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Why Buzzfeed Isn’t Killing Journalism

Opinion | November 12, 2013

In 2012, one particular news website broke the news that John McCain was about to endorse Mitt Romney; exclusively shared a newly-discovered 1981 video of Obama speaking at an anti-racist and feminist rally; and published the first in-depth profile of weightlifter Sarah Robles, who lives in poverty despite three national titles.

If you didn’t read these particular pieces, you probably glanced at least one of the news outlet’s most popular stories that year: “The 25 Most Awkward Cat Sleeping Positions,” “40 Things That Will Make You Feel Old,” or “50 Unexplainable Black & White Photos”—each of which was “read” over 3.5 million times. Or maybe you just scrolled through the cute animal photos. That’s right; I’m talking about BuzzFeed.

In recent years, there’s been a constant refrain that the death of journalism is near, and that it’s all due to the popularity of websites like BuzzFeed. But I’m not convinced that’s true. While the site started as a platform for detecting and spreading viral Internet content, it’s now poised to establish itself as a real player in the online media industry, as well as journalism in general.

I want to be very clear, though: between posting photos without credit, republishing other sites’ content before asking permission, spreading factual inaccuracies, and trying to tell the story of the Egyptian Revolution in 22 Jurassic Park GIFs, BuzzFeed does a lot of objectionable things. I take issue with some of BuzzFeed’s actions both as a journalist and a consumer—and I’m not alone.

Last summer, New Yorker contributor Joe Veix became a former BuzzFeed community contributor after his post titled: “The Top 10 DUMBEST BuzzFeed Lists You’re EMBARRASSED To Say You CLICKED” (sic) was deleted from the site. BuzzFeed editors declared his post “mean-spirited” and banned him. He posted a screenshot on his personal Tumblr blogs for posterity. A month later, he shared an article he’d written for indie magazine Death & Taxes on that same Tumblr, covering a trend of teenaged social media documentation of stairwell disasters. Hours later, BuzzFeed posted a suspiciously similar article, without crediting the text to Viex or the photos to the original Twitter users. BuzzFeed critics say these are not isolated incidents, but rather examples of a disturbing trend. It seems the goal here has become profit, not originality or insightful news coverage, which leads to a cycle demanding “click-bait” journalism posts as quickly as possible, abandoning ethics—and therefore citations—along the way.

In contrast with this criticism, BuzzFeed announced in late October that it had hired Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mark Schoofs to lead a team of around six other investigative reporters. This brings its population of journalists up to over 160—around half of the company’s employees—including foreign correspondents and a longform team led by Steve Kandell, the former editor of Spin magazine.

In September, founder Jonah Peretti posted an all-company memo on LinkedIn—for the benefit of “future employees”—detailing his vision for the next year and announcing that despite recent expenditures with these new hires, the company is now turning a profit. While the site is already eight times bigger than it was two years ago, by next September it wants to be one of the biggest on the Internet. Buzzfeed plans to stay within its established niche, looking to innovate within the bounds of the viral Internet rather than vie for control of other media markets.

That niche has proven incredibly lucrative since BuzzFeed’s founding in 2006. When one considers quantity of posts and overall readership, BuzzFeed clearly dominates the market of pictures of cats and Ryan Gosling shirtless. Its teams of researchers pull together lists of the facts you didn’t even know you wanted to know, in a format that’s accessible to even the least-educated reader. On the other side, since the 2011 hire of Ben Smith, a new editor-in-chief poached from the traditionally hard news outlet Politico, BuzzFeed’s politics and global news sections have improved exponentially in depth and scope, boasting significantly fewer GIFs.

Above all, while the site was known originally for its software that detects the newest Internet trends combined with editorial oversight to publish the best of the finds, the staff quickly adopted social and mobile technology. This early integration has helped social media to become a cornerstone in its push for traffic, and it seems to be working—according to tracking software Scanvine, the site’s articles are shared on social media more than twice as often as those from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the New Yorker. And these articles are not just “29 Things That Are More Important Than Work Right Now.” As Smith wrote in Foreign Policy, “This is a difficult era for snobs. The same people—disproportionately young, mobile, and well-educated—who come to BuzzFeed for entertaining pop culture, actually care about what’s happening in the world. And if you glance at your Twitter feed, you’ll probably see them sharing quite a bit of both. The new social web is increasingly serving up serious information about the economy, politics, and, yes, even foreign policy.”

