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BuzzFeed may still be primarily known for producing “snackable” content that’s easy to consume and/or share quickly, but an interview that former Reuters blogger Felix Salmon did with founder Jonah Peretti and posted to Medium is the exact opposite: it runs more than 20,000 words and the site estimates that it will take 91 minutes to read. So in the interests of saving you some time — and as a kind of tribute to the aggregation methods used by BuzzFeed and Huffington Post — I’ve picked out some of the most interesting and/or important parts:
On the future of media:
Peretti said that his famous viral email exchange with Nike — over his attempt to make a personalized pair of shoes that said “Sweatshop” on them — was the trigger that started him thinking about how media works in the age of the social web:
There wasn’t a concept of things going viral. It’s funny how that’s become so normalized where people say, ‘Oh, maybe that will go viral.’ At that time, nobody ever said, ‘This thing could go viral.’ That wasn’t part of anyone’s consciousness. It was this giant, unfolding, complex problem with different areas that you could spend a whole lifetime thinking about and working on from the structural mathematical sense of networks. All those things working together started to feel like the way the media industry’s going to work… It doesn’t necessarily have to be a broadcast pipe or printing press and trucks driving around newspapers.
On the birth of Huffington Post:
The secret to the success of The Huffington Post (which he helped build before BuzzFeed), Peretti says, was partly the celebrity bloggers who came from Arianna Huffington’s network and partly link-sharing inspired by The Drudge Report:
I knew [celebrity bloggers] would create a sensation, that some people would hate it, and that some people would love it, but that it would be an incredibly exciting development that every blogger would have to watch, and be excited to watch, and want to form an opinion on. That was what would generate the viral spike… and one of the stickiest sites on the Internet was the Drudge Report. With always-fresh headlines and splashes and things like that, people would come back every single day. There were these two models that we just kind of bolted together.
On the value of aggregation:
Peretti noted that The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed have been criticized for “over-aggregation” of content from other sites, but said as a user or consumer of media content, this kind of aggregation clearly provides a service:
Say The New Yorker writes a really long 12,000 word piece on Scientology. That takes lots of reporting and lots of investment… the average person who hears about that story doesn’t want to read the whole story. They’re at work, most likely. They do a Google search because they’ve heard about this Scientology scoop or long form piece. Their first result is the HuffPost link, not a New Yorker link. They look at it. It summarizes what the article is about. The problem with that example is that from the perspective of the user, it’s a better experience to land on the summary… because that’s as much as most people want.
On the New York Times:
Peretti said that he thinks the recent innovation report from the New York Times (which was leaked to BuzzFeed) was a little too hard on the technology team and not hard enough on the editorial side:
There was this bedrock assumption that The New York Times’s content is just the best content. I think that they do a lot of tremendous journalism. They have a lot of great stuff. It’s just sometimes, the stories are boring… and I was a little bit surprised that the report didn’t spend much time tackling the hardest issue, which is why do they need to have so much revenue? It’s because their cost structure is made for print. The challenge that they’re facing moving forward is how do they move into a post-print world.
On BuzzFeed’s evolution:
BuzzFeed began as a side project to HuffPo — a way to experiment with viral content — but Peretti says around the time that Huffington Post was bought by AOL, he and his investors decided to get serious:
Soon after we hired [former Politico writer] Ben Smith, that was really the moment we went from being a tech company experimenting with content to being a company that took editorial seriously. Not just serious editorial, but that took entertaining content seriously, and news content seriously, and had a more ambitious editorial mission. We had this huge hole…. it was like, “Okay, the web is growing up. The social web is growing up. We need to grow up. And we need to add capacity to do all kinds of stuff that we’re not doing now.
On the value of media metrics:
Peretti said that BuzzFeed may have plenty of analytics that it applies to its business, but he tries not to let those get in the way of the content:
It’s not that we celebrate maximizing the metrics. We want the stuff we do to reach the maximum audience it should reach, no less and no more. If we make a wonky political scoop, we want every political wonk to read it. When we have something that’s a hit, usually our response is not, ‘Let’s do more of those.’ Our response is, ‘Let’s figure why this is a hit and make variations of this.’… I feel like what you see in the industry now is people jumping around and trying to find the God metric for content. It’s all about shares or it’s all about time spent.
On doing media differently:
The biggest change that most media companies need to make, Peretti says, isn’t what they are writing about or even who they are appealing to, but how they are doing it. Many digital publishers are small, he said, because:
They look like print. Their basic unit is the same kind of article structure. Some of them might be shorter or longer, but the front page is programmed almost like a newspaper. The formats of the articles are more like a newspaper. The way to break through and to make something that can actually scale into something big is just to say, ‘What would this be if the readers and the publishers were not focused on making something similar to print?’ If they said, instead, ‘What should this be if mobile is the most important thing; if things can be more visual; if things can be more shareable; if length can be anywhere from 140 characters to 12,000 words? In that kind of world… what should a media company be?”
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Paul Zimmerman / Getty Images and Rani Molla