November 5, 2015
(AP Photo)

(AP Photo)

BuzzFeed’s editorial standards were modified earlier this week to allow for greater collaboration between the company’s editorial and advertising staffers, a move BuzzFeed’s editor in chief says will enable the company to keep pace with promotional standards in the entertainment industry.

This week’s update to BuzzFeed’s standards is the latest in a series of editorial policy changes that have come as the company has evolved from a burgeoning Web startup to a journalistic powerhouse with a growing newsroom and satellite editions scattered across the globe.

The change, says BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith, was made as the company experiments with allowing advertisers to sponsor segments of scripted entertainment. The new language does not provide for news sponsorships and applies only to the company’s Life and Buzz divisions, sections of BuzzFeed that produce lifestyle, Web culture and social media content.

“We’re trying to grow with a very rapidly changing media landscape,” Smith said. “But we hew to principles that don’t change.”

The new guidelines empower BuzzFeed’s editorial managers to vet certain sponsorships and allow non-news editorial staffers to participate in advertisements for videos and podcasts:

BuzzFeed maintains a divide between advertising and editorial staff. However, management-level editorial employees may be asked to vet certain sponsorships or projects. Certain forms of advertising — including product placements and advertisements inline in videos or podcasts — will also involve non-news staffers’ participation in a clearly disclosed form.

The old language, which has since been removed, forbade editorial-side staffers from participating in advertising content:

We encourage staffers in editorial to collaborate with staffers in video or tech or data. But edit staffers must never collaborate or contribute to content that is part of an ad campaign — whether it’s video or text.

Creative/ad sales staffers are not permitted to contribute to editorial-driven content. Creative staffers may create community posts under clear bylines that state they are not on the editorial team.”

BuzzFeed’s editorial standards guide, a document that governs issues such as conflicts of interest and disclosure, was intended to be a mutable document, Smith said. The guide provides for changes, allowing that the standards enumerated will “evolve as they’re tested.”

This week’s changes were sparked in part by a video from Matt Bellassai, a BuzzFeed staffer behind a series of hit videos called “Whine About It.” In the videos, which are published on Facebook and Tumblr, Bellassai takes long pulls from glasses of wine and holds forth on various peeves from his desk.

In an October edition of “Whine About It,” Bellassai went on a skiing rant sponsored by “Aprés Ski,” a new reality television series from Bravo. That episode prompted BuzzFeed to rethink its handling of sponsorships for editorial videos and podcasts developed by its relatively new audio division.

“He did a promoted segment, and we have recent standards for news that didn’t contemplate that sort of thing,” Smith said. “There are very traditional advertising arrangements in those industries that we wanted to accommodate.”

Advertising staffers at BuzzFeed have long worked with brands to craft sponsored content, but this is the first time the company has posted guidelines that allow business-side staffers to collaborate with the company’s Buzz and Life editorial divisions on a case-by-case basis.

The changes reflect editorial and advertising cross-pollination that has been underway elsewhere in the media industry for years. Brands have long teamed up with magazines, local and network TV and newspapers to sponsor various segments of their content, a practice that has since spread to online outlets.

BuzzFeed has addressed its evolving editorial standards in the past. After Gawker’s J.K. Trotter revealed last year that more than 4,000 posts had been removed from the site, Smith told Poynter that many of the posts were vestiges of BuzzFeed’s early days as a content lab. BuzzFeed’s editorial standards guide, which was written by BuzzFeed News Executive Editor Shani Hilton, has changed slightly since it was released earlier this year; revisions have clarified the newsroom’s stance on women’s rights, set forth standards governing outside income and prohibited exotic animals in the company’s offices.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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