POLITICS AUGUST 24, 2012
How Buzzfeed is remaking campaign coverage.
IT’S EASY TO FORGET that eight months ago BuzzFeed didn’t even have a politics section. The website was known primarily for posting goofy and/or heart-warming lists created expressly for readers to share on social-media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Among the most popular BuzzFeed articles of 2011 were “20 Alcoholic Beverages Inspired By The Harry Potter Series,” “Basset Hounds Running,” and “Scared Bros at a Haunted House.”
But Jonah Peretti, the site’s CEO (who, like its chair, Kenneth Lerer, also co-founded The Huffington Post), knew that BuzzFeed would benefit from focusing on politics during an election year. People would be obsessed with the campaign and covering it well would offer a shortcut to respectability, a way to implant the brand in the media elite. And so he hired Politico’s Ben Smith, one of the most talented and admired scoop-mongers in the game.
Eight months later, under Smith’s direction, the website’s politics vertical (which is just tech-speak for “section”) draws several million unique visitors a month. Many of its reporters are regulars on cable news, and nearly all of them are central to the political conversation on Twitter. Even The New York Times recognizes BuzzFeed’s power: It will be co-producing videos with the site at both parties’ conventions. “We’ve been doing thorough reportorial, narrative journalism for many, many decades,” says Jim Roberts, the Times’ assistant managing editor and the person who suggested the partnership. “The lessons we can learn from BuzzFeed are going to be valuable.”
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Smith strolled across the website’s New York office—STOP TWEETING BORING SHIT, reads a sign on the wall—to chat with McKay Coppins. Coppins was working on an article about The New Yorker’s website, which was reeling from the news that its science writer, Jonah Lehrer, had fabricated quotes. Smith inspected Coppins’s story and noticed that he had buried his only piece of fresh information: An editor at The New Yorker went on record saying that the episode wasn’t going to halt the magazine’s attempt to expand online. Even though it wasn’t a particularly interesting or important bit of news, Smith told Coppins to move it much higher up in the piece, because, as Coppins explained later, “It’s the tweet”—the tiny morsel that Smith felt had the best chance of getting attention on Twitter.
In a sense, all of BuzzFeed Politics’s articles, even the long ones, are spiritually 140 characters or fewer. This is no accident; as Peretti likes to say, “Twitter is the homepage of politics.” (Facebook, typically a much larger traffic-driver, is not where the elite political conversation plays out.) Not only has Twitter grown at a staggering rate—the 1.8 million tweets published on Election Day 2008 equal the number sent every eight minutes in 2012—but it has also uniquely lent itself to, and helped speed up, the minute-to-minute, who’s-up-who’s-down political culture. It’s the place where reporters share their stories with thousands of followers, trade gossip, and spend most of their waking hours. “In the past, you’d have to be on the press bus or in the file room to see how the political narrative gets formed,” says BuzzFeed reporter Michael Hastings, a veteran of the last two presidential elections. But this year, he adds, in a typically tweet-ready sound bite, “Twitter is the bus.”
BuzzFeed, always hungry to accommodate its readers, constructs its political content for the Twitter-fied world. That means each article is likely to be short and will convey most of what it has to say in its headline and sub-headline. It will have an arresting image. And it will present information with an aggressive lack of context: Many pieces are just photos with captions or pasted-in press releases with a line or two of introduction. (Two days after Paul Ryan was named Mitt Romney’s running mate, the site ran an article that was essentially just the text of a fund-raising e-mail that Jim Messina, President Obama’s campaign manager, had sent out in response to the news.) “BuzzFeed doesn’t even go to that irritating level of saying, ‘Here’s the information, plus here’s how awesome we are at being arbiters at it,’” says Dave Weigel, a political reporter for Slate. “It’s, ‘Here’s the information, go have fun.’”
BuzzFeed’s triumph, then, lies less in its content than in its understanding of how people consume the news in 2012. It’s actually taking advantage of a long-term pattern in media, whereby the pace of technological innovation allows news organizations to rise to prominence in no time—so long as they’re able to give the people what they want in the ways they want it more precisely than any of their competitors. Think of CNN offering 24-hour updates during the Gulf war; or the Drudge Report embodying the Internet’s premium on sensationalism during the Monica Lewinsky mess; or Politico, which, in 2008, exploited the blogosphere’s expansion of the community of political junkies during an especially captivating election. Looked at this way, BuzzFeed—lightning-quick, light-hearted, addictive, and a little dumb—is the defining media outlet of 2012.
BUZZFEED POLITICS is still in its infancy, and yet young staffers talk about the early days like nostalgic old-timers. “Remember when they announced that Ben was joining BuzzFeed?” Rosie Gray, a 22-year-old reporter for the site, asked me. “And everyone was like, ‘What the fuck?’”
