When Ben Smith joined BuzzFeed as editor in chief in 2012, the site was better known for cute cat videos and fun lists than for serious journalism. Over the past two years, he’s hired more than 150 reporters and editors; the site now covers politics and business and has an investigative reporting team. It now attracts 130 million monthly unique visitors.
Before arriving at BuzzFeed, Smith was a well-established political reporter. He was an early hire at Politico and creator of some of the earliest New York City politics blogs, including the Politicker, which he started for the New York Observer in 2004. He began his career at The Indianapolis Star before moving to Latvia and reporting for the European edition of The Wall Street Journal.
Smith was interviewed by 2014 Nieman Fellow Susie Banikarim during a visit to Lippmann House earlier this year.
Susie Banikarim: When Ben Smith joined BuzzFeed in 2012, the site was better known for cute cat videos and fun lists than for serious journalism. If you checked out the site last night, which I did, you would have found some of that classic BuzzFeed click bait. Thirty-four GIFs that sum up your first sexual experience. Fourteen signs that you’re type A, which I was guilty of, and my personal favorite, 23 of the most fetch moments from the “Mean Girls” premiere.
The main headline was dedicated to California’s tax policy for Hollywood productions. The homepage also featured stories about the ousted Ukrainian president and the push to repeal California’s transgendered student protection law. Those stories are the result of the newsroom Smith has built from scratch as BuzzFeed’s editor in chief. In the last two years he’s hired more than 150 reporters and editors.
Before BuzzFeed, he was a well-respected and well-known political reporter, Politico’s star blogger from 2007 to 2011. He was the founder of one of New York’s very influential and possibly first political blogs, the Politicker, a blog he started for The Observer in 2004.
The New Republic has called him, “one of the most talented and admired scoop mongers in the game.” Last year, The New York Times called him, “The boy wonder of BuzzFeed.” I don’t know about Ben, but at this point I would have been just as gratified by the boy as the wonder. [laughs]
Ben Smith: So would I. Yeah, people only say you’re young for a while. You kind of resent it, and then it turns out that you should have appreciated it.
Susie: Fantastic. But where the wonder comes from is clear. In an era where most newsrooms are cutting back, Smith is staffing up, hiring correspondents in places like Cairo, Istanbul, Kenya and Russia. In fact, BuzzFeed’s foreign editor, Miriam Elder, will be here with us on Friday. She’s investing in long foreign journalism and in building an investigative team.
In preparing for this introduction, I reached out to a friend who worked for Ben. It would be fair to say that her response wasn’t what I’m used to hearing from writers, when they talk about their editors. Here’s what she said, “I love him so much. I think the normalness of BuzzFeed’s culture all flows down from him. He encourages people to be brave and ambitious.” Please join me in welcoming Ben Smith.
Ben: Somebody’s getting a raise.
Susie: [laughs] [applause]
Susie: I feel like if I tell you, then it just seems that she was sucking up. [laughs]
Ben: Blind, anonymous praise.
Susie: [laughs] I’ll tell you after. You wrote an article for Playboy in January, and …
Ben: My usual outlet.
Susie: Yeah, I was going to say, I’m sure you did it for the article, you read them just for the articles. In it you said that social media will save journalism, which is something I think a lot of journalists received with some skepticism. You’ve talked a lot about your obsession with Twitter. Can you talk a little bit about that, and also whether you ever feel like that obsession with getting the viral bit can mean that you’re not able to really look at the full story?
Ben: Sure. Can you hear me, by the way? Yeah. I think that’s a couple different questions. I think the headline they gave it was “How Social Media Will Save Journalism,” which, like all good headlines, it’s wildly oversimplified. My first editor, I came in—he was very conservative, with the New York Sun, and had written some insane headline on a story I had written. I came in in the morning furious about this headline. He looked at me and said, “That’s not a headline failure, that’s a reporting failure.” I guess my basic argument in that piece was that the changes in distribution, what we know, within our view of the world, is that people open their phone, more on their phone now than their computer, but the place they go is to Facebook, to Twitter, to Pinterest, to Reddit, not to your Web page, probably not to your app. Though, probably, lots of people do go to our app. The real challenge is to punch through into those spaces.
To simplify it, our view is that the bar is very high to do something that’s compelling enough, not just to have somebody wander past page A7 and glance at it because that’s the newspaper that landed on their door. But have someone actively decide to share it, in the way that you could trick people into searching for things.
A lot of editors in the last decade learned that, “Oh, the Internet is this trick.” You can get the tech guys to SEO your stuff and have an SEO seminar. Then you can get traffic. That’s exactly the wrong lesson for what turned out to be the next era, which was social, where you really can’t trick people into sharing things. They have to really like it and be proud to share it. Whether it’s a more traditional form of a story or a totally new one like a quiz, that basic principle holds.
Ben: Not that quizzes are actually new at all.
Susie: Yeah. I spend a lot of time on those BuzzFeed quizzes lately.
Ben: Which disciple are you?
Susie: [laughs] I don’t know which disciple I am, but I definitely know which “Downton Abbey” character I am. One of the things that strikes me about what you’re talking about is this idea that journalists now have to think just as much about how their stories are going to be shared as the way they frame their stories internally.
Actually, someone was quoted in that New York Times piece as saying about you … a friend was quoted as saying, “He seems to be fearless on the self-promoting aspect. He’s got this personality where he’s not in your face about it, even though he’s as shameless as anybody, and I mean that as a compliment.” That’s a former friend. [laughs]
Ben: I can’t think of any journalist who really suffered from. … I’m trying to figure out how to phrase this. I don’t think shame is a great quality in reporting. You want people to read you. If you’re in this business it’s because you want people to read you. I remember when I was at the New York Sun I used to fax, because no one would read the paper, I would fax my stories to sources and things and readers. People have always done that sort of thing.
