The Problem With BuzzFeed Isn't Listicles, But Its Synthesis Of Advertising and Journalism

BuzzFeed is what Andrew Sullivan describes as "an ad agency with some journalistic window dressing."
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BuzzFeed is what Andrew Sullivan describes as "an ad agency with some journalistic window dressing."
BFSucks

In the weeks leading up to the midterm elections, Georgia Republican senatorial candidate David Perdue found himself in somewhat of a snafu. He'd been caught signing a young female voter's torso. BuzzFeedNewsbroke the story with a seemingly incriminating video provided by progressive political action committee American Bridge, which appeared to confirm the creepy incident. The only problem? Perdue was actually signing the woman's insulin pump. Now the original story is littered with updates and corrections.

It would hardly be fair to take a single botched story as evidence that BuzzFeed , which in October notched 177 million unique visitors and has a valuation of $850 million, is systematically misreporting the news. But the high-profile incident raised the question yet again: Who trusts the people who bring you listicles, cat .gifs and posts about "Ramen hacks" for hard reporting?

As recent Pew polling has revealed, your fellow countrymen don't. BuzzFeed is the least trusted news source, ranking even below conservative shit-spewers like The Glenn Beck Program and The Rush LimbaughShow. That's right: Technically, BuzzFeed is trusted less than the guy who called Sandra Fluke a "slut" on live radio.

No one on the political spectrum trusts BuzzFeed.

pewpoll

This isn't entirely BuzzFeed's fault. For all of the venomous criticism launched the site's way, media insiders and political commentators can miss out on the simple fact that many people just don't follow the news industry very closely. Hence it's likely that people simply associate BuzzFeed with memes and 90s nostalgia pieces without having read the site's political content. BuzzFeed didn't really begin to do news or politics until 2012. Since the site hasn't had much time to establish its journalistic reputation and polls are a terrible marker of quality, that conclusion could be premature.

In fact, the site does sometimes produce excellent content. For one, reporter McKay Coppins' blistering profile of Donald Trump's fake "will he or won't he" presidential ambitions, replete with detailed descriptions of the aging plutocrat's staggering arrogance, constant immersion in a simmering pool of yes-men and lack of any sense of self-awareness, is one of the best political reads of 2014. The site has broken serious news, like John McCain's endorsement of Mitt Romney and President Obama's role in a Harvard battle over diversity. Earlier this year, BuzzFeedreported that an advertising company had installed hundreds of tracking devices in New York City phone booths, resulting in their immediate removal. These aren't credentials that can just be written off.

But the simple truth of the matter is that BuzzFeed is large and wealthy enough to fund a few serious journalistic endeavors as showpieces, when the majority of its politics-related content is cheaply-produced sharebait. For example, right now the site is running pieces like "Rand Paul Is Actually The Most Super-Interesting Person In Politics," which consists of a bunch of (mainly staged) somewhat amusing photos of Paul. Or this story on a relatively unfunny parody Twitter account purporting to be a Rangers regiment threatening ISIS. Or this article about how you can get your photo taken with Marco Rubio (honestly, who gives a shit?). A sizable segment of BuzzFeed's politics content is politics porn for kind of the undiscriminating doe-eyed D.C. staffer or political junkie who fantasizes about meeting a senator.

There's nothing wrong with fluff, which is usually harmless and often quite fun. But whereas most journalistic environments fluff exists to popularize and subsidize a publication's more laborious reporting, BuzzFeed's fluff is by and large the venture. As Uloops' Hsing Tseng pointed out last year, "any online news org has ads to support the running of their site and paying their staff, but BuzzFeed is designed around this concept instead of being forced to rely on it as many news orgs are."

How right is Tseng? New York magazine'sAndrew Rice describes the process by which BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti built the site: a way to snatch the attention of advertisers:

Peretti wanted to fabricate memes, and after years of experimentation, he built BuzzFeed as a shop to do so. He didn’t do it for the news, or the movie gossip, or the cute pictures of pandas. Beneath BuzzFeed’s cheery gloss lies a data-driven apparatus designed to figure out what makes you click. Peretti is aware that if he really has divined that secret — if he can reliably manufacture, at mass scale, content you will want to share—he will have developed an asset of immense value.