Smith’s hiring as BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief and political mastermind was a shock to journalists, operatives, and the kind of news junkies who follow bylines. Smith left one of the truly powerful jobs in journalism, as the most recognizable blogger at Politico, to work for what was essentially a start-up—the mission of which, by Smith’s own admission, wasn’t to produce journalism befitting of his idol, Richard Ben Cramer, but “to win Twitter.” Smith, who is 35 and still looks as if he’s carrying a little baby fat in his face and under his too-big dress shirts, agonized over the decision for weeks. He was eventually taken by the idea that he’d be doing something different than his contemporaries, more forward-looking.
Smith’s entrepreneurial streak—some might call it his counter-establishmentarian streak—has always been strong. As an undergraduate, he worked for The Yale Herald rather than the Yale Daily News, the Ivy League equivalent of choosing The Village Voice over The New York Times. He joined The New York Sun before it started printing; same with Politico. When he was at the New York Observer, he pitched his boss, Peter Kaplan, on starting a blog that he wouldn’t just write but that he would partially own. Kaplan, “horrified,” gave him the blog but denied him the stake. BuzzFeed finally gave Smith his stake.
BuzzFeed also gave him the opportunity to indulge his voracious news appetite. He spends all day—on his way to work on the bus, over instant messenger, at dinner, in bed—trading information with other reporters and sources. With anyone, really. He’s never been shy about posting his e-mail online or mixing it up with strangers. In 2008, he called his behavior “pathological” and told stories about how his wife threatened to flush his BlackBerry down the toilet. His two young kids (he now has three) would oftentimes try to hide it. Smith hasn’t gotten any better since then: It’s not uncommon for him to tweet dozens of times a day now, and he remains a constant presence on g-chat, frequently after midnight.
He’s just addicted to breaking news. Seth Lipsky, the legendary New York Sun editor who shaped Smith as a journalist when he was a cub reporter there in the early 2000s, remembers teaching Smith that “the first measure of the quality of a news story is whether it’s first.” When he was writing his blog for the New York Observer, he vacuumed up many of the good scoops during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s first reelection campaign by promising sources he’d publish their news before the following morning. At the New York Daily News, he did much the same thing; he often beat other reporters to stories just by typing them faster.
It’s evident in his work how much joy Smith takes in being in on the conversation, in knowing. And his method is very insidery. At the Observer, he pioneered the “IMterview,” in which he instant-messaged with sources—future Hillary Clinton hand Howard Wolfson, New York Republican operative Ryan Moses—effectively giving them a platform to spew pure, unedited talking points. There, he also developed a series of indelibly Gotham mini-beats—Jewish politics, black politics, labor politics—and continued cultivating them even when he was at Politico, creating a virtuous feedback loop where scoops made him the most prominent outlet for those groups, causing sources to give him more scoops.
Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress and a Clinton campaign vet, says: “He’s totally interested in the story, regardless of where it goes or who it hits. He’s not out to protect one side or the other.” That perceived fairness makes sources on all sides want to give him their best stuff. He can publish a post you want him to one day, then turn around and publish one your opponent wants the next. It doesn’t much matter to him. News is news. Or as Lipsky says, “He’s not burdened by a lot of ruth.”
Even Smith’s speech reflects this ideology of non-discrimination: He moves easily from subject to subject, and his flat tone is the same whether he is discussing a political scandal or the weather—everything is just one more thing to talk about.
Smith’s omnivorous approach to journalism was a huge selling point to the BuzzFeed brass. Early last year, Peretti noticed a change in the kind of stories that were being shared on social media. “Facebook and Twitter started as being news about your friends,” explains Peretti. “And then they evolved to being pure social content, entertainment content—humor, kittens.” BuzzFeed had evolved with the social Web up to that point; it was nothing if not superb at serving up pictures of kittens. But then the social Web kept going. Peretti saw people in his feeds write about “the Arab Spring, and long-form pieces, and smart blog posts, and scoops, and original reporting,” and he couldn’t stand being left out.
Peretti has long been consumed by the question of what makes a certain piece of content go viral. In 2001, Nike ran a promotion that allowed people to customize their shoes. He wanted his to say “sweatshop” on them, but, in an e-mail, Nike said it wouldn’t do that. Peretti then forwarded the company’s response to a few friends, who forwarded it to a few more friends, and within a month, the story had become international news and Peretti found himself on “The Today Show.” He was hooked. BuzzFeed’s original mission was not to make money by spreading ideas on the Internet, but merely to figure out how those ideas got spread. (Its first name was Contagious Media, LLC, and it ran out of a cockroach-infested office in New York’s Chinatown that formerly belonged to Chiang Kai-Shek’s old Kuomintang Party.)