If you grew up in the political blogosphere, there’s this very specific kind of self-promotion that we would all do, which is Nate Silver would write something and then I would write something saying he’s an idiot. Then I would e-mail it to Nate and say, “Hey, I attacked you, but I gave you a really good link and I hope that when you attack me back you’ll link me above the part where you attack,” or whatever. There was this economy of that.
Twitter, basically, swallowed that, because that’s really bizarre and awkward.
Susie: And strangely collegial for people who are arguing.
Ben: Twitter is a much more efficient way to have those arguments and conversations. I think you want people to read your stuff.
Susie: What I was getting at is one of the things we’ve talked a lot about here is this idea that journalists are becoming brands. Ezra Klein is his own brand and Nate Silver is certainly his own brand. How important do you think that is for journalists now?
Ben: I think there was sort of a shift in power in newsrooms. It’s funny. I was thinking about what would happen if the convention five years ago had been that your publication owned your Twitter account? That was really the thing that changed this leverage.
Somebody at a big newspaper told me that he sees his Twitter account as his helicopter on the roof, where if the management ever gets in his face too much it’s this piece of leverage, essentially, that he can always threaten to leave, and take it with him.
I do think there’s clearly been this shift in power, essentially, from news organizations to reporters and to individual reporters. I don’t know. I don’t love the word “brand.” I’m not sure what it means. Brands can rise and fall very fast for individuals or companies. That incredibly stressful fact that you’re only as good as your last story is as true as ever, even if you have a lot of Twitter followers.
I actually think that the desegregation has actually dialed that back a little bit. It used to be you would go to some blogger’s page and that was how you got your information, but if you’re in the social mix what you’re getting is an individual story that has punched through because it’s really good. It doesn’t really matter if you’ve ever heard of the writer before.
Susie: Do you find that sometimes your reporters even feel that constant pressure to be churning material out as opposed to really thinking thoughtfully about longer pieces?
Ben: I think I don’t, really. I think reporters who really get this ecosystem get that a piece of churned, aggregated content, nobody’s going to read it, nobody’s going to share it, nobody’s tweeting, “Wow, you guys did a great job writing this thing The New York Times broke. It’s half as good, and it only took you three hours. Congrats.”
The stuff that breaks through is scoops and maybe that can be very, very fast and very short, but it’s something that adds real value. I do think that sometimes reporters, you can get things like my role is to be clever in the conversation as opposed to, which you know is fine, as opposed to doing work that people are talking about. I guess, I primarily think about Twitter and Facebook and Pinterest as distribution channels.
Susie: Let’s talk a little bit about the business model, because I think one of the things that there’s a lot of hammering about is the future of the business model. One thing that Jonah Peretti, the founder of BuzzFeed, is somewhat honest about is that the addition of the news, the politics and all that stuff, is to some degree for advertisers, and for credibility. Do you think that a standalone news site that didn’t have that entertainment side would be able to survive in this ecosystem?
Ben: I don’t know. I think it’s a sort of interesting moment, just in terms of who we find ourselves, when we’re trying to hire reporters, competing with in the marketplace. Like, First Look, which is going to do fine. They have a great business model, or at least a great start-up model.
Susie: I was like, “What’s their business model?” [laughs]
Ben: The news business is a funny business. There are lots of American newspapers that have traditionally been run by oligarchs with political agendas, which is also a great business model, and have been the vanity publications of men who made money in other businesses often, which has produced tons of great journalism. I guess I don’t know.
I think there are lots of different things that’ll emerge. The media business is also interesting, and complicated, and I think people make a mistake when they think it’s about traffic. It’s obviously important to have lots, and lots of readers, and a big reach.
Internet advertising has traditionally been display advertising, which has always been pretty bad, and ineffective. As it’s gotten worse, and less effective it’s had to be more, and more aggressive. Now it’s this screen that drops down over the thing you’re trying to read, and you can’t find the little X.
Readers hate that. Writers hate that, because you actually want people to read the thing you wrote. Advertisers aren’t idiots, and know that they don’t want to make their customers hate them. There’s obviously this scramble online now to figure out what the next thing is.
There’s this alternate tradition of advertising, which is advertising that people like, which is the Superbowl. To me, the best analogy actually is fashion magazines, where if you cut all the ads out of Vogue, fewer people would buy it. They’re very, very high quality. They’re the kind of stuff that people buying the magazine like. I’m sure the fashion industry is a total model of transparency, and there’s a wall between church and state.[laughter]
Ben: We are, and we have a very traditional separation. I don’t have any involvement in making the ads on the site. There’s a creative team that reports up to the business side, but I see them when they’re published on our website like everybody else, and sometimes they’re very clever, and I think I wish I … Sometimes they’re very high quality.
I think as a journalist it’s better that your ads are interesting and high quality, and in some way competing with the journalism, than that they’re terrible, and distracting and undermining it.
Susie: That native advertising model, which you’re talking about, is somewhat controversial.
Ben: I do think there are a lot of things, like complicated challenges around digital journalism that traditional media people complain about. The issues around speed and accuracy are obviously very real ones. This one I don’t totally understand. The corruption that you actually see day to day in media is struggling media companies skewing their agendas to please advertisers. That is a real thing.
