BuzzFeed's Ben Smith: 'We didn't fully think through' the removal of old posts
Several months ago, roughly half a dozen early BuzzFeed writers were told to go back through their pre-2012 work and decide what they wanted to save. Anything they didn't want to keep or update should be removed from the site, they were told.
“Go through your stuff and save what you care about,” is how BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith summarizes the direction.
The result was that thousands of posts were removed from BuzzFeed, without any notice or disclosure. The removal of content was revealed by Gawker’s J.K. Trotter in two posts, the most recent of which outlined the previously unknown scale of the cull.
Smith was off in the woods on vacation when Trotter’s latest piece was published last week. This morning I spoke to him by phone, and he said BuzzFeed did not handle the purge of old content as well as it should have.
“I don't suggest that this was masterpiece of a really well-thought-through process,” he said. “In retrospect was we should have done is we should have had a pop-up on that page when you hit that URL [of a removed article]. It’s stuff made at a time when people were really not thinking of themselves as doing journalism; they saw themselves as working in a lab.”
Smith views the decision to remove the old content, and the scrutiny and criticism of how it was done, as part of BuzzFeed “growing up.”
He said there was no central process for deciding what stayed and what was deleted. The early BuzzFeed writers decided for themselves. They were told that anything they wanted to save had to have any broken links or missing fields for the CMS filled in, according to Smith.
“Many of the older stories are technically broken and some of them were kind of done as inside jokes,” he said. Others had jokes that “didn’t age well,” or were early games made in Flash.
Smith believes the biggest category of removed articles were ones that were broken, either in terms of outside links or in the way they displayed thanks to CMS changes over time. Some stories did not meet their standards for sourcing and attribution, but Smith suggested that was not the primary driver for removal in most cases.
Of course, we have to take his word for that, since all the evidence has disappeared and there is no list of what was disappeared.
“We didn't fully think through as we should have what the reaction would be,” he said. "We should have thought a bit more about how this would be perceived.”
BuzzFeed is many things
Gawker’s revelation of the scale of deletion came just days after BuzzFeed announced a new investment of $50 million from VC firm Andreessen Horowitz. Investor Chris Dixon wrote about the investment on hiss blog, and described BuzzFeed as akin to a technology company. But it’s also a news operation, as Smith notes. And as CEO Jonah Peretti has said, for a long time they were nothing like a news org:
— Jonah Peretti (@peretti) July 15, 2014
BuzzFeed is many things, and is trying to be even more.
Smith described BuzzFeed to me as a “Media company that includes a news organization, but that is not solely that.”
It’s a young company in transition. Perhaps nothing has served to communicate the evolution — and contradictions — of BuzzFeed better than the Great Content Cull of 2014.
When they looked at dealing with older content that was broken and not up to new standards (more on the latter below), Smith said they chose to deal with the older content in a way that reflected what BuzzFeed was at the time — meaning a lab and not a news organization.
“We returned to it in that spirit, and not as we are now,” he said.
I said in my view it’s problematic for them to apply old standards when part of the motivation for choosing what to delete was the application of new standards. You don't get to apply new standards and then enforce them using old methods that fail to meet new standards.
Smith said he felt that was “valid criticism.”
He said that one factor that contributed to the problematic way this was done is that he’s always conscious of trying to keep the experimental heart of BuzzFeed alive, even as they transition into a new kind of organization.
“One of the big challenges for me has been maintaining that spirit, which is very central to how we operate,” he said. It can be “a big challenge to maintain that experimental spirit at the moment when a lot of people are looking at us, and it’s more intimidating to try something and fail.”
BuzzFeed deputy editor in chief Shani Hilton is leading a new initiative to set standards that will apply across the organization, and to also develop specific standards and guidelines for each BuzzFeed group.
Prior to that kicking off, Smith said that editorial standards were not put down on paper in one place; it was more of a matter of asking and expecting employees to adhere to basic ethical behavior.
“The way I have always preferred to operate as a reporter, and I think the ethos we started with when we were a much smaller shop staring in 2012, was that the rules are pretty clear: don't lie, don't cheat, don't steal,” he said. “And that journalist ethics are [basic] ethics, and those are things that no one should do.”
After the Benny Johnson plagiarism scandal, Smith realized that “perhaps these things are not as obvious as I had assumed, and that they were harder to communicate in a bigger organization.”
So now Hilton is leading an initiative to develop clear, written standards for BuzzFeed editorial, whether you are a political writer, within the experimental BuzzTeam group, working for BuzzFeed Food, etc.
“We have a very ambitious journalism organization, but it’s not the only thing we do,” Smith said. “A lot of what we do in editorial is journalism, but we also do stuff that isn’t. We’re trying to make clear to ourselves and to others what are the standards that apply to things that are and that aren’t journalism.”
He expects there will be one set of global standards that apply to everyone, and specific guidelines for each group. He gave the example that a news journalist could never accept a blender from the manufacturer, but that the food team “has to figure out how long they can test the blender for, and whether they can include a photograph in the article,” among other things.
“Most readers see items one by one on the Internet and I think that basically it’s more important that we get things right across the board,” he said. “If you’re not doing news that’s not an excuse for misinforming people. We want to have uniformly high standards.”
The challenge right now is that in attempting to enforce new standards BuzzFeed applied old, low, standards. (And its new, higher standards are also clearly still in development.)
The result of the new process for defining standards at BuzzFeed will hopefully result in some excellent policies. But while the existence of them is essential, it doesn’t guarantee anything.
People have to live ethics and standards. They must become part of the organizational culture. It’s about how people behave, and the decisions that are made.
That’s one fundamental reason why the undisclosed mass deletion of old BuzzFeed content struck a chord: it's a concrete example of how BuzzFeed as an organization behaves — right now.
Smith said they are learning from this, especially when it comes to deleting content.
“If anybody didn't know this before, we absolutely know now that the best way to call attention to something is to delete it,” he said.