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The Jolly, Abrupt, WTF Rise of BuzzFeed

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For M’s spring issue, Matthew Lynch reported on the social media upstarts at BuzzFeed and their grand plan to reboot the news. 

To sum up this story in fewer than 140 characters: The New York Times is going through another round of layoffs, and BuzzFeed is hiring.

The site’s brilliant founder, Jonah Peretti, 39, spent years tracking what people want from the media, and he tries to give it to them. With its barrage of amusing listicles and cleverly captioned photos meant to trigger your digital-sharing impulse, BuzzFeed has developed a rather sunny disposition in its six years of existence. Its editorial voice is markedly different from the supermarket-rag vibe you find at The Huffington Post, once you scroll past its liberal façade, and has little in common with the spit-in-your-eye identity of the street-smart properties assembled by the pugnacious Nick Denton under the Gawker Media umbrella. The 200 people working for Peretti form a cheerful media army. They are forever 27 years old and they will probably win in the end.

These BuzzFeeders are like sabermetricians testing themselves against crusty old scouts; they are like egghead card-counters who win at blackjack in a mob-run casino; they are like coolheaded Nate Silvers in a land of pundit noise. To sum up the change: Last year, at the height of campaign season, The New York Times and BuzzFeed formed a partnership—and it was The Times’ idea.

Whether they know it or not, reporters and editors who have never given BuzzFeed.com a thought are probably already guiding themselves by some of the ideas Peretti put into play when he helped get the Huffington Post up and running, in 2005, as its
cofounder and first chief technology officer.

Back then, he sent stories into the world that office workers seated at their computers could not resist. His immersion in the Google algorithm influenced the editorial design of HuffPo, which became a monster while other publications, whether print or Web, held to the more romantic notion of going by their editors’ guts. Since then, Peretti has devoted his intellectual energies not so much to what will make people click but to what will make them want to share on social media.

There is a subtle difference between clickable and shareable content. You might click, for instance, on a story about the dress mishap Anne Hathaway experienced while stepping out of a car, but you may not want to add it to your Facebook feed, lest your aunts and former classmates think you’re a creep. And it seems Peretti’s idea that a 21st-century site should be built on sharing is on the money.

The other day, at BuzzFeed’s wide-open work space in Manhattan, Peretti offered not a hand but his elbow by way of greeting. It was a historic cold and flu season, and he had caught something. His eyes were bloodshot behind a pair of slender plastic-frame glasses. Whatever his malady, he was courteous enough to avoid passing it on. Peretti, whose boosters herald him as an oracle of share-era media, is hyperaware of contagion. “All of a sudden,” he said, seated in a leather armchair in his office, “it’s possible to build a big media company with sharing being the main way you would distribute content. Sharing becomes the replacement for the broadcast pipe or the printing press or any other traditional method. It’s normal people, sharing something they like with their friends—that can actually reach millions of people.” Peretti and his backers have bet the future on the idea that the social Web—the overlapping networks that include Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest, among others—has matured, that users’ constant refreshing of their feeds has become the new national front page. Everyone, they reason, is an editor and publisher, and BuzzFeed aims to fill the news hole.

To do so, Peretti has embarked on a binge not seen—and thus acutely observed—in New York media in recent years. He took Ben Smith, 36, away from Politico to serve as BuzzFeed’s first-ever editor in chief. The photo- and list-heavy posts, once BuzzFeed’s main trick, now pop up alongside work by Smith’s expanding ranks, which include investigative reporter Michael Hastings, 32, whose 8,000-word Rolling Stone profile of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal led to the officer’s resignation in 2010; tech writer-editor Matt Buchanan, 27, the former editor of Gizmodo; fashion reporter Amy Odell, late of New York; entertainment-industry specialist Richard Rushfield, 44, formerly of Gawker and The Los Angeles Times; Andrew Kaczynski, 23, a tapehead genius who made a hobby out of his incredible knack for finding sticky content when he was an undergraduate at St. John’s University; and food writer Emily Fleischaker, 29, who was lured away from Bon Appétit. As 2012 rolled on, suddenly BuzzFeed was not only cute and fun—it was relevant.

“For me, it’s three things: news, entertainment, and advertising,” Peretti said. “These three giant industries all have these same deep legacy issues. They are ready for a refresh and ready for a new generation of new companies that have fresh ideas about it. News is really important, but some of our content is purely entertainment. Cute animal pictures or whatever—that’s not news, it’s entertainment. There’s actually a lot of entertainment in newspapers. The Sunday Styles is entertainment.”