[...]

Peretti’s assembly line produces hundreds of posts a day, applying his theories of virality to both original articles and — more important to BuzzFeed’s mission — on behalf of paid advertisers. BuzzFeed’s ads are meant to be just as clickable as the site’s most popular and uplifting posts. Prominent clients include GE, Pepsi, VW—and Nike.

Later in the piece, Rice discusses Peretti's vision for content:

Peretti says that twentieth-century media businesses sowed the seeds of their own destruction by treating advertising as a “necessary evil.” He, by contrast, doesn’t care whether a post is produced by a journalist or sponsored by a brand, so long as it travels. He’s a semiotic Darwinist: He believes in messages that reproduce. “Some editorial content sucks, some ads are awesome,” Peretti told me, “and for many readers this line is even more important to them than church and state.” Within BuzzFeed, he’s stressed that creating custom-designed advertising posts is just as important as writing the hard news and soft candy.

Behold the synthesis of advertising and journalism, or what Andrew Sullivan aptly described as "an ad agency with some journalistic window dressing." It's journalism, entertainment, and advertising bundled into one happy unit. In a leaked e-mail to staff, Peretti described the sales team as being as critical as its journalists and entertainment writers.

So at BuzzFeed, traffic and virality are the goal. As the site bulked up its newsy end in 2013, it did so with the express intent of snatching views and the accompanying revenue. In one example, Josh Benson of Capital New Yorktold the New York Times that he believed BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith left Politico for the site because "He's got that entrepreneurial thing. He's not content to make doughnuts." In the same piece, Smith admitted, "Twitter at times has served as our copy editor." Macy Tracy at The New Republic, accused the emerging the politics section of producing "endless stream of scooplets devoid of context or deep meaning," pointing out that the site usually presents its highest-viewed posts as its best content (not a good metric). He also noted many of its self-declared best stories were repackaged content from other outlets.

In many cases, BuzzFeed's formula works well. As Philip Bump of Mediaitenoted back in 2012, the short, punchy posts BuzzFeed produces often cut out unnecessary filler. In others, though, traffic-chasing and lapses in editorial standards have led to some ethical quandaries. One of them is that the BuzzFeed formula can be used for evil, such as the site's attempts to build out a conservative fanbase. Once the site had to apologize for a vicious user-submitted smear piece on Planned Parenthood, but then denied responsibility. It gave the Heritage Foundation high-profile space to slam Obamacare, repackaging conservative attacks with cute cat GIFs. A glowing and uncritical profile of Paul Ryan by Coppins happily promoted the right-winger as a protector of the poor who had undergone a spiritual epiphany.

There was also the time that BuzzFeed posted an unedited photograph of the lifeless body of a woman who had just been murdered by her husband, who posted it on Facebook.

Then there was Benny Johnson, the conservative BuzzFeed viral politics editor who Twitter users @blippoblappo and @crushingbort exposed as a serial plagiarist. Apparently, the site overlooked Johnson's long-running history of right-wing hack work. But hey, BuzzFeed also lets the Koch brothers sponsorthem. (Smith's right-wing bias and association with the Koch brothers has been well-documented.)

Sometimes the outfit gives the impression of mixed priorities in other ways, like when the New York Times linkedBuzzFeed Books' "no negative reviews" policy to affiliate advertising. And Josh Constine of TechCrunch has discussed how the site's future success depends on blurring the distinction between an ad and an article.

While it would be easy to dismiss BuzzFeed as an insignificant flash in the pan or silly and irrelevant, the reality is that its unique blend of laboriously constructed virality, shameless profit motive and yes, real content is turning some big heads. Not only does it keep attracting $50 million investments, it's being taken seriously by major publications and attracting hardcore talent. Other outlets want to be more like BuzzFeed as it works to shift patterns of online media consumption. But whether traditional media outlets should try to imitate a site with such a nakedly capitalistic intent and unproven track record remains an open question.

LOL.