Advertising that is clearly labeled, but is not a banner ad, I guess I don’t see the principled objection to that, or the principled attachment to banner advertising. It’s almost like the principle is, “Digital advertisement’s OK as long as it’s terrible.” That seems like a difficult principle to sustain if you want to run a business.
Susie: I’d say, to play devil’s advocate, that the concern is that, for example, with Vogue, Vogue doesn’t produce their ads. They push their advertiser …[crosstalk]
Ben: Condé Nast does. I don’t know about Vogue, but Condé Nast has had a creative services department forever, and actually lots of traditional publications play a big role in producing the ads.
Susie: In my research I found that something like 90 to 100 percent of BuzzFeed’s ads are created by the creative team.
Ben: A lot of them. Less than 100, but a lot.
Susie: I think that’s what makes people feel like the lines are blurred, that it’s easy, even though it’s labeled, for readers not to always see the distinction. Does that worry you at all?
Ben: I do think that the conventions on the Web are growing and changing. We basically want to be aligned with Facebook, and Twitter, like, “Are they sponsored tweets? Are they promoted tweets?” There are these conventions online. Some are very straightforward, like when you have a yellow overlay you kind of know that’s an ad. That’s a Google convention that we mirrored because it’s very clear to people, so we have the ads under yellow overlay.
What the language is, I think we want to be in line with the industry, when the industry’s figuring it out. We call them partner content I think, and have the byline is Nestle. It’s pretty clear.
I think those conventions aren’t settled, in the way that you open The New York Times, and you see a black box around something, and you’re like “OK, that’s an advertorial,” and you know it. I think, as a newspaper reader, you have very clear instincts around that, or at least sophisticated readers do.
There was an insert in—I think it was the Times, the other day that very subtly said it was sponsored by [inaudible]. It was like “Russia Today.” It was called “Russia Now.” It was actually kind of nicely done. It wasn’t totally just about how great Russia was, but it was subtly about that. That’s the kind of sponsored content that’s in some ways more like what Vogue, or what we would do, although, actually much less clearly labeled I would say.
Susie: It’s just interesting because they had that whole Dell controversy, so I didn’t see that Russian …
Ben: What controversy?
Susie: They recently admitted that they were going to start doing native advertising, and they did their first thing with Dell, and it was an article that looked kind of like Times content, and it was labeled, but I think Andrew Sullivan went crazy, which I’m sure you won’t be surprised by. [laughs]
Ben: No, I love Andrew, and love talking to him about this stuff. The Atlantic had this scandal around a Scientology ad, but I think people were confused about what they were upset about. The issue wasn’t that people were tricked, or that they didn’t know it was a Scientology ad. The issue was that people did know it was a Scientology ad.
It was this ridiculous, embarrassing, blinkered ad that people thought was … They did a disservice to their advertiser in a way. I don’t know. It’s interesting. There were Scientology ads during the Superbowl.
Susie: I saw that. I was very surprised by that.
Ben: They were in fact much like the Superbowl. They were videos that were linear, and had words on them.
Susie: [laughs] I’m going to ask one more …
Ben: I do think there’s, and it’s maybe sort of irrational and unfair, but that advertorials, like written out stuff in the style of a newspaper article, do provoke a kind of reaction, certainly from me, from journalists, in a way that entertainment, a TV ad or a funny list that’s sponsored might not. I think it’s almost unfair to The New York Times and The Atlantic, in a way, that may be a more visceral than analytical problem.
Susie: Yeah, we know. When you watch “Scandal,” you understand when the commercials are on. But, “Jimmy Kimmel,” there’s tons of advertising that you’re not 100 percent aware of.
Ben: Radio has its own weird … I don’t know. It is a lot about conventions. You just kind of know because you’ve consumed this for a long time, and digital advertising is changing so the conventions aren’t as clear. I don’t know. I would love for the conventions to be super clear and I think we certainly try to be as clear. That’s the goal.
Ultimately, the advertising, if people are going to share it, it has to be good. That’s it. That’s the test. But again, it’s not my side of the house, and I view it totally as an outsider.
Susie: I’m going to ask you one more question and then I’m going to open up the floor. I can’t really see the clock.
One thing that you referenced was this issue of getting good information and this pressure to constantly churn stuff out. There was this incident about this producer for “The Bachelor,” Elan Gale, I’m sure you’re familiar with it. This producer had this epic rant on Twitter about this other person on the plane who was being rude to the stewardess. It turned out to be a complete hoax. BuzzFeed got a little bit of heat for that.
Ben: Yeah, totally, and appropriately.
Susie: What did you … ?
Ben: When you’re writing about somebody … We are neither the first, nor the last, news organization to be taken in by a liar. You have to very fully … And when that happens, as it happened, to the Times and Iraq and with much higher stakes, you correct very fully and try to figure out how to not do it again.
Susie: Do you feel like that comes from that pressure? When you’re the reporter on duty, and that story is breaking, it’s much harder to imagine that she’s going to spend the time trying to verify all of these Tweets. That happens a lot.
Ben: We certainly expect people to chase things down. I don’t think, particularly if something is already out there, I don’t think we see, it’s not really that much of a race. You want to do a good job. You want to do it right. Everybody sometimes makes mistakes.
Susie: I think I saw, and it didn’t come from you, but someone from BuzzFeed said, “We have some fact checking, but we believe that the Web is the best fact checker. Fast complaints lead to corrections.”
Ben: That’s certainly true.
Susie: But I think for journalists, who like to think of themselves as a trusted source, not just a source that makes people really nervous. Do you think … ?
