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).