So BuzzFeed is now a place where Ben Smith can break the story of John McCain’s endorsing Mitt Romney, as he did last year (200 Facebook “likes”), as well as post one about Willie, a runaway 70-year-old box turtle (846 “likes”). Cast against the atrophying traditional print media, BuzzFeed’s rise looked all the more dramatic. As The Times continued to offer more buyouts than employment opportunities, Newsweek folded its print edition two months shy of its 80th birthday. Other magazines are thin, with ad pages having fallen 32 percent since 2008. And here is BuzzFeed, with its growing staff and a permanent HELP WANTED sign in the window.

Peretti’s glass-walled command station occupies the middle of the 11th floor of a nondescript building in the Flatiron District. Large, round Crayola-yellow installations adorn the white walls. They are labeled “LOL,” “win,” “cute,” “OMG,” and “WTF,” as are the clickable badges that accompany each of the site’s posts as a way to goad readers to up-vote its content to primary placement. Dressed-down employees continually tweaked the BuzzFeed content management system, crafted its advertisements, and clocked its monthly unique visitors—which hit 40 million in December, according to internal Google Analytics, up from 24 million the previous January. Most important, they tracked the stats measuring which posts are being shared on social media. In the ample kitchen area around the corner, two perky baristas from the boutique teahouse David’s Tea, aware of a captured demographic, offered samples of its Chocolate Chili Chai holiday blend.

On the floor above, the bulk of BuzzFeed’s 70 positively charged editorial staff members were conceiving and writing (or assembling) posts. From the outfit’s launch in 2006 until fairly recently, its editorial stock-in-trade has been easy meme material. Catering to what Peretti calls the “Bored-at-Work Network,” the BuzzFeed writers and editors concocted things like a presentation of Tiger Woods’ sexts in Comic Sans atop pictures of incredulous kittens. They perfected the listicle, scoring with “14 Things You Need to Know About Drinking Hand Sanitizer” and “103 Pugs Wearing Little Jackets,” and they brought back digital exotica from the deeps of the Internet. “Because Facebook and Twitter were really about, in their early days, things like Internet humor and cute animals and kind of emotionally charged, or inspiring, content, these kinds of things that you see and can’t resist sharing,” Peretti said, “that’s really where BuzzFeed started.” But as Facebook and Twitter grew up post–Arab Spring, the BuzzFeed tone began to change. “The 45 Most Powerful Images of 2011,” a collection of newswire shots accompanied by the barest of captions (and a photo credit when they could manage it), earned more than 12 million page views.

Peretti, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Andrea Harner, and their young twin sons, grew up in Oakland, California. His mother was a teacher. His father worked as a criminal defense attorney. “I think both of our parents have their own little rebellious streak,” said Chelsea Peretti, a sharp standup comic who is the BuzzFeed founder’s little sister. “They’re both not super into authority. In certain ways, not explicitly, we were raised with a certain attitude about questioning authority.” In 1996, Jonah graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, with a degree in environmental studies. After that, he spent a few years teaching technology at the Isidore Newman School, the New Orleans prep school that counts Walter Isaacson, Michael Lewis, and all three Manning brothers among its alumni. Peretti professes a lifelong interest in the “intersection of technology and the humanities,” and he eventually enrolled in the MIT Media Lab’s master’s program, where he indulged it full time.

The Peretti origin story takes place on a night in Cambridge in January 2001. He had been putting off writing his thesis, and went online to order a pair of Nike running shoes. At the time Nike was offering customers the chance to stitch whatever word or phrase they wanted on their sneakers, and Peretti requested “sweatshop,” in a jab at the company’s labor practices back then. When a customer service rep balked, Peretti forwarded the ensuing exchange to 12 of his friends. The e-mail pinged from inbox to inbox until it landed him on NBC’s Today show, debating labor policy with Nike’s head of global public relations. “I was like, ‘Why am I here instead of these people who
dedicate their lives to this issue?’” he said. “It was because I made something that ordinary people wanted to share. And that kind of struck me. I was like, Wow, I made something that literally reached millions of people, without any of the things that you sort of normally had to have to reach millions of people.” (It’s worth noting that Nike is now a BuzzFeed advertiser.) He followed the Nike trick by teaming with Chelsea on two farcical sites: “Black People Love Us!” detailed an imaginary white couple’s overeager efforts to win black friends, and “The Rejection Line” offered a fake phone number for New Yorkers to rid themselves of unwanted suitors. Peretti began to earn a reputation as a hit maker in what was then called “contagious media.”

“I think of him as a cultural hacker,” said Duncan Watts, a sociologist and researcher for Microsoft and longtime friend. “The same way that a hacker looks to exploit vulnerabilities in software to make a point, Jonah does the same to make a cultural point.”

