There was a moment a few months back when it looked like Buzzfeed had a plan to produce some interesting political journalism. They started hiring real writers, brought on Politico’s Ben Smith, and looked to be covering topics in a semi serious manner. Reported the NYTimes:
On Mr. Smith’s fourth day with the company, BuzzFeed broke the news that Senator John McCain would endorse his former rival Mitt Romney, a significant scoop in the minute-to-minute world of campaign reporting. And last July, the reporter Rebecca Elliott published a deeply reported investigative article on the conditions at a hospital in Afghanistan that was being financed by the United States government.
Mr. Smith is also using his Washington connections to help BuzzFeed raise its profile among the politics-and-punditry crowd. When the site held its first political-convention party last August in Tampa, Fla. (staged at the Florida Aquarium and entitled “Party Animals”), Mr. Smith could be seen working a crowd that included Howard Fineman of The Huffington Post, Craig Unger of Vanity Fair and Chuck Todd of NBC.
But then it stopped, and Buzzfeed reverted to type and became, well, crap again. The ridiculous debacle over the detention of Palestinian filmmaker Emad Burnat at LAX highlighted that Buzzfeed was still a pretender in the game. Staff writer Tessa Stuart wrote a story taking issue with Michael Moore and Burnat’s version of events, and asked whether the whole thing was a big “publicity stunt”. It turns out it wasn’t a publicity stunt, and Buzzfeed hadn’t bothered to check the story out properly. It left the site looking like an amateur publication weighing in on a serious matter it really shouldn’t have gone anywhere near. To get an understanding of the type of journalism and the audience Buzzfeed is going for, you just need to look at their title banner:
Hiring Ben Smith of the ‘Very Serious Politico‘ is all fine and dandy, but when your reporting is divided in to categories used by teenage girls commenting on each other’s Facebook photos, you really can’t expect too much. Just take one of their top stories over the last few days, a play by play of the tweets between Virginia Senator Mark Warner, Brett Wanamaker and his press secretary, Beth Adelson. Without boring you to death, Wanamaker basically used Adelson’s twitter account to propose to his girlfriend, and Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski thought it was “The cutest thing ever”, and posted screen shots of the proposal detailing all 13 tweets that were sent between the trio. Riveting stuff.
Adrien Chen at Gawkerdid some digging, behind the content pumped out at Buzzfeed, and discovered that not only does most of the site’s traffic come from copying and pasting top ten lists, it doesn’t actually bother to give credit to the original sources half the time:
I dipped into the BuzzFeed archives and found they’re filled with passages copied from other outlets with no credit. Consider the output of BuzzFeed senior editor Matt Stopera. Stopera’s one of BuzzFeed’s most popular editors; he makes regular appearances on Headline News and was the subject of a Businessweekprofile, which lauded his ability to assemble massively viral lists at lightning speed. “It suggests somebody has cracked a code,” wrote Businessweek.
A key part of that code is copying and pasting chunks of text into lists without attribution. For example Stopera’s “13 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the Movie ‘Clueless” is comprised almost solely of sentences copied from the IMDB trivia page for Clueless, with no sign that they are anything but his own words.
Buzzfeed’s strategy seems to be as follows: Write some semi serious/hack like journalism to get taken seriously by power players in Washington, then drive traffic by posting pictures of cats, and copy other people’s work without crediting it.
And sadly, given the site was recently valued at $200 million, that strategy seems to be working. If that’s the model everyone is going for, then the industry is, to put it bluntly, completely fucked.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.