“Hold on, I have to file this story real quick,” says BuzzFeed reporter Rosie Gray.
Sitting down on the sidewalk on a June evening outside of a Scott Walker volunteer center in Milwaukee, Gray opens her laptop and begins typing. When BuzzFeed’s reporters say “real quick,” they mean it. Less than 15 minutes later, a story by Gray appeared on BuzzFeed’s politics section about the incumbent Wisconsin governor’s remarks he had just delivered inside.
Since BuzzFeed started covering politics in early 2012, editor-in-chief Ben Smith and his small group of reporters have quickly—there’s that word again—muscled their way into the already-crowded field of political journalism, carving out a reputation for delivering eminently sharable news nuggets, and doing it faster than anyone else.
When BuzzFeed poached Smith from Politico in November 2011, the shock in the journalism world was palpable. Smith was one of the Politico’s top reporters. His blog was a key reason the fledgling news outlet rose to the top of the media heap during the 2008 presidential race. BuzzFeed was, well, Buzzfeed—a site best known for publishing things like “25 animals too fat to function.”
Every recent presidential election has seen drastic changes in media, accompanied by one or two new publications breaking into the mainstream. In 2008, it was Politico, buoyed by Smith’s scoop-filled blogging. As the November contest draws near, it looks like Smith is two-for-two. In a recent profile in The New Republic, writer Marc Tracy declared BuzzFeed “the defining media outlet of 2012.”
The shift this cycle, Smith says, is tapping into how people share news.
“The core of what we’re doing is just a realization that the way people consume media has shifted to social conversations,” Smith said in an interview with Conspire. “People don’t go to websites first anymore. It’s all about producing great pieces of individual content.”
When reached by phone for an interview, Smith said he only had about a 10-minute window for an interview.
“We’re real busy over here,” Smith explained from the site’s New York City office. “We just launched rubbable GIFs.”
“Rubbable GIFs” are BuzzFeed’s latest invention to make you procrastinate. By running your mouse over an animated GIF, you can reverse or advance the timeline. It’s a small novelty, but it does exactly what it’s supposed to do: keep readers on the site for longer.
It’s also part of Smith and crew’s ongoing mission to reinvent the news story. Part of the site’s ethos is delivering content in whichever format works best. Sometimes that means a video with a paragraph of text, a series of GIFs or an 800-world reported piece.
BuzzFeed is the creation of Jonah Peretti, an MIT grad professionally preoccupied with how and why content goes viral. Before launching BuzzFeed, Peretti applied his talents to the Huffington Post.
Why would Peretti leave the Huffington Post, one of the giants of online media, to try again? As Twitter and Facebook became the primary way to share information, Peretti began to see it wasn’t just news or personal updates that were people were sharing.
“Facebook and Twitter started as being news about your friends,” Peretti told The New Republic. “And then they evolved to being pure social content, entertainment content—humor, kittens.”
And politics, of course. Americans are rabid consumers of political news during election years. BuzzFeed, with its assertion that viewers do not distinguish between serious and silly content so long as they are entertained, saw a unique opening.
“Buzzfeed has an ethos,” Gray said in an interview with Conspire. “We want readers to have fun at the same time as informing them. So I have a license to do a story on strip clubs in Tampa during the Republican National Convention, and then I can do something more in-depth.”
The introduction of a politics section, then, would add not only extra page-views but also credibility to the fledgling venture.
In terms of financing, landing Smith immediately paid off. Shortly after, BuzzFeed raised $15.5 million from Huffington Post co-founder Kenneth Lerer’s Lerer Ventures, as well as New Enterprise Associates, Hearst Interactive Media, Softbank and RRE Ventures.
Once in place as editor-in-chief, Smith began applying the lessons he’d learned at his previous publication.
“The basic insight of Politico early on was there wasn’t a barrier to entry anymore,” Smith said. “You just had to hire great reporters. Tens of thousands of people want to read a great scoop. Zero people want to read a mediocre story on it four hours later. They saw you could break through by hiring great people.”
So Smith filled his roster not with expensive, marquee names but young talent who were web natives: Gray from The Village Voice; Doree Shafrir and Michael Hastings from RollingStone.com; Matt Buchanan from Gawker Media; and John Herrman from Popular Mechanics.
Most recently, BuzzFeed expanded its stable with a D.C. bureau, headed up by former Roll Call reporter John Stanton. It also brought in political reporter Chris Geidner, formerly at Metro Weekly, to head the the site’s new LGBT vertical. Instead of scattering LGBT news throughout the sites various sections, such as politics or celebs, it’s collected in one spot—a simple idea, but effective.
“Buzzfeed is much more savvy when it comes to how the Internet works,” Gray said. “Everything moves faster, and we we have a greater ability to get up stories faster. We have fast people. [Politics reporter] Zeke [Miller] is extremely speedy. Ben is a fast editor.”
The site also built its own content management system from the ground up. The cumulative effect of all this is a news org that is almost limited only by how fast the news itself breaks.
If BuzzFeed Politics was a college football team, it would most resemble the University of Oregon’s lightning-quick “blur offense.” The insight by Smith and Oregon head coach Chip Kelly is the sort of intuitive truth that’s obvious in hindsight: If you’re outsized, your natural advantage is speed. Operate at a pace your competitors can’t hope to match. Run them into the ground.
But the focus on speed and humor doesn’t mean BuzzFeed has completely abandoned its traditional media contemporaries. In June, The New York Times—the Gray Lady herself—announced it was partnering with BuzzFeed to produce video content on the 2012 election.
As The Atlantic wrote, the partnership “gives Buzzfeed some additional credibility as a purveyor of Serious Journalism; and it gives the Times some additional credit for its willingness to dive into the LOLing underbelly of the Internet.”
Last Monday, BuzzFeed announced another strategic partnership with a new video news startup, NowThis News, also financed by Lerer.
It helps that the site throws good parties. BuzzFeed hosted events at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions featuring live animals, such as turtles and penguins. The launch party for BuzzFeed’s D.C. political bureau was complete with yellow cookies bearing the site’s trademark story descriptors: “LOL,” “OMG,” “WTF,” and “WIN.”
The spending has prompted some questions about the venture’s burn rate, and media critics have questioned the overall value of what BuzzFeed is bringing in terms of reporting (the good stories “are overwhelmed by the crush of posts that show Tim Pawlenty looking sad or Joe Biden looking like a stud,” Tracy wrote.) But the traffic is coming. Several million unique visitors a month, according to The New Republic.
For now, at least, it’s all “WIN” for BuzzFeed.