When financier Kenneth Lerer sought to put together a digital effort to maintain the Clinton-era assault weapons ban in 2003, Watts introduced him to Peretti, who was then working at the New York tech lab Eyebeam. Peretti worked on the ultimately unsuccessful StoptheNRA.com. Not much later, Lerer and Arianna Huffington enlisted Peretti to run the engine room of what would become the Huffington Post. Peretti’s know-how was integral to the site’s success.

He founded BuzzFeed as a viral lab in 2006, while he was still with HuffPo. The staff was kept at a minimum as he tinkered with technologies that could track what links were rocketing across social news feeds.  In 2011, after AOL bought the Huffington Post for $315 million, Peretti left to apply his methods full-time. Lerer, who serves as BuzzFeed chairman, was an early backer. “When I was chairman of the Huffington
Post,” Lerer said, “a lot of editors would come into the office and say, ‘I have a great idea for a Web site for women!’ or ‘I want to do a sports Web site!’ Most of them came in by themselves, without a technology partner. They weren’t ideas that you could pursue. Pure content without tech is meaningless on the Web.”

Peretti had both.

BuzzFeed secured a new round of funding on January 3, its fourth to date—an infusion of $19.3 million. The news came a year after the company had gotten a $15.5 million bump, the bulk of which has gone unspent. Thanks to its backers—New Enterprise Associates, RRE Ventures and Lerer Ventures, Hearst Interactive Media, SoftBank, and
others—the site started 2013 comfortably perched atop a $35 million pillow. It is now valued at a reported $200 million.

Ads on BuzzFeed fit in snugly with the editorial content. Peretti has evangelized against display and banner advertising that litter the Web, and so sponsors pay to have the BuzzFeed creative team—a separate entity from the editorial staff—come up with posts from “featured partners,” such as GE and McDonald’s, in the chirpy house style. They are labeled as sponsored content, but it is worth mentioning that, while researching this story, I clicked on and read through two such pieces before realizing they were ads. The prospect of having ads not only viewed but shared has generated enough revenue for the operation to turn a profit in some months. This is a lure for tech and media investors who shy away from human-capital-heavy operations like BuzzFeed.

Lerer laughed when I asked him why the company was adding to its war chest. “When is it best to raise money? Go raise money when you have the wind at your back, when you can dictate your own terms,” he said. “They have big plans to expand, to maybe buy some sites. They have big dreams and that costs a lot.”

There is a first-day-of-11th-grade vibe about the BuzzFeed newsroom, partly because of the ongoing hiring spree, which means there is always a new kid in class. If the all-around “Shiny, Happy People” mood sounds exaggerated, consider that BuzzFeed job listings stipulate that “no haters” need apply. There is also the contentedness of a workforce enamored of their jobs. Katie Notopoulos, 31, earned a reputation as Queen of the Weird Internets by curating and presenting content that is both compelling and unsettling from the upriver Web—adult diaper fetishists, dudes in their twenties who are unabashedly devoted to “My Little Pony”—on her personal Twitter and Tumblr pages. Until last year, it was an off-hours hobby. Then BuzzFeed hired her away from Warner Bros.’ e-Commerce division. “When I first started,” she said, “I got really panicky, because I’d be so nervous that Ben would see me looking at Twitter. It took a while to realize that that’s my job now.”

BuzzFeed political editor McKay Coppins, 25, a former Newsweek reporter, got Ben Smith’s attention on Twitter by sending him links on a regular basis in the hopes that he would tweet them to his many followers. Smith invited him to lunch and offered him the chance to ride the Mitt Romney campaign bus as a BuzzFeed correspondent. As the election unfolded, Coppins broke news on his own Twitter feed, which has more than 34,000 followers, in keeping with Smith’s mandate to his charges.

The ease with which BuzzFeeders make use of social media is what made the idea of a New York Times–BuzzFeed partnership attractive to Times assistant managing editor Jim Roberts, who pushed the notion past his colleagues during the last political cycle. (In January, after 26 years at the paper, Roberts took a buyout. He announced the decision on Twitter.)

“In the political space, that’s a place where people are obsessed with communications, where scoops are the coin of the realm,” Smith said. “If you’re doing news and breaking stories that people are compelled to share on Twitter and read, they don’t really care who you are and where it’s coming from. Credibility is sort of won and lost day to day.”

