to emerge on those platforms, and there's where BuzzFeed really got started."

But then, Peretti says, the Arab Spring broke out and played out on Facebook. People took to Twitter to monitor breaking news. BuzzFeed decided to hire reporters — not a cheap proposition — as it decided that was necessary to draw certain kinds of news readers and advertisers.

"We realized we had a huge hole in the content we were publishing," says Peretti. "We didn't have news. We didn't have reporters. We didn't have any of the kinds of things that were starting to become increasingly shared across the social Web."

The late journalist Michael Hastings reported for BuzzFeed from the Obama campaign trail in 2012, helping the website beef up its coverage of politics and news.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
Getty Images
The late journalist Michael Hastings reported for BuzzFeed from the Obama campaign trail in 2012, helping the website beef up its coverage of politics and news.

The BuzzFeed strategy involves targeting different content for different platforms. On Twitter, news junkies and experts may share BuzzFeed's more detailed stories, while Facebook users may be curious but less well-informed.

The company has built out so-called "native" advertising as well, in which the advertising is labeled but has a feel similar to what you might see in the site's editorial content. One listicle (as they're called) offered "10 Airplane Seat-to-Seat Chat Pickup Lines," sponsored by Virgin America to advertise its new feature that allows passengers to chat on their movie screens as they fly. Some critics say that blurs the distinction between editorial and commercial elements. Peretti calls it a lesson learned from glossy magazines such as Vogue and Vanity Fair, which carry ads as important to readers as the articles themselves.

Both in such advertising and in its postings, BuzzFeed aims to win audiences of people younger than 40. Hence it serves up stories about gay rights in Russia ahead of the Winter Olympics, or a post focusing on racist tweets after the crowning of the first Miss America of Asian Indian descent. That link garnered 5.7 million clicks — a tremendous yield.

Kelly McBride, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla., argues that the posting was designed to be hugely popular — but that, as a result, BuzzFeed misled readers about the extent to which the new Miss America sparked a racist response.

"The people who were sharing it were sharing it because they were outraged, not because they shared the sentiments of the tweeters who were making the posts," McBride says.

McBride believes that BuzzFeed missed the larger story: that people overwhelmingly embraced the new Miss America.

"What does it mean when something goes viral on BuzzFeed?" she asks. "Does it mean that it's the most important topic on its face? Or is there another issue behind it?"

The very fact that people share that content with others, Peretti and Smith say, proves it is meaningful. They say BuzzFeed is really best understood like an old-fashioned television network, with newscasts, sitcoms, soap operas and sports at different times of day.

Tens of millions may feast on BuzzFeed posts about animals, Smith says, while the audience for the latest twist in the Syrian civil war may be in the six figures. "And the people who may care about the latest incremental changes in the law over whether you can fire someone for being transgendered may be 10,000," he says.

BuzzFeed wants them all.

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David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.