Three lists about BuzzFeed's serious journalism
A little more than a year ago, BuzzFeed made the leap into the realm of serious journalism. It hired some known journalists and a lot more hungry young writers, expanded its verticals, and announced a plan to create serious content to go alongside the site's trademark clever lists.
BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith told me in a phone interview that he’s mostly pleased. “I’m psyched about the amount that we’ve been able to punch through,” Smith said. “We are advancing stories. I think that’s what we want to do.”
He emailed me a list of what he considers BuzzFeed's greatest hits, including Rosie Gray’s story on the GI Bill not working, McKay Coppins' coverage of Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith and Reyhan Harmanci’s profile of an anonymous Google contractor who had to look at porn and violence all day.
- On hiring: Smith says he looks for people who are fearless, have raw talent and aggression and take themselves “seriously in a good way.” Also, he doesn’t hire big names for the sake of their star power. “I hired Michael Hastings because he’s a workaholic, not for his name or his good looks.”
- Current size of the staff: 225 people with roughly 80 working for Smith on the editorial side, making it larger than most mid-size newspapers.
- The 2012 presidential election was BuzzFeed's year. “Presidential elections are unique. Every cycle there is a news organization that breaks through. That was our cycle.”
- You may not be in the target audience. “Most of our stories are written for someone who cares about the Twitter front page. Not all of them, but many of them.”
- Good stories succeed wherever they are, but entertainment stories rule: “Good stories get a lot of readers. That’s true across journalism and history. But more people care about entertainment. A great Beyonce story will get more attention than anything else.”
I interviewed two staffers who work for Smith, reporter Rosie Gray and political editor McKay Coppins. They described a creative, exciting environment where they have a lot of freedom to select their own stories and ignore the competition, two workplace benefits that would make lots of other journalists jealous.
- They’re still a little sensitive about their serious efforts not being seen as a novelty. “A year ago we started doing serious journalism,” Gray, who is 23, told me. "We have to combat the idea that we are just about fun lists.”
- Three days is a long time to spend on a story. Gray and I first talked about her piece on foreign governments using NGOs to disperse propaganda within in the United States. “It took like two days to report. I spent Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday focused on it. We published it on Thursday. That’s a long time. I don’t usually take that long.”
- They get it that their target audience is not Mom and Dad. Coppins, who is 26, told me: “It’s clear that we are having some success in producing serious, in-depth journalism in a way that is digestible for people who spend all day on the internet.”
- Why BuzzFeed is like a Parisian café. Quoting BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti, Coppins explained the site’s philosophy this way: “You have people sitting at a table reading philosophical text, a religious text, or a newspaper and sometimes they stop to pet a dog that walks by.” On the day we talked, the Top 5 stories on the site illustrated that outlook.
- A story about how "The Bible"'s Satan character looked like President Obama.
- A piece about how folks discussed gay marriage at CPAC.
- "13 ways Republicans Can Win The Internet."
- A classic: "23 Kitties Of Congress."
- And rounding out that list was a scoop about Democratic activists who sneaked into CPAC hoping to catch attendees jeering Ashley Judd.
Yet BuzzFeed isn't quite the major player it wants to be. The site has yet to prompt a major investigation, resignation, firing or any of the other measures of watchdog impact. Some of that's because it just hasn't been in the game long enough. Eventually that will happen. BuzzFeed will have the equivalent of Deadspin's Manti Te'o moment. Here are three things I'm looking for in the evolution of BuzzFeed during its second year of grownup journalism.
- Stronger editing. With with the exception of BuzzReads, the long pieces especially need more structure and precision. Some stories run 6,000, even 7,000, or 10,000 words. That’s New Yorker length. If you want to write that long, you have to make it that good. So pieces like this one on a staffer's sleep disorder, which Smith named one of the highlights of 2012, need to be rethought. It's not a bad piece. But a rigorous editing process ensures that the story has a tight-enough architecture to move it along and keep the reader engaged. BuzzFeed's long reads have to be even better than that, because they might compete with a banner teasing absurd items of clothing or a story predicting which character will die next on "The Walking Dead."
- Mentoring and growing expert journalists. The benchmark of a journalism staff is not how great they are today but how much each individual can continue to grow. Some of this comes through the editing process described above. Writers get better by writing a lot, which BuzzFeed writers do, and by working with transformational editors. Writers also grow through developing expertise, critical thinking skills, and doing increasingly sophisticated analysis that works. Writers also have to be allowed to occasionally fail, or start working on pieces that never make it through the publication process.
- Getting the attention of people who make things happen. When Anne Hull and Dana Priest wrote their Washington Post series on the failures at Walter Reed Medical Center, people in Congress introduced legislation to shake things up even before their constituents started writing. Even though some of the issues BuzzFeed takes on have that potential, the stories aren’t delivered with the authority and heft and that compels people in charge to respond. BuzzFeed Brews has the potential to become a place serious politicians go to have serious and cool conversations.
BuzzFeed's journalism model is a bit like ESPN's, an organization I'm familiar with. They both produce a large volume of highly entertaining information, sprinkled with some regular journalism and some high-end stuff. BuzzReads reminds me of ESPN's 30 for 30 film documentary series, not least because both are produced mostly by outsiders. BuzzFeed should occassionally free its writers to do that level of work.
I was asking Smith to describe the difference in traffic between the serious journalism and the silly stuff. That's an artificial distinction, he told me. There's a way to make a serious or poignant statement that people want to share. In an email exchange after our phone conversation, he pointed out that a political piece will reach hundreds of thousands, while animals reach millions, but perhaps the greatest hit ever on BuzzFeed was an aggregation of the most powerful photos of 2011. "Do you think it's unserious?" he asked.
And that may be the point. It's emotionally powerful. It took a skilled editor to assemble it. But it doesn't change anything. The sheer size and growth of BuzzFeed gives it the opportunity to be a major player in American journalism for years to come. To fully step into that role, BuzzFeed will need to harness its existing genius of poignant aggregation, and apply it to the creation of new information. BuzzFeed has the potential to invent a new form of journalism.
Steve Kandell, who edits BuzzFeed's longreads, disagreed with my assessment that there is too much distance between BuzzFeed staffers and what he is producing with the help of outside writers. He pointed to BuzzFeed's work last week covering the Supreme Court's consideration of the Defense of Marriage Act.
"From where I'm sitting, there's a lot of editing, a lot of mentoring, and I just watched our entire DC bureau work on nothing but the DOMA case all last week, which seems pretty deep to me, as an observer," he wrote in an email.
Later this year when the Supreme Court announces its rulings in the gay marriage cases will be a good test for BuzzFeed. Can it create and aggregate in a way that furthers understanding, advances the conversation and influences those in power?
BuzzFeed doesn't really need to make great journalism to be successful. But journalism sure could use the boost a fully formed BuzzFeed would give it.