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Cheezburger’s Ben Huh says news organizations should think like teenagers if they want to survive

Huh’s new news startup Circa, set to launch this summer, aims to re-imagine news consumption for a meme-friendly time.

If the Internet has taught us anything, it’s that people are really into anthropomorphized cats. They’re good for a chuckle, sure, but their popularity gets at the more interesting question of why and how we share online, and what that means for the changing ways in which we engage with all kinds of information, from lolcats to hard news.

Self-described Internet culture connoisseur Ben Huh is probably best known as CEO of Cheezburger, the hub for sites like I Can Has Cheezburger, FAIL blog, and Know Your Meme. He’s also a co-founder and board member of the hyped startup Circa, which bills itself as “news, re-imagined,” but has so far kept quiet about how it’s doing the re-imagining. (The site’s expected to formally launch this summer.) For now, there’s this, from its landing page: “Our vision is to create the best possible news experience by optimizing for truths, encouraging diversity, and empowering readers.”

I caught up with Huh at ROFLCon, an Internet culture conference at MIT, to ask him about his observations on journalism, and where he thinks the industry is headed.

Adrienne LaFrance: I know you’ve talked in the past about what you see as issues with distribution, and the idea that people have been structuring stories the same way for a really long time and it’s time to re-examine that.
Ben Huh: We’re arriving at a time of incredible change because one of the things that humanity invented — the Internet and technology — is really taking off. What we have to do is we have to use that piece of technology and rethink the world, because it’s gotten us an amazing amount of efficiency. What it’s also done is changed people’s expectations about what content is, and how we make it work. At Cheezburger, that’s humor. At Circa, it’s journalism. If we have to re-look at how people’s behaviors are changing, there are enormous opportunities for companies like us to recreate media in a native format for the Internet.

In every single instance that there’s been gigantic change in the media business, a native format has appeared. So with TV, it was soap operas, daily talk shows, sitcoms, one-hour and 30-minute newscasts, and those things didn’t exist before television.

LaFrance: There were soap operas on the radio. I know what you’re saying, though.
Huh: Yes, right. Thank you for that clarification. But sitcoms, for example — or let’s take a step back — the phenomenon of rock stars only emerged after television because it used to be that you would listen to artists. Rock and roll came about because young people adapted to television, and said, “Not only am I going play music well, but I’m also going to do things on stage that are visually appealing because there’s this new format called television.” Look at something like the Nixon/Kennedy debate.
LaFrance: The classic Journalism 101 example.
Huh: Yeah, exactly. So it pains me to see that journalism isn’t rethinking everything from scratch. For me, I’m looking at content from scratch. Okay, how do you actually rebuild content from the bottom up? We’re at a conference about Internet culture, viral videos, and really it’s more of a celebration and academic dissection. But at the end of the day, we’re glomming onto this brand new format.

I’d like to think that 10 to 20 years from now, this is not uncommon, this is not unusual, and we would remember this time as maybe a time of innocence and naïvité a little bit, because we didn’t perhaps recognize what we see today as the future. The reason memes have become a native of the Internet — you literally couldn’t have this cycle of creation and remixing and destruction and recontextualization without the Internet.

LaFrance: When we look at news that intersects or overlaps with meme-y culture, I think of something like Buzzfeed. They have the immediacy and seem to want their stuff to get spread around quite a bit in a way that is hard to imagine offline — trying to turn a random girl standing behind Ron Paul into a thing, for example.
Huh: I think what Buzzfeed is doing what Huffington Post did with SEO. I don’t think what they’re doing is meme-like, I think they’re just creating social bait. They’re not among the memes of Internet culture other than, oh, this thing gets a lot of shares because it feels authentic and homegrown, just as search-engine optimization grew the Huffington Post.

With us, we’re really part of Internet culture, and that’s where we want to be. We’re trying to get more people to make more stuff that will get featured in Buzzfeed. We want to be the source of all that. And we don’t want to do it ourselves — we want to give our users a platform to do so. I think from a philosophical perspective, CanvasChris [Poole]‘s company — and we have more in common because we’re they’re to regenerate content, recontextualize it and give people the platform to do so.

LaFrance: When you look at this kind of re-invention, what if anything do you think needs to be carried over from the old days?
Huh: That’s a very good question. There are things I would like to see carried over from the old days.
LaFrance: And when I say the old days, that can mean today.
Huh: Yeah, yeah. I’m glad because you have to see yourself 10 years out. What do we need to preserve? Well, back in the 1890s when journalism had its heyday…
LaFrance: Well…
Huh: …depending on who you ask. You know, muckrakers and the golden age of newspapers. They had a very, very different standard. I’m going to be a little bit meta and say I don’t really care what gets carried over as long as the outcome is a better society. And “better” is a very subjective term, so I’ll define that. More diverse in terms of ideas, a broader community that cares about the truth and the facts, a much more vigorous debate, and a more civil debate.

