Et tu, David Carr?
I actually had to double-check the byline on this New York Times piece about how BuzzFeed is hiring serious reporters to break real news. I simply couldn’t believe Carr — probably the best, and most cynical, American media writer working today — would be so simperingly credulous.
Under the headline “Significant and Silly at BuzzFeed”, Carr writes…
“With its mix of oddities, listicles and Web memes, BuzzFeed was at first something like The Huffington Post without the pretension of producing news and commentary… [but] with the addition of [Ben] Smith and his new hires, BuzzFeed is growing some serious news muscles under a silly, frilly skin, and added the header “2012” for election coverage.”
“BuzzFeed wasn’t just hiring brand names to serve as lustrous hood ornaments connoting credibility, the way Tina Brown and Arianna Huffington have. The hires at BuzzFeed were more like maypoles: young writers native to the Web who become pivot points for contents because they are bathed in both the ethos and practice of social media.”
Carr’s supporting evidence of BuzzFeed’s “news muscles”? The fact that the site broke the news that John McCain was endorsing Mitt Romney. That’s it. Oh, and they’ve added a “2012″ category to contain future scoops of that magnitude. A button which, by the way, sits beside the site’s other categories: ‘“LOL,” “cute,” “win,” “fail,” “omg,” “geeky,” “trashy” and “wtf?”’.
Seriously David, WTF?
Of course, it’s early days for BuzzFeed as a serious news organization. It’s quite possible that the site’s election coverage will put that of the HuffPost — or even the Times — to shame. But right now there’s no evidence whatsoever — beyond David Carr writing the words — that BuzzFeed’s strategy of hiring respected journos from “real” media is any different from Huffington’s “hood ornament” strategy.
In fact, there are plenty of reasons to believe that BuzzFeed is even less inclined towards real reporting than Huffington (and, disclosure: my issues with the Arianna and the HuffPost are well documented).
For one thing, Arianna Huffington — like Tina Brown — is a media mogul second and a media personality first. Which is to say, her “hood ornament” (aka “business in front, party in the back”) strategy is only partly about increasing HuffPost’s popularity but a lot about boosting Arianna’s standing at Washington and New York cocktail parties. As such, her ego (and I use that word in a positive way) drives her to ensure that HuffPost has at least a veneer of journalistic credibility.
Compare and contrast BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti, who also did time at HuffPost. Peretti, explains Carr, was HuffPost’s “wizard in back of the curtain”…
“Using search optimization, he knew what people wanted almost before they did. [At BuzzFeed] he developed technologies that allowed BuzzFeed to determine very quickly what media content was being posted and shared — items that were contagious, the kind of thing that ends up on one person’s Facebook page and then suddenly, many other people’s.”
Peretti has no obvious incentive to be a credible purveyor of real journalism. Rather, he’s a career-long SEO guy whose entire news sense is based on what people are already searching for, or what they might be sharing on Facebook tomorrow tomorrow.
The first half of that equation — the SEO half — is inherently opposed to breaking news. If something hasn’t yet been reported, then no-one is searching for it. Even McCain’s endorsement of Romney was only a traffic-driver to BuzzFeed because people were already searching for Romney (the story was published to coincide with the Iowa caucuses). It’s hard to see how a totally unreported story, without an existing new hook, would have any place on a site which is so obsessed with search traffic. And as for un-”buzzy” foreign and local stories? Forget it.
So what about “creating tomorrow’s buzz”? Well, here are the top five stories on BuzzFeed’s 2012 category right now…
Donald Trump And Lawrence O’Donnell Get In Twitter Flame War
The Romney Logo: Romneyfresh Hotel Cola
Billy On The Street: “Do You Think Rihanna Looks Like A Baby Giraffe?”
20 Reinterpreted White House Photos
Bloomberg Report Takes Aim At Mormon Church For Online Gun Sales
Hardly stuff that will make the New York Times politics reporters lose sleep (except possibly the Rihanna looking like a giraffe story — a wake-up call to America if ever there’s been one). But maybe that’s why Carr is so happy to promote BuzzFeed’s message. “Seriously, if that’s the best the Internet can do…” And maybe any outlet that’s offering decent salaries to professional journalists in the current industry climate should be welcomed with open arms.
It would just be nice to see just one example of an SEO-driven site — be it HuffPost or BuzzFeed or anyone else — hiring high profile hacks but not diluting their work down to homeopathic levels of invisibility. When that happens, I’ll gladly join David Carr in celebrating the future of journalism.
*** Update ***
BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith responds:
We do lots of fun and entertaining content on the site, and don’t plan to stop doing memes and cute animals – it’s part of our DNA.
But we’ve also made a pretty solid start I think at ramping up our reporting staff, and had reporters in Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida, Nevada, and are really just getting started. I’m really proud of the original reporting we’ve done over the last month, and also of some of the less conventional approaches to politics, which is often a bit of a joke.
Here are a few links I just grabbed to some of the denser stuff, the top one of which you mentioned in your piece.