Despite the sharing of more serious content, what’s getting the page views is still the lighter fare, like “Things Only People From [insert arbitrary location here] Will Understand.” At the end of the day, BuzzFeed is a profitmaking business, and those page views dictate future content and investment, as advertisers receive increasingly detailed data about our preferences. So, if the death of journalism does happen because of BuzzFeed, will it be our fault? Consumers say we’re into serious news, but our preferences, and all-important clicks, indicate differently.

The relationship between that lighter fare and the more “serious” journalism is key to understanding BuzzFeed in a modern media context. Jon Evans of TechCrunch writes, “High journalism…is like protein; low journalism is more like chocolate. And there’s definitely a place in this world for good chocolate, à la The Onion and Cracked, whose stories usually manage to be about something while still being hilarious. But BuzzFeed? Not so much.”

Historically, high journalism has been funded by this low journalism. Newspapers originally ran comics and arts or leisure sections to sell copies so that they could pay their long-term reporters. But the Internet has built a more segmented media market, with each site intended to fill a specific niche. Enter BuzzFeed, with its cat memes and easy-to-read lists.

But just because we’ve become accustomed to this new media market doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do things. Think about it. We’re used to a dichotomy of coverage from offline media. As founder Peretti explains, “Can you take the BBC’s news coverage seriously when they also show Monty Python, Ricky Gervais, and Doctor Who? … The answer, of course, is yes.”

Other platforms, like ProPublica and The Atavist, are keeping investigative and longform journalism alive online, respectively. These companies, however, struggle to find funding and a wider audience, aspects with which BuzzFeed has no problem. Imagine if BuzzFeed could take the readership and profits it has already accumulated, and apply them to good innovation, as a “gateway drug,” in the words of Executive Editor Doree Shafrir, from an interview on Poynter. Shafrir’s 7,000-word story on night terrors, published on BuzzFeed in September 2012, has been viewed 160,000 times—standard for BuzzFeed, but significant for a work of online longform journalism.

When it comes to these two separate categories, BuzzFeed claims it’s not working in a dichotomy; instead, the website aims to push the limits of their criteria for publication, which doesn’t actually say anything about pop culture GIFs. According to the higher-ups, a BuzzFeed story must do three things: entertain, inform, and manifest itself as something people want to share with their friends. Returning to Evans’ metaphor, the website has the opportunity to recombine those recently separated categories, so that protein-rich entrees and chocolate may coexist peacefully. Can’t imagine a dish that could accomplish that? Check BuzzFeed: they’ve probably already published a list of 37 examples.

“Old-school editors may be uncomfortable with a home page that would feature ‘33 Startling Photos of Porn Stars With and Without Their Makeup On’ right alongside the latest intel from North Korea,” Editor-in-Chief Smith says. “But that’s pretty much an ordinary day on the web for BuzzFeed’s 40 million monthly users.”

I’m not saying that BuzzFeed, as it exists today, is ideal. Between “borrowed” content, “forgotten” creators, and fact-checking “mistakes,” it can be difficult to pay attention to what is good about the website. However, it’s now built on a solid foundation of ambitious journalists, big ideas, and even Pulitzer Prizes—founder Peretti snatched one himself for his last venture. You may have heard of it before: The Huffington Post.

As he wrote in the all-company memo, “We are building the defining news and entertainment company for the social, mobile age. It won’t be easy…We need to learn from the smart critics, ignore the dumb haters, and maintain our sense of humor…But there is no reason we can’t succeed.”

Just because pictures of cats and serious news and commentary coexist doesn’t mean the Internet, or online journalism, is ruined. In fact, BuzzFeed is creating a more efficient world, one that puts the emphasis on sharing, aiming for solid content across the board. Even if you disagree with BuzzFeed’s mission or execution, you still live in that new world. You have the option to build something better, or to become part of the pressure placed on the company to live up to the transformations it has promised.

Two days after contributor Viex’s parody post was deleted, after much reader backlash, Smith tweeted at Viex, “Restored your post and account, updated community guidelines: no haters unless the hate is directed at BuzzFeed. Have at it.” BuzzFeed is listening to criticism and is responding, if not as quickly as they repost articles, at least eventually.

So you shouldn’t feel like sending that BuzzFeed link about “Eggs in Exciting Holes” to a friend is embarrassing, or contributing to our downfall. Just don’t stop reading after you get to the end of the list. Because our clicks define the company’s financial ability to make these changes, seek out the less-read, better-reported articles. I promise they’re there. In our future, high and low journalism may very well share the same web space, as they do in other media. As Peretti said, it won’t be easy, but I’d rather be a smart critic than a dumb hater—as long as BuzzFeed keeps the dinosaurs out of articles about foreign affairs.