Opinion

Jack Shafer

BuzzFeed gets serious

By Jack Shafer
December 12, 2011

BuzzFeed, the aggregation/social-media site, has thrown itself into the content creation business with some big hires. Today, BuzzFeed’s co-founder and CEO Jonah Peretti crowed about picking up Politico’s Ben Smith as its editor-in-chief. Smith, as Politico readers know, breaks news the way rioters break glass: Frequently and with glee. Last week, BuzzFeed added Whitney Jefferson and Matt Cherette from the Gawker enterprise, and a dozen new editorial hires are promised.

The addition of original content (also known as “journalism”) to the aggregator model isn’t without precedent. There are plenty of large Web sites that devote themselves to both, such as Huffington Post, Mediaite, Business Insider, Atlantic Wire, and Gawker, to name a few. But for an established aggregator like BuzzFeed to enter the original content sweepstakes at this point is a little like a slaughterhouse attaching a storefront to its entrance and opening a steakhouse in hopes of selling even more meat.

Actually, the BuzzFeed transition will be even bigger than from slaughterhouse to steakhouse. Today, it’s essentially an entertainment site, a place best known for its goofy distractions and silly videos. Smith tells Nieman Journalism Lab that his goal is to “hire reporters who get scoops the same way they have always have” with phone calls, “trips to Iowa, drinks with political operatives.”

The economics of adding original content to an aggregation site are strong. Take, for example, Fark, the popular social media and aggregation site that Drew Curtis started in 1999 and still runs. Curtis describes Fark as a bit of a closed loop: 96 percent of its traffic is “organic,” which means most of its users reach the site by directly entering its URL or by clicking a bookmark for it. Similarly, its inbound traffic of 50 million page views a month is equal to its outbound traffic of about 50 million clicks to other sites. This means that that on average, Fark visitors tend to click one link out to one original page for each page of Fark that they consume.

“I could double my traffic overnight if I started doing original content,” Curtis says. Original pieces would obviously attract additional page views. More elaborate summaries of other sites’s stories by staffers, especially summaries that are especially insightful or argumentative, could possibly capture many of the page views that Fark currently sends to the story originators (in its current iteration, Fark provides only a snappy headline for the outbound links).

Such a bundle of original copy and full-throated summaries could also attract links from search engines, something that the current Fark almost never gets. Curtis says he hasn’t staffed up with original content because he doesn’t have to—he’s self-funded with no investors to please. “We’re trying to retain what we’re doing,” Curtis says. Quantcast puts his monthly traffic at 1.7 million visitors, compared to 16.6 million for BuzzFeed and 62.4 million for Huffington Post.

“It’s difficult to self-fund that kind of expansion. I don’t have resources to hire 10 people right now unless there’s 100 percent chance of success because anything less would mean the increase in overhead would run us out of business in 3-6 months,” he adds.

BuzzFeed has a number of outside backers, making the editorial additions less of a gamble. According to the New York Observer, they include Softbank, Hearst Interactive, RRE Ventures, and Ken Lerer, who is Peretti’s BuzzFeed partner, and like Peretti helped found the Huffington Post.

The trick to leveraging BuzzFeed into a HuffPo competitor will be to 1) do what HuffPo does, only do it better or 2) do something HuffPo doesn’t do. BuzzFeed’s newsroom, which is outgunned by at least 10 to 1, can’t do what HuffPo does better. So it will have to settle for doing something different. Apparently that will be to use the social- and sharing-power of the site to, as Peretti told Nieman‘s Megan Garber, “build the definitive social news organization.”

How difficult will it be to attract the sort of readers who want to share political news or even care about it? The content tabs at the top of the current BuzzFeed home page tout “LOL,” “Cute,” “Win,” “Fail,” “OMG,” “Geeky,” “Trashy,” “WTF,” and “Random,” and the site’s official welcome to Smith gave him the extreme LOL treatment. That’s not to say that inserting a “Politics” tab into the mix will be impossible, but it will depend on BuzzFeed’s viral engine kicking in hard and Smith getting the scoops he promises.

I admire Smith’s work, so I have far fewer worries about him producing quality journalism than I do of him attracting the audience he deserves. Obviously, he can’t carry the site to new heights all by himself. BuzzFeed needs to add a couple more original content tabs—entertainment, business, tech, and lifestyle—just to pinch a few from HuffPo’s navigation banner, to make BuzzFeed a complete news destination rather than a fun niche.

And thus the daily newspaper is reborn again.

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ILLUSTRATION: Anthony DeRosa. Photo Daniel J. Sieradski via Flickr.

 

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