Those are the outcomes I’m looking for. It doesn’t necessarily mean that journalists have to do those things in order for that outcome to occur. And I would caution people from mixing those things together. So, civil society emerged even though journalists were doing crazy stuff in the 1890s, and that’s okay. We learned that there isn’t a linear progression of ideas. Like, Cheezburger didn’t come from a bunch of guys going, “How do we make cat pictures funny?”

LaFrance: “These cats look pretty good, but they could be a lot funnier.”
Huh: Yeah, so it wasn’t “It’d really be more interesting if we put captions on them. How do we create a hub site about Internet memes and culture? Then we’ll aggregate a bunch of stuff and give people tools to do more.”
LaFrance: So it has to be organic.
Huh: I don’t think it has to be organic, I think it’s going to be organic, and we don’t have much choice in that. When you connect every person on the planet with one another, things organically emerge. And for a guy who comes from the world of user-generated content, who wakes up every day and goes, “yeah, there will be content in our inbox,” and it’s how our business operates, I have a far more trusting view of how society will behave.

And I think it’s my job as an entrepreneur to create systems and platforms that encourage that kind of creativity. That’s what my role is. It’s not about worrying about how do we directly influence. In this election cycle, people have approached us and said, “You really know how to make this content work for young kids. We’ve got to get these young kids. We want to do all this stuff and make sure we have memes and everything,” and it’s like maybe not. Maybe stick to what you’re good at, and be open-minded, but don’t force it because it’s not going to feel authentic.

LaFrance: I saw a tweet recently, it was something along the lines of imagining how board meetings these days involve old men sort of frantically saying “apps! apps!” to one another.
Huh: I bet you there are a lot of board meetings right now where you have people going, “how do we make these [affects French accent] mémés?”
LaFrance: One thing I’ve been thinking about, and I’m curious for your perspective on, is whether and how gamification has a place in the future of journalism.
Huh: [Laughs] There’s already a game of journalism, and it’s called “I want to be the editor.” Some people go to college and say “I want to be a reporter” or “I want to be a writer.” Then it’s “I want to be a desk editor,” then, “I want to be the editor.” So with gamification, we’ve added a lot more nuance and language to it, but the fact of the matter is it’s occurring in every day life. There are people who write to the editor and say, “I think you should print my letter” — it’s part of their game. You can either exclusively call it out, or you can implicitly make that more part of the process.
LaFrance: Do you think that gamification, however that might manifest itself, should be more part of the process?
Huh: I think that it should, but I’m afraid. I’m afraid that it’s going to be done poorly. I think that people don’t understand the real unintended consequences of applying gamification to a layer involving honesty. Any time there is an explicit incentive, people change their behavior, right? The reason Cheezburger does not pay its users for content is that if we do, it isn’t fun any more. And we’d much rather spend our money creating a platform that’s for fun than cutting people a 25-cent check every six months. That’s just not what we’re interested in doing.

People have to acknowledge — kind of going back to my original thought — when you want to create something native to the Internet, you have to really start from the ground up. And if you want to be a gamified media organization, you have to start with that from the ground up. You can’t just add a layer of gamification and think that it’s going to make anything better. There’s unintended consequences that you might not realize for years.

LaFrance: Regarding honesty, I recently talked to [game designer] Jesse Schell, who has lots of ideas about gamification and the extent to which games are becoming ubiquitous in everyday life. Talking to him about journalism, he talks about the need for a system quantifying credibility on the Internet.
Huh: Credibility for who?
LaFrance: For the public, for anyone thinking, “There’s so much information, who do I believe?”
Huh: I disagree. I totally, absolutely, positively, wholeheartedly, absolutely disagree.
LaFrance: All right, let’s hear it.
Huh: I think — among entrepreneurs, too — there’s an idealistic notion that there is a truth, a singular one truth. Among journalists, there is “the truth,” slightly liberal, slightly populist, but most of the time it’s “We’re the truth.” If you ask the people who watch Fox News who is credible, they’ll tell you Bill O’Reilly is credible. Maybe I disagree. Maybe I believe that he stretches truths a lot, but the fact of the matter is, it’s human biology to seek out shared perspective.

Creating a singular measure of credibility is a slippery slope to censorship. Like, “Oh, these people are not credible, so maybe we should all act in concert to not print their things,” or discard them. The world’s greatest ideas come from the crazies, the people on the fringe. For a while, they’re not credible, but then one day they are. So that’s a very, very dangerous idea. It smacks of centralized mind-control to me. And I’m probably extrapolating from what he’s saying really to the extreme, and I’m sure there are good ideas, but a universal credibility measure? Even if they could create such a thing, why would you? It’s very Orwellian. I don’t like that idea at all.