Even though Peretti assumed that BuzzFeed Politics would attract only a small percentage of the site’s overall traffic (and he’s been proven right), his understanding of where social media was going pushed him in Smith’s direction. Plus, he understood that political news could lend the whole operation the sort of credibility that entices advertisers otherwise skittish about appearing next to lowbrow content. “A traffic perspective is not the same as a business perspective—at all,” Smith insists. “Like, why would you do politics? Why not do porn? I mean, seriously?”
And so Smith and Peretti began their great experiment, combining the former’s craving for even the smallest scraps of inside political dope with the latter’s dogmatic populism, which holds that a post’s ability to go viral is a near-perfect expression of its value. The question is whether this relationship has added up to anything worthwhile.
AT A RECENT staff meeting, Smith pointed to a post by Michael Hastings and an intern about the appalling conditions at a U.S.-funded military hospital in Afghanistan as an example of what BuzzFeed Politics does best. It contained, Smith said, “the substance of very traditional hard-news reporting,” but was put together in a way that really made it pop on the Web: It had brief introductory paragraphs, graphic photos, and sensational captions. It delivered 700,000 page views, impressive by any standard.
What Smith failed to mention is that the misery at the hospital was uncovered almost a year earlier in a long and very damning exposé in The Wall Street Journal. This was followed by a congressional investigation, which prompted several more stories by other outlets. BuzzFeed’s piece, then, didn’t contain “the substance of very traditional hard-news reporting” in any discernible sense—and certainly not when compared with Hastings’s best work, like his Rolling Stone article that forced General Stanley McChrystal out of the military. Instead, it was largely a slick act of repackaging that used shocking, almost pornographically gruesome pictures to juice traffic.
Tellingly, almost all of the posts that people at BuzzFeed Politics cite as their biggest successes are also among their most viewed. They include a guide to Mormon underwear (“no one keeps them on while playing sports”) and the outing of Sally Ride as a lesbian. (Ride actually broke the news herself in her death announcement; BuzzFeed just confirmed it really quickly.)
The site has also had some difficulty distinguishing between real stories and manufactured ones. In June, BuzzFeed reported that Romney failed to find the word for “doughnut” while pointing at “chocolate goodies,” and the post was all that political junkies on Twitter could talk about for hours (even if it was absurd: Romney clearly knows what a doughnut is). New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, hardly a Romney apologist, argued persuasively that the item was a perfect example of what’s wrong with a certain kind of political coverage. He suggested that BuzzFeed’s reporters weren’t thinking like journalists, who try to create stories and build context, but like opposition researchers, who are hungry to paint an unflattering picture of the opposing candidate. (Obama’s team could hardly do it better: Romney doesn’t know what doughnuts are because he’s an out-of-touch plutocrat.) Similarly, it was BuzzFeed that asked the White House whether President Obama was making a blow-job joke when he told donors earlier this summer that the first lady outdoes him in push-ups because she doesn’t “go all the way down.” It obviously wasn’t a real story, but the site apparently felt as if it could generate some clicks by trying to make it one.
These are the sorts of things that sustain what Slate’s Weigel called in an article the “Twitter Track of election news,” which, “by nature,” is “meaningless, frothy, and forgettable,” and distinct from the “Reality Track,” which more often concerns old-fashioned stuff like the policy consequences of elections.
Smith’s defense is: “Politics for the people involved in it has always been at times a joke, at times ridiculous, and at times deeply silly, and you want to be able to say that.” He is not all wrong. It’s not going to destroy the republic if a few hundred thousand people scroll through 69 yearbook photos of politicians (which were culled by a 22-year-old staffer named Andrew Kaczynski, who is so devoted to his work that he peels oranges with his mouth so he can keep typing).
And it’s not as if BuzzFeed Politics hasn’t produced some good journalism. McKay Coppins’s report on the Mormon Church’s historically poor treatment of black people was valuable. Rosie Gray’s dispatch from a convocation of “Islammunists”—they’re basically fringe-nut neo-Birthers—was disquieting in the way great reporting can be. But those kinds of stories are overwhelmed by the crush of posts that show Tim Pawlenty looking sad or Joe Biden looking like a stud.
BuzzFeed has actually pulled off a neat trick. In recent years, the ascension of a new media company has typically been greeted by a lot of hand-wringing about the place’s ideology and how politics are growing increasingly partisan. People worry that one side will get all their news from Matt Drudge and Glenn Beck, and the other will retreat to some sort of Daily Kos-ian alternate reality, and never the twain shall meet.
But BuzzFeed makes those arguments seem kind of quaint. True to its DNA, it mixes The Huffington Post’s populism with Politico’s obsession with the game to produce an endless stream of scooplets devoid of context or deep meaning. Every subject gets flattened, and politics, cats, lists, scoops, and jokes are all treated the same. It’s the reductio ad absurdum of political journalism, and, in Smith’s and Peretti’s minds, it’s exactly what people want.