Ben: I do think that the Web was this huge blow to this one particular convention of newspaper journalism, which was that the fourth paragraph would be total bullshit. You would just sort of speculate and make stuff up. Then the comment section was a real blow to that.
I don’t know. I think it’s both true that we and, I think, most responsible news organizations online and in print, try really, really hard to get everything right, and then, also, corrections are not a new thing. But the Web is great for speedy and thorough corrections.
Susie: Does anyone have any questions? It’s a very full room. No?
Audience member: One of the most talked about pieces of the last few weeks anywhere was the McKay Coppins [inaudible] Donald Trump. Talk a bit about it, and also the fallout and the [inaudible] you feel was a pivotal moment [inaudible] .
Ben: Really? I guess that’s a good thing, unless you’re a giant Donald Trump fan. I thought it was a great piece.
I do think in political reporting, like other reporting, it’s very important the honesty of the conversation you’re having in the newsroom is reflected in the piece. The fact that Trump’s fake political campaign seems to be driven by neurosis and delusion. I think there is sometimes the temptation with figures like that to sometimes raise an eyebrow, but also allow them to play you a little bit. I think we really tried hard not to do that.
Then people sometimes, the partisan political Internet is a snake pit. People lie and yell about things, and that’s sort of normal.
Audience member: As a reporter can you sort of be? … Or do you even bother? With the kind of abuse or the …
Ben: If you’re a political reporter, you just have to have a pretty thick skin. Also, there are partisan political outfits for whom it’s sort of a transparently cynical game who don’t take themselves seriously, in a way. I think had Trump not come out or his aides not come out and spread lies, that almost would have undermined the thesis of the piece. It was good that they did, in that sense.
Susie: It certainly got more attention as a result of it. In a way, it was great.
Ben: It was a classic way to keep people talking about and reading an article. In that sense it was. But, definitely, if you cover American politics on the Internet, you just have to have a very thick skin because it’s just a very dishonest and nasty personal world. It’s true of foreign policy now, too, actually.
Joshua Benton: Since so many people come to your content not through social but through other forms, I think it would be harder to understand the broader picture of everything that you’re producing.
From an average week or an average month or an average day, what percentage of things someone has published on BuzzFeed are news in the way that you would traditionally define it? What percent are quizzes? What percent might be lists? In terms of what the total product is?
Ben: I think there is basically a spectrum on which it would be very hard to draw clear lines. Like, “Here is the clear journalism.” We do some reporting that’s very formally experimental. Like Benny Johnson did a very visual narrative story about this Army art depot that was really interesting the other day. Then, we do some entertaining lists that are all text.
The form and substance aren’t always, but somewhere in the ballpark of 50-50 seems about right. I think we probably publish more reported items, frankly, because for a scoop or a quick news report, it just takes much less work. Like, which state you want to live in, that takes days and days and days and it’s really hard to make; whereas, you can get a source drunk in a bar and get him to tell you something.
Josh: Do you anticipate that ratio staying the same as you keep expanding?
Ben: We do all sorts of new stuff. We also do tons of video, which I’m not counting in that and is mostly entertaining. We’re not really wedded. I don’t think about it in terms of some sort of internal balance, like we’re trying to do stuff that people want to share. It’s much more outward.
It’s not like we’re trying to queue to a ratio. I may, in fact, have gotten it wrong.
Jeff: I’m curious about what you consider your competition. You mentioned, obviously, individuals’ articles are out there on the viral, but you mentioned people download your app, say. You want them to download that one instead of someone else’s. I guess, who do you see as your biggest competitor?
Ben: That’s funny. When people ask that question, my actual day-to-day view is that every single piece of content is competing with every single piece of other content all the time. If you’re publishing on BuzzFeed, you’re competing against every other thing that was published on BuzzFeed, including the ads, and everything else on the Internet.
I know who we’re competing against to hire people. That’s another way of competition. Increasingly, places like Vox and First Look and Nate Silver’s new thing, and also the Times and the Journal and Reuters and places like that. But I do think that there has been a bit of a shift where somebody like Ezra Klein or somebody like The Washington Post was like, “Here’s how we’ll solve our Internet problem. We’ll hire these bloggers.” But they never totally integrated them into the newsroom.
Now, that ecosystem that those guys came from is mature enough to pay them a good salary. They’re just leaving and going back, which is an interesting thing.
Tim Rogers: Tim Rogers. I’m a U.S. journalist based in Central America. As a new, non-traditional media company, I wonder if you could say a few words about the balance you have to strike between constantly wanting to expand and diversify your product and innovate, and the threat of overextending yourself.
Ben: That’s something we definitely think about a lot. I don’t really have a real easy answer to that other than, when really interesting ideas and talented people fly by, and we don’t really know what we’d do with them, but they seem interesting, there is a certain amount of discipline to just say no.
But then, also, the way the newsroom is organized, is into relatively small teams with really, really strong editors. Our foreign editor, Miriam Elder, who will be here a bit later, is amazing. Then, because there’s not 100 years of tradition on how to do this, there is just an enormous amount of pressure and responsibility on those folks leading those teams just to figure it out.
Tim: At a certain point, do you get to a point where you say, “We’re comfortable with our product. This is what we do well. Let’s stop tinkering with it.”
Ben: We’re not close to that.
Cristian Lupsa: Can you speak more about organizing your newsroom? You just mentioned teams. How are those teams put together? What do they do? Are programmers also around? How do you work?
Ben: Let’s see, on the second part, our DNA is as a tech company. There is a fantasy, and now a reality for places like Twitter, that you could create a media company, and hire no editorial staff and just make tons of money, because you wouldn’t have to pay anyone. That’s always the Silicon Valley fantasy, and sometimes reality.
