It’s about building trust, he says. There aren’t the resources to check everything, but the answer lies in transparency: “If you don’t know, just say you couldn’t verify it,” says Mills. “The new news consumer likes being let in on that process.”
In many short-staffed newsrooms, transparency is the buzzword—just tell readers what you can’t afford to do (such as verifying videos). But as start-ups grow, they may find that success helps solve some of their problems.
Shani Hilton, 28, came to BuzzFeed from NBC’s DC affiliate and Washington City Paper with a mission: “I charged myself with bringing more old-school DNA to this place,” she says. As deputy editor in chief, Hilton has built the copy desk from one to three editors, with more to come. She tells skeptical producers that content can be checked and polished without unduly slowing the machine. “They have to feel like they’re not being held up or we won’t succeed,” she says.
Copy editors now review anything on BuzzFeed’s top 10 list—a palpable sign that larger audiences create more responsibility and caution. “If something’s going viral, we want it to be correct,” Hilton says. “But there are people here who don’t think of themselves as journalists, so it’s a learning process.”
Hilton presses producers to reach out to creators of the viral material they post. “Make that call,” she says. “Think about influencing the conversation more than just getting the traffic.”
“People used to see BuzzFeed as a place where you could find really fun stuff,” says Ben Smith, Hilton’s boss, “but not really a place you could trust. Now they’re seeing it as a place where you can get your news,” which requires changing the culture.
Not that Smith, who came from Politico, will slow BuzzFeed’s metabolism. “If your readers are swimming in this stuff, it’s an abdication of responsibility to wait,” he says. He’s thought about why his site named the wrong bomber in the rush to post after the Boston attack. His conclusion: “Bad mistake, but big breaking stories have always been a total shitstorm. The solution is more, better reporters, so we don’t have to rely on CNN.”
BuzzFeed will still reflect what users see on the internet, but not blindly. To reach an audience that accepts anonymity but is suspicious of motives and sources, Smith believes the bigger BuzzFeed needs a more nuanced approach to editing. Producers still directly post routine, non-controversial pieces. If a story makes serious allegations, “we want it to be bulletproof;” it will get one close edit and informal looks from other editors. And BuzzFeed’s narrative features and investigations will be edited, copyedited, and fact-checked by contract checkers.
But Smith rejects “formalistic rules like ‘you have to have two sources to go with something.’ It’s easy to get nine sources to say the same thing and still get it wrong. I prefer to rely on smart reporters and on Twitter,” fixing stories as they develop.
The iterative approach, while capturing the spirit of the Web, still grates against many older journalists; in a critique of “The Truthiness of BuzzFeed,” Andrew Sullivan said the post-first ethic undermines the compact between journalists and readers. It was irresponsible for BuzzFeed to publish the phony Thanksgiving-week tale of a Hollywood TV producer’s wild confrontation with a complaining woman on his delayed flight, Sullivan said, arguing that entertainment and journalism belong in “clearly separate spaces.”
After that hoax became clear, BuzzFeed added a note saying the Hollywood producer “might have pulled one over on all of us.” That struck some critics as too cute a retreat. Lisa Tozzi, a former New York Times editor who runs BuzzFeed’s news team of 15, concedes the original post should have been more skeptical, but says accuracy is as important here as it was in her former newsroom. It’s certainly vital to people like Smith, Hilton, and Tozzi, but as those refugees from more traditional newsrooms found when they arrived at BuzzFeed, not everyone there is grounded in the old ways of doing things.
Summer Anne Burton came to BuzzFeed like many of its producers did—without much journalism experience or ambition. As a waitress and blogger in Austin, she was all about finding cool stuff on the internet and sharing it with friends. The notion that anyone would pay her to do that was just fabulous. Now, as managing editorial director—she oversees the Buzz team, the 35 people who, as Burton puts it, “do the stuff that old-school BuzzFeed is known for, the lists, quizzes, animals . . .”—she is starting to see herself as a journalist.