At the end of the election cycle, Coppins wrote a nearly 4,000-word piece on what it was like to be the only Mormon reporter covering the first Mormon presidential nominee. It has garnered 1,700 likes on Facebook, suggesting that long stories can earn their keep in BuzzFeed’s particular slice of the digisphere. After the election, Coppins was promoted to the political editor post around the time that Newsweek ceased print publication and was ingested by its digital partner, The Daily Beast. I asked him how it felt, to dodge a bullet. “I guess the polite way of saying it is that it’s good to be at a place that doesn’t feel like it’s at the edge of dying at any given moment,” Coppins said. “The growth is exciting. I worked with a lot of talented people at Newsweek, but it always felt a moment away from someone being thrown overboard.”

In November, BuzzFeed hired Steve Kandell, 42, a former editor of Spin, to edit its just-launched narrative-story initiative. “No one here thinks that long-form features are the future of survival of this place, but it’s one way to grow,” Kandell said. “At other places I’ve worked, it was, ‘Oh, man, we have to figure this out or we’re fucked.’” The presence of long pieces on BuzzFeed stirs up new issues, given that it has functioned so long on Peretti’s principle that much of what is shared online is emotionally compelling, usually in an uplifting way, thanks, in part, to the millennial generation’s enjoyment of the fantasy land of memes and to the existence of Facebook’s “like” button itself. “Lots of people have asked for a ‘dislike’ button, but there isn’t one,” Peretti said. “There probably won’t be one. Having Facebook to share the things that you like and are proud of is a good thing.”

The site has rarely shown the sharp bite of last decade’s Web natives, such as Nick Denton’s naughty young media spivs, who set the tone for what a money-making blog might look like. “We definitely are a non-haterish site,” said BuzzFeed editorial director Scott Lamb, 36. “A lot of that comes from Jonah. It’s not that he’s relentlessly positive. It’s that he’s more pop-minded than indie. We don’t want to be Pollyannas, but a lot of sharing happens among fan groups. An early tagline of BuzzFeed was ‘Find your new favorite thing.’”

But reporting the news isn’t always a sunny proposition. As George Orwell wrote, “Journalism is printing what someone else doesn’t want printed; everything else is public relations.” Now BuzzFeed is groping its way toward a balance between the terrible things that people do (and that The Times, for instance, is obliged to carry on its front page) and its own penchant for nonstop fun and profit.

The shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, which occurred just before my interviews with Smith and Peretti, provide an example of what’s in store for BuzzFeed as it presents itself not only as a repository of panda pictures but as a site that breaks news. While Smith was kicking himself for not having a reporter on the scene (BuzzFeed was among the outlets that erroneously linked to Ryan Lanza’s Facebook profile before officials clarified that his brother, Adam Lanza, was the shooter), Matt Stopera, a 26-year-old viral savant at BuzzFeed, noticed a spike in traffic for “21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity,” a previous 2012 blockbuster. Within a few hours, BuzzFeed posted a new iteration, “26 Moments That Restored Our Faith in Humanity This Year.” As of January, it had been viewed more than 5 million times.

“If we’re going to do reporting, it’s not all going to be rah-rah,” said Richard Rushfield, who has been charged with running the Los Angeles bureau. “The assurance that I’ve gotten…is that they feel that the emotional temperature is generally upbeat, but if you’re doing real reporting, and you have something new to bring to the conversation, not every story has to be positive…. I’ve written plenty of less-than-peppy pieces in my life—name-calling and finger-pointing—and I don’t need to do that anymore.”

For all his theorizing, it is tough to get a read of Peretti’s ambitions. Will he grow weary of his site’s good cheer as he moves into his forties? Is he going to flip BuzzFeed for a fortune and go on to his next mad-scientist media project? “The plan is to build a big independent media company for the social age,” he said in an e-mail. “We are having a great time, and usually the fun stops when a startup sells.”

He has the sometimes maddening aloofness of tech CEOs in the post-Jobs era, where the game doesn’t seem to be about money or winning or power or influence, but more palatable things like innovation and learning. “Having a big audience, I don’t get high from it,” Peretti said. “As BuzzFeed gets bigger, we start to get a sense of where’s the beating heart of the Internet—like, what do people want to share and where?—and we start to understand human psychology, and how do you make things that people are inspired by. To me, that’s pretty exciting, separate from just the sheer volume of it. It’s totally accidental. I never wanted to be a CEO or run a big company.”

He doesn’t seem to have designs on press barondom (although Rupert Murdoch did recently tweet a picture of himself and Peretti sharing a laugh at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show). If he keeps at it, though, that’s what could happen. He won’t be a rude, rough, difficult baron, like Murdoch, whose bearing reflects the grimy Fleet Street culture that helped mold him, but he might end up a white-hatted one, who matches up nicely with the social media world, which he has helped shape, and which may be shaping him in return. 

BuzzFeed staffers in their New York offices. Photo by Andreas Laszlo Konrath.

Notes

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