I think when Jonah started BuzzFeed, one of the possible paths was that. It has a very strong tech company DNA. They built a platform in tandem with figuring out what to do with it. That’s still going on. Like our breaking news template that we’re rolling out or the quiz template, this is stuff where the product folks are constantly wandering through the newsroom, and talking to editors about it. But we don’t attach developers to individual teams. That’s the product. Those guys are 20 yards away, but on the same floor, and we talk to them all the time.
I think in some way we do news, we do entertainment, we do features, essentially. There would maybe be three categories, and then under those three categories there are teams, whether it’s music or sports or politics or different groups working on entertainment, which are often teams of generalists playing around with ideas.
Cristian: These are all in one space?
Ben: Yeah, all in one space. We definitely encourage and reward playing outside your silo. In particular, the real projects we feel like is a challenge is figuring out what replaces the wire story as the way breaking news gets communicated because no one reads wire stories, no one shares wire stories.
The form was created for this very specific reason that has to do with newspapers, and cutting from the bottom. It’s this very wooden form. You put nine things in the first sentence, then you summarize the story in the second sentence, then you have a random quote that restates, not as eloquently, the thing you just said.
Then you have a paragraph that tells you a bunch of things you already knew, and then you just have everything else in order of importance. That’s a weird way to tell a story. Where are you from?
Ben: Romania. I don’t know how Romanian newspaper articles read, but they probably have a totally different form.
Cristian: It’s the way you described it.
Ben: If you ever read a French newspaper article, and you’re an American reader, it’s hard to figure out because the quotes are in a different place, and the voice is different, and the structure is different, and it feels like some kind of wooden, ritualistic thing. I think, to most American readers, that’s how wire stories read.
One thing we think about a lot is what replaces that. I think it’s something more visual, more emotionally driven, maybe funny sometimes, when it’s possible to be funny about the subject.
Certainly something that pulls in all the media that you’re talking about when there are images, when there are videos, when there are, increasingly, tweets and status updates that are part of the story because the senator started this whole thing by tweeting about it. Why are you writing about it? You should pull the thing itself in.
Our breaking news folks think a lot about what that form is, and I think people on other teams are trying to take what they’ve learned, and use it to cover whatever else.
Susie: Awesome. Also, I’m sorry, will you introduce yourself? I just realized last question because he asked where you’re from.
Alison: My question is relevant because I have a comment and a question. My name is Alison MacAdam and I’m from NPR. I will just say, it’s not a defense, we read wire stories, we use wire stories, and NPR, in fact, still publishes a lot of wire stories on their website. Not a defense of NPR …
Ben: You pay for it. You might as well throw them up there.
Alison: … but I’m just saying wire stories are still very much integrated into our work, whether that’s good or bad.
Ben: There’s lots of great information from them, and if you’re paying for them you might as well throw them on your website. They’re not the best way to tell someone information.
Alison: It depends. Sorry.[laughter]
Ben: No one knows this better than the AP, which has basically stopped writing wire stories, trying to reinvent itself as something else.
Alison: Here is my question, which is actually a sillier version of Christian’s question. Do you watch “House of Cards”?
Ben: I watched the first season. I haven’t watched the second season yet. Please don’t tell me any spoilers.
Alison: I’m with you. I know they’re very proud of talking about how realistic this show is, despite some obvious things that aren’t that realistic. The presentation of Slugline, the online media …
Ben: We all sit on beanbags.
Alison: It drives me nuts, but I wonder if it’s more realistic than I’m willing to grant. I wonder if you have any thoughts about the depiction of this …
Ben: I don’t sleep with my sources.[laughter]
Alison: That pre-dated her hiring at Slugline.
Ben: In what sense?
Alison: There’s this editor that’s like, “Go out, just put it on Twitter, put that up. Get out there first. These old, legacy news organizations and their bureaucracies.”
Ben: It’s funny. At Politico, it was certainly an advantage that you had people who were able to publish directly, and didn’t have layers of editing, but that’s more the exception. No, I think when you’re recruiting young reporters the thing that people really want is an editor. That’s a huge luxury. We have very strong editors and that’s a big part of how we operate.
It’s definitely not just throw it out there and see if it sticks. No, no beanbags. We have these pods.
Christina Pazzanese: How are you? I’m Christina Pazzanese . I write for Harvard University. I’m curious, just to get to a really basic question, why were you hired? I thought it was doing well before. Why suddenly go into news?
Does that shift or that interest on the part of the company signal a shift away from the niche thing, and we’re back to a winner-takes-all department store model? I think Nate Silver too, he’s expanding into all kinds of areas where he was doing great in one or two areas.
Ben: I think we see it more as there’s a lot of opportunity. I don’t really know why. In some way, I’m the wrong person to ask. I didn’t hire me. I think BuzzFeed definitely didn’t see what they were doing as journalism, as the laboratory for trying to understand what people would share.
I think they were increasingly seeing that, critically, Facebook, which is, by far, the biggest of these social networks, that initially it was pictures of your kids, and then it’s pictures of your animals and then pictures of other people’s cute animals, also, and memes and Web culture and then, increasingly, it was becoming news. In some form, news.
In some way, the impulse to build a newsroom was seeing that this ecosystem that they were living in was becoming the place where news was happening, and if you could take what they understood, what they figured out about what people share, and why people share and apply those lessons more broadly that that would be a valuable thing.
