BuzzFeed editors say their audience used to see their site as a place you could find really cool stuff, but not a place you could trust. They’re trying to change that. (Sean Hemmerle)
BuzzFeed, as much as any newsroom, is the antithesis of traditional. A neon sign celebrates the Hot List, BuzzFeed’s signature form. The receptionist hands new employees swag—a sweatshirt and a canvas bag decorated with a classic BuzzFeed headline: “84 Things That Aren’t on an Everything Bagel.” The conference rooms ringing the newsroom are named for viral cats: “Shironeko,” “Princess Monster Truck,” “Winston Bananas.”
Old newspaper ways of doing things are scoffed at here. At a morning meeting, discussion of how to cover the president’s State of the Union address focuses on two aspects only: getting Vine video “of when stupid stuff happens” and putting together a piece about how no one cares about the State of the Union.
The editor in chief, Ben Smith, the only person among the 29 in the meeting who wears a jacket, urges his lieutenants to tell more stories as quizzes. “People are going to be making fun of us as the website that only does quizzes,” he says. “But we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of quizzes.”
BuzzFeed is no scrappy little start-up anymore. It’s a big, profitable, influential news organization. The viral videos it publishes—generally without vetting—occasionally turn out to be hoaxes, the kind of mistake that delights old print curmudgeons eager to assert their ethical superiority. But as BuzzFeed continues to grow—four new employees checked in at the front desk in the 10 minutes I spent waiting there one morning—they’re not just adding brilliant headline writers and producers who get the gestalt of cat lovers. BuzzFeed has decided it’s no longer good enough to fix errors after publication, at least not on its most popular posts. They’ve decided it makes good journalism and business sense to assure readers that their posts are true, so BuzzFeed is embracing the ultimate symbol of the overstuffed print newsrooms of the pre-digital past. BuzzFeed is hiring copy editors.
For nearly two decades, a culture war has divided journalists. The gap seemed mostly generational, but it always boiled down to a battle over the very purpose of what we do. All the dismissive sniping and straight-out antagonism between old-school defenders of the print craft and the young digital brains propelling start-ups came down to a debate over values: The old guard argued that they were driven by the quest for truth, and by their sense of what citizens need to know to be informed participants in democracy. Reporting was all about locking down the facts and presenting them to readers, who would know best how to take advantage of the light we shined. Digital journalists countered that their way was more honest and democratic—and quicker. If that meant presenting stories before they’d been thoroughly vetted, that was okay, because the internet would correct itself. Truth would emerge through open trial and error.
With the collapse of old business models, the debate over values turned into a death match. Print chauvinists still muster mock horror when a few news sites run with wholly unconfirmed reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle, apparently fallen from favor, was stripped, caged and eaten by 120 ravenous dogs. And more than a few digital evangelists find a proud identity in the distance they keep from stodgy, superfluous, layered editing structures that persist at many newspapers and magazines.
But consider a new possibility: What if conciliation is at hand? As the lines between old and new increasingly blur, are the two schools of journalism’s core values blending into a hybrid? Increasingly, in newsrooms both print-centric and all-digital, the imperative for speed in the journalism of tweets and Vines has triumphed over traditional ways: What’s news is what’s out there, whether or not it’s been checked and verified. Rare is the news organization that doesn’t occasionally jump on Twitter with half-baked facts, and rarer still is the one that refuses to gin up content about the day’s major trending topics.
As I discovered in visits to newsrooms with varying histories and roles, what’s new is what’s always worked: In the minute-by-minute struggle for audience and advertising, old-fashioned notions about credibility turn out to be as essential as speed. Despite utopian rhetoric about the Web as a self-correcting mechanism, getting things right from the start turns out to have considerable value.