A quick perusal of BuzzFeed’s homepage right before election day displays an impressive diversity of topic and tone: A red-meat political story about Mitt Romney’s staff gearing up for a potential recount is nestled right next to a gallery of photos of an orphaned baby Koala, which shares prime virtual real estate with posts about classic screen icon Katharine Hepburn “throwing epic shade.” The equal embrace of all manner of content–the notion that there is as much pride in writing a listicle about bizarre SkyMall products as there is in breaking a story about a Hurricane Sandy Twitter hoax–is an essential part of the six-year-old company’s creative appeal.
There was a bit of skepticism in late 2011 when BuzzFeed, which was praised more for its viral aggregation than its breaking news, announced the hiring of Politico veteran Ben Smith as the site’s editor-in-chief. (The New York Observer, when announcing Smith’s hire, described BuzzFeed as a place “best known for its panda slide shows.”) How would more traditional reporting fit in?
Almost a year into Smith’s tenure, it’s clear that the integration has been fairly seamless, and that’s because of the site’s egalitarian attitude toward different kinds of content, both editorial and advertorial. Employees don’t feel “that advertising is a necessary evil, or that the content that drives lots of traffic isn’t important, or that the journalism doesn’t get any traffic, it’s just a halo,” says BuzzFeed cofounder Jonah Peretti. “That’s a cynic’s way of thinking.” Jeff Greenspan, the company’s new chief creative officer, who had previously held posts at Facebook at ad agency BBDO, agrees that everything at BuzzFeed is a team effort. “Not everyone has the maker or creator title,” Greenspan says, “But everyone feels like they’re behind the same purpose.”
The open-minded attitude toward the site’s output is reflected in both its physical workspace and fairly autonomous work culture. Buzzfeed’s open-plan offices have cubicles lining the windows, while all the offices, the canteen, and the conference rooms are in the center of the floor. With this setup, all the employees have access to natural light. There are enormous, cheerful, circular wall buttons that are reproductions of the badges that litter the site–exclamations like “WTF” and “LOL” that BuzzFeed readers use to log their reactions to various articles.
BuzzFeed’s growth in the past year–they’re up to 25 million unique visitors a month at this point–can be attributed to an environment that allows talented people to do their thing without too much hierarchical interference from more senior editors. A great example of this new breed of BuzzFeed star is breakout political reporter Andrew Kaczynski. Kaczynski achieved Internet prominence during the Republican primaries because he dug up decade-old damning videos of future Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s flip-flops and posted them to his YouTube account. BuzzFeed noticed Kaczynski’s unique talent and jumped on it–even though he was still an undergrad at St. John’s, they hired him back in December. Over the past year, Kaczynski has become a must-read, and the video clips he’s unearthed pop up all over the Internet and cable news.
Though BuzzFeed has been savvy in hiring digital natives like Kaczynski (both Peretti and Smith also mention BuzzFeed staffer Katie Notopoulos as an Internet innovator), they emphasize that these talents are rare. However, the organization believes they can teach others the lessons of virality that Kaczynski and Notopoulos possessed organically. That’s why they have created a Fellows program, Peretti explains. It’s a five-month-long paid internship that promises to teach the next generation of editors the secrets of the social web.
The Fellows program isn’t the site’s only engine for expansion. BuzzFeed just hired a food editor, and they’re starting a Los Angeles office with longtime entertainment journalists Kate Aurthur and Richard Rushfield. The California outpost will be “a new exciting cultural experiment,” says Peretti. Aurthur and Rushfield will be able to create their own workplace environment that’s not necessarily a carbon copy of BuzzFeed’s New York HQ, because it will feed off the particular energy of L.A. “We’re not in a bubble in an office park, we didn’t invent [our workplace culture] out of whole cloth,” Peretti explains. “We’re a part of what’s out there in the world, and that gives us energy and feeds us.” As long as that culture keeps providing the audience with unintentionally obscene GIFs of Jill Biden, BuzzFeed’s web dominance should continue apace.
[Images: Drew Anthony Smith/Fast Company]