In my own experience, totally separately, obviously, was seeing blogs and websites, in the political conversation, get totally superseded by Twitter. Where it had mattered whether you were on the front page of Politico, now what mattered is whether or not people were passing your story around on Twitter for that inside political conversation.
It’s a very different ecosystem from Facebook, but, in a way, it’s the same idea that these social platforms were the main distribution channel.
Christina: Do you see the site bringing the people who came from the cat videos, converting them to readers for your news content?
Ben: I think mostly everybody, except sociopaths, care about cute animals and most people want to know what’s going on in the world. I can’t remember if it’s Harvard. Certainly we have more readers than we did, but college kids who are in Boston or New York or LA, who were probably getting their news from The Crimson or The New York Times, or the Journal or wherever they were reading it were the ones who were sharing and reading the “31 Animals Who Are Disappointed In You.”
I think you don’t get stupider when you go pat the animal as it walks by. We don’t view it as we want to bake some spinach into the brownies at all. We feel like most of our readers want to know what’s going on in the world, but also more people are going to read about Beyoncé than about advances in transgender rights anywhere. That’s also good. That’s fine.
Susie: Do you think that the success of the news side flies in the face of the notion that young people just aren’t interested in news?
Ben: Is that a real notion?
Susie: I think people really think that. [laughs]
Ben: I’m not that old. Certainly, ever since I started paying attention people said that young people have short attention spans and they only care about silly stuff. I think these are just things people said and have no basis in reality.
Caroline O’Donovan: I’m Caroline from the Nieman Lab. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you guys think about building your analytics into the editorial process. I think a lot of times when people think about, just as an example, a Gawker paying people based on traffic and that kind of thing there’s a negative connotation to the idea of publishing a story and then watching the numbers come in.
In my experience, learning about how you guys operate, you actually take that information and build new products and new ways of doing things out of it, but, at the same time, people I talk to say, “I don’t keep my eyes on those numbers all the time.” How do you talk about that to your staff?
Ben: It’s funny. I don’t love the word “traffic.” It sounds so mechanical. It’s human beings reading your story, which is why you published it. When I was at Politico I got the developers to stick a little tracker in the header of my blog so I could see my traffic. It was a word I still used, despite grumbling about it.
Actually, my old colleague Matthew Canon had this line that you should be “traffic mindful.” You want to know if people are reading you. If you write what you think is a wonderful story, and no one reads it you probably did something wrong. On the other hand, you have to be really aware. Unless you get somebody indicted and nobody reads it. That’s probably OK.
Or you did a story, no one reads it except the one source who it was aimed at, who then calls you and gives you a tip. There are various beat reporting-type reasons where you write stories nobody reads.
The way we basically look at these analytics is that each story has a potential audience, and if it’s a story about Ukraine, or a story about lobbying in D.C., there may be tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands who, in an ideal world, will share and read that story. If it’s a feature about rebuilding a house in Detroit, there may be millions. If it’s a list of cute animals, there might be a list of tens of millions, if it’s something about a universal human experience.
It’s an unscientific sense of what’s the possible audience for this piece, and let’s try to hit that whole audience. It’s a success if Chris Geidner gets a scoop on what the House is doing on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, if 5,000 people read it and share it that’s probably the right 5,000 people. That’s a success, whereas if 50 people read, it’s probably not.
That’s how we think about it, is trying to reach the potential audience for that story.
Caroline: Are you interested in building out that beat reporting method you were talking about?
Ben: Sure. I’m basically a beat reporter. That’s how our politics coverage, our business coverage is organized, for sure. Our foreign coverage. I do think one advantage of starting from scratch is you can rethink beat structures. I keep bringing this up. Gay rights is this huge story of the last 10 years, but it’s covered as the B-list beat in a lot of publications, just because it always has been.
For us, it’s very much a frontline beat and we’re able to hire the best reporters that really own that beat because you want to be in a place that’s taking it really seriously, not in a place where it’s a secondary beat.
Particularly in organizing the international coverage, I think that’s a thing where there are these traditional, regional beats that don’t always make sense. Partly because of the way communication has changed, there are thematic beats. Newspapers have always had, like The Wall Street Journal, in particular, always had great thematic beats.
We have a global gay rights beat, a global women’s rights beat that play on a conversation and a universe of sourcing in a way that makes a lot of sense as a beat. Because we get to start from scratch, we get to structure these things a little differently.
Audience member: My name is [inaudible]. I was a Nieman Fellow two years ago. I was just wondering, how do you see having this [inaudible] reporting and what BuzzFeed’s approach is?
Ben: I think it’s a necessary part of a good newsroom. My own background is when you have some interesting thing my impulse is to write about it 100 times, and chip away at it. To the extent that we’ve done good investigations, that’s the style we’ve done them so far.
Rosie Gray had this great stuff about foreign governments essentially paying bloggers and journalists in Washington to write things for them. We knew there was no way these conservative bloggers really cared that much about Malaysia. There’s something weird here. We just started writing about, “Hey, isn’t this weird?” They say they’re not getting paid, but who knows? If they were getting paid they would have to file disclosure reports and that’s what lawyers say.
Then eventually one of them got scared and filed a disclosure report saying all these guys had been paid. That’s the bloggy investigation that beat reporters do, and that I grew up doing that can be very, very effective, but there are other stories where that’s not the right way to go about it, and sources go away when you start doing that.
We thought it was important to develop these muscles to take that big swing where you need to step back and pull in lots of data, and look at the whole picture before you write. We hired this great editor from ProPublica, Mark Schoofs, who is putting together a team of six reporters plus a data team of three to do not solely long-term projects, but a lot of long-term projects. Also, to have the muscles to allow beat reporters who start pulling strings to keep following it.
