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Why is it so hard for us to imagine that a site like BuzzFeed could do serious journalism?

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BuzzFeed may be known to most for its “viral” posts about dogs who look like Richard Nixon and other ephemera, but the site has been making some significant moves into more serious fare over the past year, a wave that began with the hiring of Ben Smith from Politico. In a recent post at the Poynter Institute, writer Kelly McBride took the pulse of those efforts and also talked with Smith about the site’s ambition to produce long-form journalism. Some members of the mainstream media will no doubt scoff at these goals — but why is BuzzFeed any less likely to produce serious content than a newspaper?

Since it hired Smith to broaden its editorial efforts, BuzzFeed has launched a British edition of the site — as well as new verticals aimed at sports and women — and introduced a business hub (which sparked some imaginative headlines) as well as made a move into longer-form content, such as a feature on the history and evolution of video games. As McBride notes, the site has also done serious investigative pieces about topics such as the failure of the new G.I. bill and the impact of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism on the election.

BuzzFeed screenshot

Serious and entertaining can co-exist

When McBride asks Smith about the dichotomy between the site’s serious journalism and its “viral” entertainment content, the BuzzFeed editor says he thinks drawing that kind of artificial distinction misses the point, since it doesn’t really explain posts like the one about the most inspirational photos of 2011 — which is one of the most-read pieces in the site’s history. Was that post serious journalism or entertaining ephemera? One could argue it was both (and it should be noted that BuzzFeed has been criticized for how it aggregated those photos).

In many ways, a realistic appraisal of BuzzFeed’s chances to become a home for “serious” journalism can only come when we stop thinking of BuzzFeed as a single media animal — the one that is hiring an “animals editor” and asks job applicants for another position to create an instruction manual for making a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich — and think of it as a media entity like any other. If the Huffington Post can win a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism, why couldn’t its offspring carve out a process for doing that as well?

We like to think of newspapers like the New York Times or the Washington Post as monolithic bastions of “serious” journalism, but the reality is that newspapers have always been a blend of the ephemeral and the important. In most cases, it’s the entertainment column or the fashion feature on a drug-addled celebrity that pays the bills, and allows newspapers to send reporters to Afganistan or undercover to investigate a health scandal. But we ignore those aspects of what they do because we have come to see them as primarily engaged in “serious” journalism.

BuzzFeed screenshot1

Read some Sartre, pat a cute dog

BuzzFeed co-founder Jonah Peretti (who was also instrumental in the creation of the Huffington Post) has said that he thinks of what the site does as similar to someone reading a serious novel at a cafe, and then stopping to notice a cute dog — in other words, appealing to the full range of human emotions. And McBride makes a good comparison when she notes that BuzzFeed is a lot like ESPN, a blend of pure entertainment and hard-hitting journalism:

“BuzzFeed’s journalism model is a bit like ESPN’s, an organization I’m familiar with. They both produce a large volume of highly entertaining information, sprinkled with some regular journalism and some high-end stuff. BuzzReads reminds me of ESPN’s 30 for 30 film documentary series, not least because both are produced mostly by outsiders.”

The Poynter writer also points out some of the ways that BuzzFeed needs to improve, including better editing and getting the attention of those in positions of power so that it can actually effect change. If that’s the goal, BuzzFeed may be closer than McBride thinks: a post at National Journal notes that the Republican National Committee is launching a site redesign — and they are doing their best to imitate BuzzFeed. “BuzzFeed’s eating everyone’s lunch,” a spokesman said. “They’re making people want to read and be cognizant of politics in a different way.”

(Note: BuzzFeed president Jon Steinberg will be joining us to talk about the site’s business model at paidContent Live on April 17)

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / wellphoto

4 Responses to “Why is it so hard for us to imagine that a site like BuzzFeed could do serious journalism?”

  1. Hampton K. Stephens

    A more important question, in my mind, is why do highly trafficked sites that merely aspire to do serious journalism, or do it so rarely that it’s a needle in their haystack of sensationalism and fluff, get so much more press than sites are actually producing serious journalism? (I’ll get to what I think is the answer to that question at the end.) If you actually visit the BuzzFeed site and look for serious, or even good, journalism, it’s very hard to find on most days outside of one “Longform” section that’s not even visible in the main navigation menu. And yet the hiring of one “serious” journalist from Politico has media and tech reporters toeing BuzzFeed’s PR line about how it may very well one day replace the New York Times. Ingram writes that “In many ways, a realistic appraisal of BuzzFeed’s chances to become a home for ‘serious’ journalism can only come when we stop thinking of BuzzFeed as a single media animal . . . and think of it as a media entity like any other.” Fine with me. I had no preconceptions about BuzzFeed when I was compelled to visit the site for the first time earlier this week after reading yet another reference to its aspirations for producing serious journalism. I wandered a vast wasteland before I was able to find any morsel of sustenance. It’s as if the strip club down the street hired Mario Batali to hang out in the back with the strippers and to cook one dish a week for the lunch buffet that otherwise consisted of corn dogs and stuffed potato skins and suddenly all the food critics began hailing it as the future of haute cuisine. Of course I know why sites like PaidContent cover BuzzFeed: Because it is a potentially significant business story. That’s fine. But let’s not wonder why people don’t take it seriously as a publisher of quality journalism when the only reason you’re covering it in the first place is because it is so good at driving clicks by publishing the journalistic equivalent of junk food.

  2. David Meyer

    Reading this, I couldn’t help thinking of Cracked as well – a great example of blending the trivial and profane with genuinely informative and sometimes thoughtful content.

  3. Nice piece, Mathew. BuzzFeed is still young. By the time it matures and draws a broader audience, only a small percentage will remember the crazy days. So there is little price to be paid for not having produced “serious journalism” until now.

  4. While the internet is a great way to get news, opinions, and entertainment, and many websites do this. Journalism is a whole different topic. It’s about quality of writing, content, and coverage that make a good news site that is taken seriously. Jumping onto the front page of Buzzfeed shows dozens of articles titled as “25 things you saw but didn’t notice” or “Top 10 Movie Gifs that will make you cry”. Why is it hard to take seriously? Because it’s initial appeal is for ridiculous articles.

    However you’re absolutely correct that Buzzfeed has a lot going for it and is doing the right things to make it a power house in journalism.