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“A very natural thing for me”: Politico reporter Ben Smith on his move to Buzzfeed

The veteran blogger will be testing the limits of original news content on the social web.

Late last night, in a move “sure to surprise the political and journalistic classes,” Buzzfeed announced that it’s made a new hire: Ben Smith. The Ben Smith, of Politico fame, the blogger who helped define what it means to be a political reporter who just happens to do his reporting in the digital space.

“Ben is a new breed of reporter who merges journalistic values with digital fluency,” Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti told me, in an email, of the hire. “He grew up in newsrooms and knows how to chase down a scoop. But he is web native and understands how social media moves a story.”

So, starting January 1, Smith will leave his blog at Politico (he’ll stay on as a weekly columnist) to become Buzzfeed’s editor-in-chief. He’ll be charged with expanding the social aggregation site’s editorial coverage through the launching of new content sections (topics to be announced), the writing of his own content, and the hiring of reporters whose work he’ll be editing.

Yep, reporters. More than a dozen of them, in fact.

“My basic view, all along, has been that you can take the values of good, straight reporting and apply them” to web reporting, Smith told me in a phone call. At the same time, though, “you don’t have to be yoked to the conventions.” The online space is above all an experimental space.

Smith is known not just for his reporting, but also for the the entrepreneurial drive he brings to it; as surprising as his move to Buzzfeed might be on the surface, it’s also a logical place for him to experiment with combining traditional reporting and experimental methods of social distribution. As he puts it: “This just seems like a very natural thing for me.”

The idea is to continue the type of work he’s been doing at Politico — reported blogging — and to combine that content with the social elements of Buzzfeed. So: Reporting, amplified. Reporting, viral-ized. Smith and Peretti will be starting from the premise — less a theory than “just the reality for me,” Smith says — that people are now mostly (and increasingly) getting their news from social sources like Twitter, Facebook, and aggregators. Journalism is increasingly part of the social web. And “when you think of your news organization that way,” Smith says, “it’s very liberating.”

And within the social space, Smith points out, one of the things people most like to share is news that is actually, you know, new. As Peretti told me last week, people are increasingly aware of themselves not just as consumers of content, but as curators of it. They increasingly appreciate the role they play as, if not breakers of news, then disseminators of it. And that means that newness itself has viral potential — and that Buzzfeed, newly Smith-ified, will put a premium on new content. Explanatory reporting, as well as Buzzfeed standbys like graphics and video content, will also be part of the mix — but the core of it all will be hard news. “Great reporting and scoops will speak for themselves,” Smith says.

And though Smith and his team will certainly be using all the tech tools at their disposal to get those scoops — Buzzfeed’s staff “have amazing technical abilities,” Smith points out — “I’m not hiring coders,” he stresses. “I want to hire reporters who get scoops the same way they have always have.”

So…phone calls, shoe leather, boots, ground, the whole thing?

Yep: “Phone calls, trips to Iowa, drinks with political operatives,” Smith says.

All that will mean big changes for Buzzfeed, which has so far been known less for reporting the news than for providing friendly distractions from it. But “I think Buzzfeed wants to do something really new — different from what it’s been doing, and different from what anyone else is doing,” Smith says. “We want to be a real, important voice on topics people care about.”

Smith describes his new role as “trying to help build the first true social news organization — that is, an outfit built on the understanding that readers increasingly get and share their news on Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms.” Peretti’s vision is equally grand: to build, he told me, “the definitive social news organization.”

The challenge in all that — and, potentially, the big opportunity — will be to combine reporting and reach to maximum effect. And to combine the distractional element of Buzzfeed with the informational. As one Twitterer put it, “So many people think its cool that @benpolitico is going to @buzzfeed, but look at @buzzfeed, complete pap, and old-paradigm as well.”

To which Smith replied: “Stay tuned.”

Image via Politico.

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Joseph Lichterman    Aug. 26, 2014
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  • Lauren Indvik ★

    Wondering if ‘first true social news organization’ is a glorified way of describing a content farm where headlines & content are optimized for social shares rather than search rankings.

  • Jared Keller

    And festooned with shiny baubles, er, share buttons

  • Megan Garber

    You guys make a good point: Buzzfeed 2.0 will definitely have to navigate a tension between the informational and the clickable. And it could easily become just the Vegas of the Internet: flashy, full of cheap buffets, kind of sad.

    But I’m more optimistic about the vision for the site, mostly because I’m really interested to see how they deal with the tensions they’ve set up for themselves. The impression I have is that, while SMO will inevitably be part of their strategy, the real novelty here is the focus on original reporting — which will be done by over a dozen reporters, across different content verticals. So often, we assume that quality and clickability are mutually exclusive. That’s a defeatist assumption, and I’m excited about any experiment that challenges it (or, at least, that tries to add some nuance to it). And I’m hopeful for any effort that tries to combine quality and shareability into a singular strategy. 

    And if, for Buzzfeed, that strategy ends up involving honey badgers and/or Ryan Gosling…all the better. :)

  • Jared Keller

    Speaking to the point about quality and clickability, I actually think that Buzzfeed may have a better chance of achieving the “mullet model” that’s been successful than conventional news sites EXACTLY because it was born on memes and shiny baubles. The whole idea of a social news site — or a “probabilistic magazine brand,” as Alexis is fond of saying — is that content that’s important to people will do well, regardless of what it is. Buzzfeed has spent the time cultivating not just an audience, but an engaged community willing to serve as a kinda of force amplifier for content, and they did this — much as HuffPo did — by building viral infrastructure into the site. In my opinion, transitioning your content towards the “more serious” is much easier than transitioning your content to a better viral stew by long-form with galleries and a sprinkling it with share buttons. Not only is Buzzfeed going to beef up its high-quality reportage, but it already has the infrastructure in place to extend the reach of those scoops.

  • Megan Garber

    Very much agree! Great points.

    And, totally, I think BuzzFeed’s intention is to marry infrastructure with information to preserve current readers and win new ones — not to mention to improve the pitch it’s able to make to advertisers. (A Ben Smithian audience is, for better or for worse, usually a lot more valuable to marketers than a LolCatsian one.) And I definitely think BuzzFeed, the brand, can expand to accommodate both memes and scoops. But it’ll be interesting to see the rollout of the strategy that informs that expansion. (Peretti’s mullet approach, I think, is key here — not to mention fun to talk about!; thanks for mentioning it.)

    Meanwhile, I like what Peretti told Business Insider: BuzzFeed’s new strategy is about “making content people are proud to share.” That’s a powerful idea, I think. In terms of the probabilistic brand, shareability itself is what may give BuzzFeed its coherence and its purpose as an outlet. Which could be — for the site’s reporters, and for its fortunes as a media property — a really liberating thing.