Rachel Silverman: I’m Rachel Silverman with The Wall Street Journal. I have two questions. One is who do you see as your main competitors? Do you see legacy newspapers like The New York Times and the Journal or do you see other digital sites like HuffPo? Who are you really looking at every day to see what they’re doing digitally and content-wise?
Also, I just wanted to talk a little bit about length. Long-form has a touchy relationship with the Web and investigative stories often don’t work short. I’m just wondering how you see an optimal length for your news stories.
Ben: I’ll take the second one first. I think things should be as short as they can possibly be. I think that’s always been true. Everything on the Web is so short. Most things on the Web are too long. It’s a really great crutch for editors that you can say this four-paragraph digression about your grandmother is really beautiful, but we just got an ad, and it doesn’t fit in the column so we have to cut it.
It’s harder for the editor to say, “This is really self-indulgent and lame.” Our features editor, Steve Kandell, who had been the editor in chief of Spin, is a very gentle guy who’s had to figure out how to do that. The word “long-form” is such a funny word. Long, narrative features on the Web I think accidentally got a bad name, in part because the places that traditionally do them wonderfully, like The New Yorker, did a horrible job putting them online with these weird page breaks.
It’s not that hard to put a page of text on the Internet, and people use InstaPaper to get around that and it’s fine. The experience of scrolling is really nice. I like reading long things on my phone. You don’t have to turn pages, the jump to page 87, and it’s below the story about food. I don’t love that experience, but I like scrolling through long stories.
We see people actually spend a little more time on those stories on mobile than on desktop. The other flip of that was these magazines were paying really good money for wonderful stories, and then doing a bad job, a simple, technically bad job, of putting them online. Still mostly are. I don’t understand why.
On the flip side, you had people putting things online, often, good writers that had been spiked or that they hadn’t been able to sell to a magazine so, basically, they’re not as good work. If you’re getting paid $100 for it you’re not going to go through an editing process, you’re just going to throw it up there.
Editing is really important for stories like that, and cutting is important. I feel like the term “long-form” gets attached to really self-indulgent, unedited stuff that often could be 6,000 words rather than 9,000 words. There’s definitely room online. We certainly see. I think the thing there’s maybe not room for is the 900-word daily story, but we definitely see a lot of readers for deeply reported, emotionally compelling, great narrative stuff.
Susie: I’m curious, did you follow the Grantland scandal, the Dr. V and the magic putter thing?
Susie: One of the things that struck me about that is that in all the criticism one of the things that nobody ever said was why didn’t he just get on a plane …? Did you have that reaction to that?
Ben: Right. One of the issues, Bill Simmons wrote, it was underreported. When your subject kills herself in the middle of your story, it’s probably worth digging into that a little bit. There was all sorts of stuff with that story. My initial impulse was when people were piling on the writer around trans issues, and when our LGBT editor, Saeed Jones, who is a really wonderful writer and thinks a lot about this, had written a piece doing this I was like, “Come on.”
“You’re ahead of the curve in a way that you can’t expect everyone to be and you should cut writers who haven’t thought about transgender issues a little slack.” His response was, “No, transgender women are getting murdered all the time. That’s not much of an excuse,” which I basically ended up agreeing with him on.
Ann Marie Lipinski: I’m wondering if you can say a little more about people, and when you’re looking to hire people or evaluating people. Tom Friedman had a column this weekend talking to people at Google about the sorts of things that used to matter that don’t matter at all to them.
College education, the good college, grade point average, all these things that they pay no attention to in hiring and the set of values that were really important to them that they figure out over time really matter to success in their company.
I’m wondering if you could describe those values or characteristics. If you were sitting down with Steve Coll at the Columbia Journalism School, and if he was saying, “How do we produce journalists for the next generation?” What would you describe? What would you tell him you need?
Ben: Let’s see. The college thing is interesting because this is a fancy institution, and I kind of went to a fancy institution. I did not really find in my career that, that was the thing that’s getting me … I don’t think if you’re in reporting, people look at your last story. They don’t look at your resume.
I don’t know. It sort of depends. If you’re looking for someone who’s thinking a lot about what people share, and making some new kind of Web culture entertainment, and humor and intelligence, and sense of psychology. If you’re looking for a reporter, I don’t know, just a raw aggression. That’s the thing I look for in reporters.[laughter]
Susie: You know what, that makes me think though, that one of the things that struck me so much about the comment that, I’ll tell you, Kate Arthur made is that …
Ben: No shortage of aggression.
Susie: [laughs] No, no. She’s perfectly aggressive enough. Newsrooms are actually generally, cynical, pessimistic places. They’re not full of optimism, but it seems that you’ve been able to create that.
Ben: Yeah, I always wonder if it’s because we’re new, and eventually it’ll become horrible and poisonous like most newsrooms, but it just hasn’t grown up yet.[laughter]
Ben: I think there are a lot of reasons. It’s just been a tough time. It’s no fun to work in a place that for reasons that are really not … I sort of feel like if you’re a place like the New York Daily News, you have editors getting blamed for what are basically these industry trends that are vastly beyond their control, and then the editor’s job is to lay off a successive round of people, and that’s incredibly demoralizing, and it’s hard to blame.
I don’t know, but there are really good reasons that newsrooms have been demoralized. There was also this online voice from this sort of early blog era, which always drove me crazy as a reporter, but that was basically because for reporting resources you would just attack stuff, often not knowing what you’re talking about. This was kind of a fun, guilty pleasure read, but it’s nothing that people share.