LaFrance: You think it goes against encouraging people to think critically for themselves?
Huh: Yeah. Imagine if they had that in Libya, and Libya had its own standard of credibility. It’s completely terrifying. One day the revolution occurred but those people who were totally not credible for decades are empowered. But when you have an Orwellian system of credibility, then you suppress movements like that.
LaFrance: Just to push back a bit, with regard to the concept of truth, there actually are facts. It’s not always as simple as “this happened today,” but how does that come into play when you think about credibility and the future of the news?
Huh: Right. Facts are very important. Facts are absolutely important. What society’s gotten really good at — we’re actually really good at the facts. What we’re really bad at is the dissemination of value-added interpretation of the facts.

If you look at great journalists, it’s not because they were able to convey the facts, it’s because they were able to convey part of the emotion on the things that are subjective to the right audience. Like Anderson Cooper down in New Orleans. That was his break-out moment and he was like, “this is B.S.” He kind of went off the rails a little bit, and became a guy who decided that he was a guy who was going to say what he wanted to say. I want more of that in journalism. It’s a very, very dangerous tool, because it’s a tool of emotion but I think we are lacking that. I think journalism became very sterile.

This thing called objectivity is B.S. We are being subjective merely by deciding what to cover and what we decide not to cover. I don’t like the term “partisan papers,” but I’m okay with the idea of more differentiated perspectives.

LaFrance: When it takes shape, will others describe Circa as partisan one way or the other?
Huh: I have no idea yet. But this idea of being partisan and being upfront about that, even with Cheezburger, we want you to self-identify and self-express your sense of humor. But we also want to get the idea that you are multi-faceted. Some people will be partisan about a specific angle but we don’t all follow into these two clean buckets. Sometimes someone goes to commenting of one website and they’ll be a real dick about something, but they’ll go to another website and they’ll be really, really nice.
LaFrance: When you look around the Internet at organizations that are doing journalistic work, who do you see as getting it at least partly right?
Huh: I think The Atlantic is doing a really interesting job. I think The Daily Beast is doing a really interesting job.
LaFrance: What, specifically, resonates with you about them?
Huh: I think The Atlantic is trying to be high integrity yet push the envelope. I think The Daily Beast is trying to push the envelope, and figure out where they stand. I’m looking for publications that are like teenagers. I think this is the part of the process where if you know who you are, then you might not make it.

I think The New York Times is going through this process right now, asking themselves the question of, “Who are we going to be in 20 years?” I actually think they’re asking it 50 years out, and I think that’s a little too long, but they are very kind of — how do you call it? — they’re a somewhat academic group, and they seem to think about themselves from outside of themselves, which is what you want.

So The Daily Beast and The Atlantic come to mind, but I actually think the best journalism comes from people who are blogging part-time. They don’t have an agenda other than finding the truth.

LaFrance: Who’s an example of someone like that?
Huh: Well, there’s not a specific person but you saw people debunking the birther movement. You had the newspapers who were just banging their heads against one another but then you had bloggers asking really interesting questions, explaining that, “You know what, this is actually how it works in Hawaii with a birth certificate.”

This is the part about being organic. The future of journalism is going to come in from some place really strange. I don’t think we have technology or the platform or the social consciousness, actually, to recognize that that’s the future of journalism. We think that the future will look linearly similar to today, because for the last 100 years, it kind of did before. But it won’t.

                                   
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  • http://twitter.com/federicacocco Federica Cocco

    You’ve got a typo there: “Libya had it’s own standard of credibility”

  • http://twitter.com/federicacocco Federica Cocco

    I’m surprised no one else has commented yet. I like what Ben Huh’s done with The Daily What and I’m quite excited by this new venture, though I think he’s jinxing it by building a hype and making lofty speeches about re-inventing journalism, before the site has even launched. 

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Joshua Benton

    Fixed — thanks.

  • Campbell

    Another typo:  ”He kind of went of the rails a little bit,” 

  • Claudybl

    Huh. Perfect social media surname.  

  • David Day

    “old men sort of frantically saying “apps! apps!” to one another.” lmfao

  • BJ Gallagher

    Great interview, thanks. I shared it with a few author friends and a couple book publishers, too, because I think Huh’s insights have implications for book publishing, too. Thanks for a thought-provoking interview! BJ Gallagher

  • Bwalker

    My whole day was ruined after reading this badly written piece this morning. Ben Huh is an amazing entrepreneur – he’s like Amazon+Walmart+the Catholic Church. He totally deserves to be celebrated. In the Business Press – not here. When you make 30 Million dollars not paying people for their contributions (because as he says above – that wouldn’t be fun) you can’t say you are the future of journalism. He says the best journalists work part time! Walmart say’s the same about it’s workers. I truly don’t begrudge Ben Huh his bank account but it is deplorable of him to pretend that he is on the side of progress. As Alan Rusbridger is fond of repeating: the phone hacking story took three years to do and it was super expensive. Tell Nick Davies he should work “part time” or “for street cred.” Really, the Nieman lab should know better – there were many many incredible people at ROFLcon and you gave this guy a blow job!