Why BuzzFeed as a real news site is no laughing matter

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
-- Mahatma Gandhi

When Gandhi said that famous line (if he did), he was describing the process of reform through nonviolent protest. But it describes many other forms of cultural disruption, including the new wave of startups remaking the media business.

Consider the rise of The Huffington Post: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, then you win.

Now Jonah Peretti, who co-founded HuffPost, has another project on the online news launchpad. BuzzFeed, a site that specializes in finding and creating viral Web content, is moving into serious news by hiring Web-savvy journalists to cover politics, culture, women, and more.

Until now, BuzzFeed has been mostly ignored by mainstream media. Now some are laughing at it. Guess what comes next?

A site attuned to the social Web

BuzzFeed pulls huge traffic with viral, if silly, content. Now it's pivoting to real news.

The thing that throws off many traditional media people is the BuzzFeed's LOL-WTF-OMG approach to content. The site is speckled with Justin Bieber, funny cats, attractive women, and pretty much whatever is putting the “pop” in pop culture at the moment.

What in the world could this site have to offer in the way of real news?

For the skeptics and self-described serious people, first remember that the silly/serious combination is not that unusual as an audience strategy. Newspapers have long printed comics, crosswords, style features and travel sections to subsidize the relatively smaller bit of “serious” news reporting they do. If you can run Beetle Bailey on C8 and investigative journalism on A1, then a website can do some version of the same.

But there’s a bigger point -- the skeptics may be judging BuzzFeed by what it has done, not what it really is.

Coming from the opposite direction

Peretti talked to David Carr, who explained it well: “Peretti, a graduate of the MIT Media Lab with an expertise in content that is likely to be ‘liked’ … started BuzzFeed as a laboratory at first, making it less about what people were searching for and more about what they might share. He developed technologies that allowed BuzzFeed to determine very quickly what media content was being posted and shared.”

BuzzFeed is not a site dedicated to funny cats, which just happen to be popular; it is a site dedicated to what is popular, which just happens to be funny cats.

BuzzFeed as a news organization looks foreign to many people in legacy media because it is entering the online news realm from the opposite direction. Legacy media came with an understanding of news, but are still trying to apply that to the Internet. BuzzFeed began by understanding the ways of the Internet, and now is applying that to a webby version of real news.

That means BuzzFeed is going to end up looking different than most news websites. Smart people at legacy news organizations will study and try to learn from BuzzFeed’s evolving approach to news.

Others will ignore it, then laugh at it, then attack it. Then it wins.

Related: Also read Tom McGeveran’s take on what BuzzFeed is really up to (Capital New York) || Earlier: BuzzFeed readers have always consumed serious news, just on other sites (Poynter) | More BuzzFeed coverage

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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