BuzzFeed is riding high. The viral news site, which cuts its teeth on silly cat videos, is now part of the media big leagues where it breaks serious stories, like US journalists taking money from foreign governments, alongside the likes of CNN and the New York Times. And unlike many of its old-media counterparts, BuzzFeed is profitable and growing fast.
Success, however, is leading media pundits to look harder at BuzzFeed’s editorial contradictions — like mixing puppy stories with Putin — and ask how long it can keep this up without damaging its brand. In the last month, the question has become more pressing as partisans in the abortion and health care debates use BuzzFeed-themed pages to push controversial political messages through social media.
In response, BuzzFeed on Wednesday put out guidelines for the first time to explain what sort of webpages can be made with its platform tools, which let anyone create and publish their own BuzzFeed story. The new policy is, on one level, a logical response to a swelling number of community submissions. But on a deeper level, it reflects how BuzzFeed, as it grows in clout, is having to define its editorial voice and develop a political and ethical identity.
In a recent interview, BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith defended the site’s potpourri-style approach to content, and claimed that news outlets really can have it both ways; they no longer have to be either a platform or a publisher nor choose between highbrow or tabloid sensibilities.
Who can use BuzzFeed’s online printing press?
BuzzFeed’s community platform tool, which has been around since 2007, lets anyone create a BuzzFeed story with ease. The feature began to get more play this May when BuzzFeed created a special community section on its homepage where writers can submit a story; if an editor selects it, the story can get featured on BuzzFeed’s home page and receive extra lift from the site’s viral wizardry.
BuzzFeed says the tool has taken off of late, with an average of 45 user-submitted stories per day in August. According to Smith, this is partly the result of companies like Harper Collins (ie “17 Problems Only Book Lovers Understand”) that are using BuzzFeed as part of their marketing strategy.
“People at companies who managed social media pages now turn to BuzzFeed,” said Smith during an interview at BuzzFeed’s office in New York’s Flatiron District. “One of the reasons people come here is that all the other platforms are optimized for sharing inside one network. But our stuff is optimized to share on all the networks — Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and so on.”
It’s not just book publishers or cereal brands, however, that are making BuzzFeed pages. Political and activist outfits are also taking to the BuzzFeed platform, often sowing controversy at the same time.
In August, for instance, the Heritage Foundation used BuzzFeed’s publishing platform to lampoon President Obama’s health care plans. The look and feel of the story, titled “The One Time I Was Really Really Excited About Obamacare,” is vintage BuzzFeed: kooky photos, animated gifs, celebrities and big, punchy text lines; “real” BuzzFeed stories adorn the side of the page. Here’s a screenshot:
The Heritage Foundation’s attempt to channel BuzzFeed proved convincing — so convincing that it fooled Tea Party Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex) into touting the story as proof that even the liberal media have turned on Obama. Since then, abortion activists have also created “community” pages which many believed were the work of BuzzFeed’s editorial staff.
In response to this uptick in interest in user-created pages, the company on Wednesday added tweaks to its design to distinguish between unvetted community posts by a “BuzzFeed user” like the one I just made:
And, on the other hand, community posts selected by editors that get promoted on the BuzzFeed website:
BuzzFeed also for the first time issued community “guidelines” to explain what’s acceptable and when it will pull down pages. Under the golden rule of “Don’t be that Guy,” BuzzFeed lists a few more specific strictures: “no haters;” no spam; no trolling; no porn; no plagiarism; etc.
Who or what is BuzzFeed anyways?
Whatever the guidelines, for now, it appears that user-created BuzzFeed stories will keep surging through social media channels and, at least of the time, create confusion in the process. This has led Hamish Mckenzie, media reporter at PandoDaily, to declare that BuzzFeed has a “Medium problem” and that a company can be a publisher like the New York Times or a platform like Twitter — but not both.
The point is a fair one. If no one can tell who or what BuzzFeed is, its brand may implode in the eyes of readers and advertisers, who may go elsewhere in search of a site that provides a consistent editorial voice.
BuzzFeed, however, appears to think its guidelines and new design will ensure that readers are not confused. Smith points to older publications like the Economist and the Washington Post that regularly dabble with “special advertising sections” to note that readers are used to content that is not produced by staff. And, these days, he says BuzzFeed just reflects an era where news and information comes as a giant mish-mash in the first place.
“I think anyone who thinks that all these different kinds of contents can, or are, being separated aren’t looking at Facebook or Twitter. If you think readers can’t deal with that, where are you? It’s not the future. It’s the present.”
In Smith’s view, BuzzFeed really can be the New York Times and Twitter at the same time. If he’s right (and the jury’s still out), the BuzzFeed community pages not only juice the site’s pageviews, but serve as a talent forum; Smith notes that many of BuzzFeed’s paid staff started out in the community pages (this is similar to how Gawker scours its comment section for new writers.)
Finally, for BuzzFeed, handing its platform to the public serves to create a laboratory where people experiment with new story telling techniques, like A Love Story in 22 Pictures:
Can BuzzFeed make it pay?
The debate over BuzzFeed’s community contributors comes at the same time as a watershed financial moment for the company: after more than five years, and several large investment rounds, CEO Jonah Peretti has declared that the site is profitable.
But still the questions persist about whether BuzzFeed is built to last. Here’s Bill Grueskin of Columbia Journalism School:
— Bill Grueskin (@BGrueskin) September 10, 2013
Others, including Peter Kafka, are asking whether BuzzFeed’s business model — which is based on creating custom, “native ads” for brands — can scale. In other words, can BuzzFeed and brands afford the creative teams to build special snowflake ads at large volumes?
And this is where BuzzFeed’s community pages may pose a real threat. After all, if BuzzFeed’s platform is so easy to use, isn’t there a risk that more brands will simply make community pages rather than pay BuzzFeed for native ads? And, if they do, will BuzzFeed try to turn around and demand a licensing fee to use the platform?
These are questions for the future, though. For now, BuzzFeed is still pulling off its improbable straddle of hard-hitting and banal, publisher and platform. As I left the office, Smith talked up the site’s new Cairo and Moscow correspondents — more evidence that haters can hate, but that BuzzFeed is growing even as more venerable names in media struggle to tread water.