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BuzzFeed's Quest For Impact In The Viral News Era

BuzzFeed is committed to building a world-class news organization, but measuring its effectiveness is no simple task.

Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed

[Photo: Eric Ogden; Set design: Eric Hollis; Grooming: Keiko Hamaguchi at Art Department]

When BuzzFeed CEO and founder Jonah Peretti announced the company's distributed publishing strategy nearly a year ago, it was accompanied by a new metric with which to measure BuzzFeed's reach across multiple platforms. A few weeks later, BuzzFeed announced it had surpassed 5 billion "content views." In a post last week, publisher Dao Nguyen revealed that time spent and engagement are now equally important ways that her team measures the success of their content across the globe.

But toward the end of my reporting for this month's feature story about BuzzFeed, Peretti discussed another way to measure content, one that I had not heard him talk about previously: impact.

"What matters most, and what all these metrics should try and point to is impact," Peretti said during a presentation at NYU's Stern Business School. "Does it have an impact on people's actual lives, are people using the content, is it something that matters to them? We've been thinking a lot about how do we measure impact."

"We don't see ourselves as producing artworks to hang on the wall," editor-in-chief Ben Smith told me. "We think a lot more about what a piece of media does."

While it may have once been fashionable to write BuzzFeed off as a home for quizzes and cat videos, today there is no denying that its news team is having an impact. Earlier this month, the American Society of Magazine Editors awarded BuzzFeed a prestigious Ellie award for a series on the abuse of foreign guest workers titled "The New American Slavery." The investigative team has uncovered ghosts schools in Afghanistan paid for with American tax dollars, as well as alleged sexual assaults in German refugee camps.

In much the same way that CNN was mocked for years before becoming the defining news organization of a generation, BuzzFeed is fast becoming a respected outlet for serious journalism. Janine Gibson, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian's website, now runs the U.K. news team. The 400-person news staff includes two Pulitzer Prize winners, along with 16 global correspondents based in 12 different countries (by comparison, Jeff Bezos's Washington Post has 21 correspondents in 13 countries).

BuzzFeed's News division has not been without controversy. One politics editor was fired in 2014 after it was discovered that 41 of his articles included unattributed writing by other people. And this past April, Smith detailed three instances in which posts were deleted from the site because they said negative things about BuzzFeed advertisers.

Unlike the articles on other parts of BuzzFeed, you generally won't see any highlighter-yellow circles with OMG in the middle of a News article. But sometimes a "Trending" box appears that shows the number of views the news post has attracted. As with other parts of BuzzFeed, there is an emphasis on growth within News.

"We're among the publishers that want to have a huge audience," Smith says, "and we're unashamed about that."

Smith says that "news is a meaningful percentage of the overall site traffic," although he would not specify how much.

It underscores one of the conundrums faced by BuzzFeed, along with many other media organizations in the digital age: How do you balance the economic imperative of having a huge audience with the desire to produce quality news stories that might only be relevant to a small group of people? A series on the attempts by four states to illegally purchase execution drugs from India isn't reliably going to fetch the number of clicks required to build a globally distributed media company. But that reporting did get death row executions halted in Nebraska for a while.

If you experience a cognitive dissonance when you see a promotion for the This Week in Cats newsletter at the bottom of an article about death penalty drugs, as I did recently, it doesn't faze Mark Schoofs, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former Wall Street Journal writer and ProPublica editor who leads BuzzFeed's investigative journalism team. I asked him outright whether he thought BuzzFeed was simply buying respectability in order to continue making money off of humorous lists and videos.

He says that while it may have been a fair question when he joined the company in 2013, the commitment is now undeniable—and that its demonstrated by the size of his reporting team. "I mean, they promised me six people. We have 19. If it was just a hood ornament, maybe you stop at eight," Schoofs says.

When asked about what the company's expectations have been with regard to deliverables and frequency, Schoofs insists that the mandate is simply to "do great work." At the same time, he admits to being keenly aware of all the metrics—"everything that happens as a result of a BuzzFeed story."

Criticism of BuzzFeed's editorial ambitions often imply that news stories, by definition, won't have the same reach as a cute cat video. Both Schoofs and Smith believe that's a false dichotomy.

"Often the stories with the biggest impact also have the biggest audience," says Smith. For example, a recent package exposing worldwide tennis match fixing received approximately 1.5 million views.

The effort to attract a wider audience is reflected in the way BuzzFeed is attempting to tell more serious stories. One of the stories in their series on the abuse of H-2 visa workers starts with an anecdote about a double date. "I mean, you expect it to start with some sob story about a worker in the fields of California in the baking sun, and it starts with a double date," says Schoofs. "It's such a cinematic opening, and that's different from a lot of investigative reporting."

It's not the traditional eat-your-broccoli journalism. "I hated that. It was like fingernails on a chalkboard, and I didn't want to redo that. So, we try, and again, I'm not trying to say we always succeed, but we really try to make our stories work," he says. "We do probably have a predilection for stories that have real, genuine victims."

That's the key link between BuzzFeed's series on battered women who get wrongly convicted of crimes, or the Texas cities that are sending poor people to jail over traffic fines. "All those stories have clear victims, and those victims are powerless."

Which brings us back to impact: How do you measure it? Peretti has a few ideas, and he poses them as a series of questions.

Does the editorial asset work across platforms?
A video that becomes popular on Facebook may not be a hit on Snapchat. But if it racks up lots of views in both places, then there is a high probability that it will translate successfully almost everywhere.

Does it click internationally?
A recipe for three-ingredient Nutella brownies that was successful in the U.S. was quickly translated into five different languages, and it has received over 78 million views on Facebook alone.

Does it help people connect with each other?
The "Weird Things That All Couples Fight About" video, which has 5 million YouTube plays, was "not a perfect video," admits Peretti, "but a perfect video to talk about your relationship." For evidence, read some of the nearly 150,000 comments accompanying the video on Facebook, many of which name-check the person they are in a relationship with.

Does it help people improve their lives?
An article titled "29 Things You Never Knew About Nipples" led one BuzzFeed reader to visit the doctor and have her breast examined. She had stage 1 breast cancer, and it was caught before spreading further.

Does it inform the public and change institutions?
When BuzzFeed discovered that Nebraska's death row was importing potentially shady execution drugs from India, the governor stepped in and halted capital punishment across the state.

Does it make the world more open and diverse?
Another Round, BuzzFeed's weekly podcast about racism, sexism, and whatever else hosts Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton feel like talking about, recently had democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton as a guest. They talked about uncomfortably familiar plot lines from the CBS show "The Good Wife," and asked Clinton arguably the most pointed, substantive question she’s ever received: Did the mass incarceration policies passed during her husband’s administration "really fuck [things] up for black people" in the United States?

At the end of the day, whether it's a listicle or a investigative reporting package, achieving real impact comes down to coming up with something new. "This stuff is art and science," says Smith. "One of the things about news is that writers are following the stories and unearthing things nobody knew. And you don’t come up with a shocking revelation by looking at what people already know and are already interested in."

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