“A lot of us thought of this as a tech company,” she says, recalling the early days two years ago. “Since Ben came in, we’re learning how to raise standards while keeping our experimental attitude.” Burton’s team used to operate under a simple standard: “If something was a big deal on the internet, we were going to publish it.”
Then Smith arrived, bringing with him a Politico editor’s passion for the news of the moment, a New York kid’s love of the tabloids, and a powerful sense of himself as serious journalist as well as grand entertainer.
As BuzzFeed’s audience, staff, and revenue blossomed, the company’s purpose has shifted somewhat, from amassing eyeballs with cool stuff, toward an old-fashioned desire to make a difference. Mark Schoofs, a longtime investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal and then ProPublica, has come aboard to launch an investigative unit. BuzzFeed’s investigative and foreign coverage remain small boutiques within a big room of list-makers and quizzlers, but having Schoofs around helps people like Burton think of themselves not just as aggregators, but as debunkers.
That new mindset has led to other changes: “We started doing corrections a couple of months ago,” Burton says. And she’s moved away from trick headlines. “There was a time when everything was gaming to get on top of Google search results. But trick headlines that disappoint people are counterproductive.”
Burton still thinks of her work as entertainment, “but the lines are blurring,” she says. Rega Jha, 22, six months out of Columbia University, became a Buzz team star with her legendary “29 Struggles That Only People With Big Butts Will Understand,” which drew a gargantuan 4.8 million views in its first week. But although she loves making lists, her favorite story has been a 4,000-word piece on sexual abuse in India—a story that took two months to produce and went through 20 rounds of edits by several BuzzFeed editors. It drew 200,000 views, “a lot more than it would have gotten at a newspaper or magazine that doesn’t understand the internet,” Jha says.
Ideally, she says, she’d like to write both “28 Things That People With Big Boobs Can Simply Never Do” (another of her smash hits) and reported pieces on social justice—tough, serious work, but in the BuzzFeed way: “The goal is the same whether you’re writing about big butts or Bill Gates. You have to write what people want to read.”