BuzzFeed is more than a few steps on its way to becoming a fat cat of web publishing. The site, which startled the media world (including us) by hiring Politico’s Ben Smith last month, has just raised $15.5 million in funding to help advance its plan of building out a talented newsroom obsessed with shareability. As BuzzFeed undergoes its peculiar metamorphosis from aggregating caterpillar to scoop-delivering butterfly, it’s an opportune moment to peer inside the chrysalis and see how the site is handling its transformation.
Mostly, with aplomb. A real milestone was reached five days ago, when CNN Chief National Correspondent John King filed his story about Sen. John McCain’s plan to endorse Mitt Romney. Here was the sort of story King has surely broken countless times. And so it must have been a bitter pill to swallow when he typed the story’s last words: “News of the endorsement was first reported by BuzzFeed Politics.”
But just because BuzzFeed is off to a good start doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. In the best spirit of shop talk, here are a few suggestions we have for BuzzFeed as it tries to grow up.
1) Embrace the weirdness of your situation.
When we first reported on the Ben Smith hire, we included a meme-y photo we found with the caption: “Mr. President, Ben from BuzzFeed. What are your top ten honey badger mashups”? Smith rolled with the punches–going so far as to make that very image his Twitter thumbnail. A healthy sense of self-parody is essential in pulling off this tightrope walk of a transition.
2) But at the same time, tame it.
The Huffington Post, another site with something of a dual identity–BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti was its early CTO, new Buzzfeed executive chairman Ben Lehrer cofounded HuffPo, new Buzzfeed board advisor Greg Coleman is a former HuffPo president–at least does a decent job of parceling its content into sections. Load the homepage, and you’ll be presented, usually, with a top political story front-and-center; only once you scroll down do you inevitably get lured into that Katy Perry slideshow. BuzzFeed, by contrast, seems to have shoehorned in its new political content. The site has allotted election coverage a box on the homepage, and a colorful “2012” campaign button serves as a link to collected political news. But where HuffPo mostly separates its superego from its id, BuzzFeed curiously conflates them. And thus a story on Chris Christie heckling OWS protesters gets branded not just with “2012” but also with “Fail,” a section that currently contains stories on outmoded celebrity endorsements and pictures of what Justin Bieber might look like in 10 years.
3) Figure out the relationship between sharing and caring.
If Ben Smith is a serious political journalist, and he is, then he should recognize that while social sharing is an increasingly important way we get our news, there is important news that isn’t always compulsively shareable. When I posed this conundrum to Smith last month, he was a tad evasive, saying he worried more about the search engine optimization of the news than BuzzFeed’s prizing of shareability. In an early post labeled “Welcome to BuzzFeed Politics,” the team promised, “this is the first step in BuzzFeed’s growth this year from being the place where you find the hottest, smartest, and funniest content on the Web to also reporting out original news stories and answering hard questions.” The unfortunate truth is that often, the latter kinds of stories–the original ones answering hard questions–may not always become as viciously viral as posts like “The 25 Funniest Auto-Corrects of 2011” (6 million views and counting). There may come a time where Smith may have to stand up to his bosses in defense of content that is “underperforming,” but nonetheless important.
4) Admit you want to be HuffPo 2 already
When I asked Peretti about his relationship with the Huffington Post, he told me, “I don’t want to comment on the Huffington Post.” He dodged a similar question put to him by BusinessInsider. But as BuzzFeed sits poised to unfurl new sections with the help of HuffPo alumni, it’s becoming pretty clear in what image BuzzFeed is remaking itself. Is a new media clash of the titans arising? How exactly will BuzzFeed differentiate itself? Are cocktail parties with Arianna now getting awkward? Now, that would be a story we’d share.
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[Image: Flickr user estro]