Looking back on BuzzFeed News’ coverage of the 2016 election cycle, Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith doesn’t have many regrets. But if he could do it over again, there’s one thing he’d change.
“There was a certain amount of investigative resources that went into Republican candidates who flamed out,” Smith said, before adding a quick joke. “But we’re making the reporters refund us for all the drinks they bought.”
BuzzFeed News wasn’t alone in wooing Republican presidential hopefuls before Trump stunned the GOP establishment with a primary win. But it earned Trump’s ire early with a 2014 piece by reporter McKay Coppins that took a dim view of his shot at the White House — saying Trump’s political career was “on the brink of collapse.”
Since then, BuzzFeed News has taken Trump’s candidacy seriously — Coppins later penned a soul-searching piece that explored his role in Trump’s rise — and has broken stories that have driven the political conversation: Trump’s initial support of the war in Iraq, an early definitive piece on the emerging alt-right — and, recently, eyewitness accounts from Miss Teen USA beauty pageant contestants who said the Republican nominee walked into their dressing rooms while they were changing.
Now, with less than a month before Election Day, Smith and Politics Editor Katherine Miller are preparing to cover the conclusion of a campaign rife with unexpected twists. On Thursday, BuzzFeed News announced it’ll be chronicling Election Night with live coverage on Twitter, which Smith says stems from a desire to upend traditional notions about election reporting.
In particular, Smith is ready to topple what he regards as a antiquated media habit: old-fashioned race calling. Rather than having experts sequestered in a booth crunching election data, BuzzFeed News will go live to experts with Decision Desk, an organization that rose to prominence in 2014 by making timely, accurate race calls on social media.
“I think that election calling is one of the great old media rituals that still has a level of mystification around it, tablets being handed down from on-high,” Smith said. “If you’re on Twitter, you’d see very sophisticated people having an open, transparent and interesting conversation about what’s happening.”
BuzzFeed News also plans to feature live reporting from correspondents and do its best to create a package that preserves the transparency, humor and sophistication of Election Night Twitter. To help it along, they’ve brought aboard Bruce Perlmutter, a producer who’s organized red carpet events and, recently, the parachute-less skydive of daredevil Luke Aikins.
“You see this to some extent on television,” Miller said. “But (on Twitter) you see a very sophisticated conversation and real-time analysis of what returns mean on Election Night — what things coming in in Orlando mean and why the vote that has not come in in Miami Dade is actually important to the outcome in Florida.”
The decision to take coverage to Twitter is also a natural fit for BuzzFeed News, which has embraced social media from the start, Smith said.
“We’ve always tried to tell the news in a way that made sense to our audience,” Smith said. “Election Day is so clearly a live event, and Twitter is inarguably the central place that it happens.”
Competition on Election Night will be stiff, of course, just as it has been this entire election. The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold has unearthed scoop after scoop on the inner workings of the Trump Foundation and disclosed last week that Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women during a hot mic incident in 2005. Meanwhile, a team at The New York Times revealed at the beginning of the month that Trump could have avoided taxes for two decades, citing as evidence his previously undisclosed 1995 tax return.
The competition also poached one of BuzzFeed News’ star reporters, Andrew Kaczynski, along with his team of records sleuths that dug up the revelation about Trump’s Iraq War support. The team left for CNN, the same network whose boss, Jeff Zucker, said in August BuzzFeed wasn’t a “legitimate news organization” (he reversed himself Friday).
When asked about his reaction to Kaczynski’s departure, Smith said the move “feels like a million years ago” and that he feels “really good about where we are and the head of steam we have going into the election.”
Since he left BuzzFeed News, Kaczynski — who Smith hired from St. John’s College in 2011 — has already begun producing scoops, tracking down audio of Trump telling Howard Stern that “deeply troubled” women are “always the best in bed.”
Asked if he plans to restart a version of Kaczynski’s investigative unit in-house, Smith said that BuzzFeed News will focus on coverage of D.C. after the election.
“We’re going to be shifting our center of gravity as America is shifting its center of gravity toward Washington and a little away from national politics,” Smith said. “We hired Kate Nocera recently to help with that. The new administration will be a central story, so we’re going to be very focused on that.”
Their goal? Break a lot of news during the transition, Miller said.
“The idea is that we’re going to have a seamless handoff from election coverage to administration coverage on Nov. 9.”
When asked to rate their coverage of the campaign, Smith and Miller both gave BuzzFeed News high marks, citing a decision to ignore commodity coverage, focus on in-depth stories and own issues including immigration and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Ultimately, Smith said, news organizations will be measured against their coverage of Trump after the election’s over.
“I think we had an early look at what this was going to be like and have always covered Trump in what I see as a straightforward, accurate, fair way,” Smith said. “Which I think is how you see most outlets covering him now. But I think others, for awhile, thought this was going to be a normal campaign and covered it like one.”