I do think it’s not totally unrelated to the fact that we do want to have a very happy place internally. It’s important that the internal culture is really healthy, and people have a good time, but I think the reporting correlate of that is you want people who are coming to stories with open minds, who are ready to be surprised either by how nefarious, or by how not nefarious somebody is.
Good reporters actually usually aren’t cynical. Good reporters are really, really curious.
Susie: Are there management things you do? Do you ever take the time …?
Ben: A lot of trust falls.[laughter]
Susie: A lot of trust falls. Like the toilet paper exercise?
Susie: Do you ever take the time to step back and think about it, or it just sort of has …?
Ben: I don’t know. I do try not to hire really toxic people.
Susie: [laughs] That seems like a good rule. I’ll take that away with me. Justin?
Justin Ellis: Hi, I’m Justin [Ellis].
Ben: Hey, Justin.
Justin: Good evening.[laughter]
Justin: We’re[the Nieman Journalism Lab] upstairs. We keep saying that like we live upstairs.[laughter]
Audience member: You don’t?[laughter] [crosstalk]
Justin: I wanted to ask about video, and specifically, there are a lot of media companies that are looking at video right now, and Politico had an interesting story…
Ben: That was a great piece.
Justin: Yesterday about some of the maybe failures about how people are trying to do live video. You guys are taking a different approach with Ze Frank. I’m wondering how you guys think about that, because the videos seem to be a combination of things that are …You know, there’s production values, they’re well produced, and there are also, obviously, viral things. Maybe you can transfer what you guys want to do with some of the approaches of other media companies.
Ben: Let’s see. I’ve never been a big fan of video for news. I think words, text, great way to communicate information. Guy talking at a screen, less good way. Guy reading his article aloud. It’s good if you’re illiterate.
Certainly, as Dylan [Byers] wrote in Politico, like at Politico, lots of times, lots of places had this idea that doing essentially an imitation of cable television on the Internet was something people wanted. It just, demonstrably, is not. It doesn’t report to me. This guy Ze Frank, he’s sort of a celebrity in certain universes if you’re an Internet geek of a certain era. He’s a genius. He was a very early digital video guy who invented the form of the vlog, the camera pointed right at your face, and the quick cuts, and the voice. A little preYouTube. He had this show in ’06, ’07 called “The Show.”
He was getting 40,000, 50,000 views a day, which was a huge number particularly then but also now. He’s been experimenting ever since with the forms of digital video. I think those forms are really different than TV, and having a background in TV doesn’t tell you that much about what people are going to want to watch and share online.
One thing is they’re very short, often. Three, four minutes is long-form. I think we have a lot of views on YouTube, maybe more than other publishers. I think the stuff he’s doing is really interesting and he’s starting to take these forms that work online, and trying to apply them to news topics, to feature topics rather than pure entertainment, science topics.
He’s done these series of true facts about various animals. They’re really weird and funny, and get hundreds of thousands of views. It’s totally unrecognizable. It’s not a descendant of TV.
Susie: Last question.
Tanya: I’m Tanya deLuzuriaga. I work at Harvard doing media relations. One thing that I keep thinking about as you’re talking is that journalism is expensive to produce. People can’t be as productive if they’re writing an independently reported piece versus aggregating a bunch of pictures off Instagram, for example. At what point does the company or your bosses or you say this just isn’t profitable? What’s the line?
Ben: The media business is a funny thing. We are a profitable company.
Tanya: You’re profitable because of the cats, so at what point did you both say…[laughter]
Ben: No, we don’t sell silly advertising so that’s not true. We don’t sell CPM. There’s this idea that the media business is about CPM ads, and it’s actually just way more. If you’re not selling display ads, you’re not getting paid by the click. In some sense, it’s the reverse. Traffic to editorial content is a cost for us and our servers.
As I was telling Mark Schoofs, our investigations editor, whose team has not published a single word because they’ve only been there a month, but he’s our most efficient employee because he hasn’t burdened our servers at all. Whereas Dave Stopera who has that quiz about which city you should live in that got 40 million views, is this massive cost center.
The media business is complicated I think is the answer, basically. Being a company that figures out how to do all sorts of different things well is a big advantage.
Susie: I know I said that’s the last question, but I’m going to ask one more. One of the things I noticed in all the articles I read, and I certainly was guilty of it, too, it’s a very easy narrative juxtaposition, the cat videos versus the news.
Ben: That’s not really how we operate.
Susie: Does that get frustrating? Nobody asks Diane Sawyer how she feels about “The Bachelor.”
Ben: I know. Isn’t that weird? The New York Times, when they launched the Travel section and the Style section in the ’70s, people were horrified, and it was done for advertising reasons and was a huge commercial success. Autos. I think different generations have different kinds of leisure content, and maybe people who read The New York Times want to read questionable trend pieces in the Style section, or features on $9 million mansions in Venice that you might want to buy in the Real Estate section.
People of my generation, maybe, are more interested in Instagrams of cats. I don’t really think there’s a value judgment. It’s actually really hard to make a great list of Instagrams of cats. You’d be surprised.[laughter]
Ben: Go ahead, and try to do one that gets a million views. You would be surprised how hard it is. It’s a very competitive space.[laughter]
Ben: I think that’s one thing that, internally, there’s a lot of respect for people who are good at that and we value them a ton. I think that’s something where I’m always surprised by the dismissiveness. It’s really hard to do good entertainment.
Susie: On that note, thank you so much for coming. I really enjoyed our chat.[applause]
Ben: Yeah, this was fun.