WTF, Indeed: Politico's Ben Smith Joins BuzzFeed To Build A "Social News Organization"

Why did the meme factory hire the serious political reporter? They saw eye-to-eye on one important thing: the social network optimization of the news.

BuzzFeed is a website that aggregates meme-y content as it's trending, so you can have your animal videos and Keanu Reeves trivia all in one place (sections include "LOL," "cute," "win," and "fail," among others). Ben Smith is a serious political journalist who has run a revered reported blog on Politico for about five years. So suffice it to say that when the New York Times broke the news that Smith would be joining BuzzFeed as editor-in-chief, transforming the LOL factory into a serious journalistic outlet, it was a story that most in the media world would file under the BuzzFeed section currently called "WTF?"

Fittingly, the hire itself soon became a meme of its own. "Mr President, Ben from BuzzFeed. What are your top ten honey badger mashups?" tweeted Reuters's social media editor.

The move seemed a radical about-face for BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti. Peretti is a virologist of the web, with a longstanding fascination in what makes content spread; it's no surprise that cute cat videos have found pride of place on his website. (Peretti, too, is a cofounder of The Huffington Post, another outlet that rose to prominence as an aggregator of content rather than as a traditional newsroom.) And yet to hear Peretti tell it, BuzzFeed's decision to build a news reporting operation driven by scoops and harder-hitting content is the next logical step in Peretti's quest for virality. "We realized that a bigger shift is happening, and that there's a big opening to be the kind of site that is social from the ground up," Peretti tells Fast Company. By that he means a site that "is focused on making content that people think is worth sharing, and a big piece of that is original reporting."

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BuzzFeed has already been, to a certain limited extent, in the business of creating original content—the site has sent editors to Occupy Wall Street—as well as more serious content—the site recently had its biggest traffic day ever with a post called "The Most Powerful Photos of 2011." "That spread more than anything, even though it's serious content," says Peretti of the photos post. Yet as Peretti began to notice the outsize importance of serious and original content, he realized that BuzzFeed "still didn't have a team of really savvy reporters who could call up sources, look for scoops, get leaked information, find out things that nobody knows, and inform the public about them."

It is, of course, an optimal season to lure a political reporter to helm BuzzFeed, with a presidential election on the horizon. Smith's byline on political stories will reportedly remain exclusive to Politico through the primaries; still, there's no reason why Smith can't help deliver political scoops to the team of some dozen reporters he is expected to begin hiring immediately. It's not that BuzzFeed will be exclusively covering politics, says Peretti—though that will be a new emphasis of the revamped BuzzFeed—so much as that a political reporter seemed ideal to helm the new site. "People who understand politics have a way of thinking about the world that lends itself to social media," Peretti says. "You can take a political mindset and apply it to almost any content."

In his Politico post announcing the move, Smith said he intended to help make BuzzFeed "the first true social news organization." I asked him in an email what exactly he meant by that. "We're going to operate on the assumption that the main way readers get our stories is through sharing, and that we should be writing the sort of things people want to share," he wrote back. "There's a huge advantage organizing yourself around the distribution model that is actually how people get news."

Now, in the fashion of a political journalist during election season, I posed my "gotcha" question: by producing content principally with its share-ability, rather than its objective importance, in mind, wouldn't Smith be putting the cart before the horse?

Smith had a perfectly sensible answer at the ready. "I'm much less worried about this than I was about SEO"—search engine optimization, the practice of tailoring writing so that it is more likely to surface on Google and the like. "A lot of online journalism has been about gaming search engine algorithms—writing, in a way, for machines. Sharing is fundamentally about producing things people like."

If you're going to have to optimize something—and let's face it, so long as journalism remains a business rather than a public good, you're going to have to optimize something—it's arguably more appealing to optimize for social networks, rather than search engines. Peretti feels that Google feeds the Internet's Id, whereas Facebook tames it—after all, he says, if you post a link to "Scarlett Johansson Nude Pics!" on Facebook, "that doesn't make you look like a good guy." Others have lamented that search engine optimization can suck the life out of journalism—as The Atlantic recently put it, in an article about rescuing witty headlines from SEO: "Google doesn't laugh." But Facebook doesn't just laugh, it ROFLs.

People turn to Google when they want something from the Internet: how-to instruction, bits of information, pictures of attractive people. The search engine query box is a selfish place. But people turn to social networks when they want to exercise a much more selfless impulse: the impulse to share.

Let's just hope, for the sake of the Internet's collective intelligence, it turns out people indeed want to share serious news as often, or almost as often, as the frivolous. "I like cat pictures, and I like great reporting," says Smith.

He's about to find out in just what proportion his audience likes them, too.

 

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[Image: Flickr user Zach_Beauvais]

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2 Comments

  • Michael Odza

    Second (shorter) half of my comment: The point of questioning the premise (news people like to share) is that serious news is presumably a broader charter than just news that people like to share. So what news will BuzzFeed be omitting? Doesn't that automatically make them less than serious?

  • Michael Odza

    Perfectly sensible but fundamentally empty, evasive answer. Sounds good to prioritize people over SEO, but it avoids the question, what do people like to share, in the category of serious news? (And poor journalistic followup by Mr. Zax, by the way.)

    Not that there isn't data out there to answer the question. Every serious news site showcases its top 10 most shared (sometimes just most emailed) news stories of the day. At the newspaper where I worked, we had to separate out obituaries and "police notes" and yesterday's (or last week's) local politician-caught-with-hand-in-cookie-jar, horrific DWI crash and followup stories on same that were still circulating, to get any sense of what today's most-shared stories were. And who's to say that SEO-friendly headlines weren't a contributing factor?