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Aug. 21, 2012, 11:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production

BuzzFeed with a press pass: What happens when the GIF kings try to take Washington?

The cats-and-celebs site has its Washington bureau in place and is preparing to mix old-fashioned reporting with new-fashioned packaging.

U.S. Capitol OMG

WASHINGTON — You should know going in that this is a story about BuzzFeed that BuzzFeed would never run. This story is longer than the last 10 articles out of the new BuzzFeed Washington, D.C. bureau combined. Some recent examples:

That last one about Kristol stands out as long, but it’s still a slender 515 words, including a 189-word blockquote excerpting from the Politico story that prompted BuzzFeed’s.

But counting words is a silly way to assess BuzzFeed content because BuzzFeed doesn’t implicitly value length.

“I’ve written stories that are several thousand words,” said John Stanton, who heads up BuzzFeed’s new Washington bureau, which opened in July and is the closest thing to a physical manifestation of the site’s expansionist plans. “I’ve also written stories that are 300 words. If something doesn’t deserve more than 300 words, you can just write it. You don’t have to backfill it.”

“A lot of our stories are 400 words or 500 words,” reporter Zeke Miller told me. “A concise hit. We’ll boil it down to a question you have, and here’s the answer. Some of my favorites are things that seem so obvious. Often just the act of doing that brands it as conventional wisdom, but it’s not actually until you say it.”

“It’s like getting blood from a stone…Like, is it Tuesday? ‘Well, off the record, I can’t tell you.'”

That BuzzFeed vision of reducing content to its most atomic, most snackable unit has worked brilliantly for celebrities, listicles, and cats — quirky hats and real-life angry birds. But just as the rest of the news Internet is getting more BuzzFeedy — cf. the suddenly everywhere animated GIF — BuzzFeed is concretizing its move into politics with an actual D.C. operation.

That actual operation doesn’t include an actual office: The three-person team works mostly out of the Senate Press Gallery in the U.S. Capitol. (Right now, only Stanton and Chris Geidner are full-time in Washington. Campaign reporter Miller will join them to cover the White House in November, and Stanton is in the process of hiring a fourth reporter.) But office or no office, Washington’s clubby press corps is paying attention.

BuzzFeed’s best pieces are something like exceptional standup comedy in that they articulate something you feel like you already knew but weren’t totally aware of. That’s what makes the site resonate as authentic, and authenticity goes a long way in the chaotic rush hour of information that is the Internet age. “The reason that people pay money to read publications, the reason that people come to your publication, is that you are a trusted voice,” Stanton said. “You should be able to call a spade a spade. You should be able to say, ‘This is silly.'”

For BuzzFeed, being a trusted voice is about sharing things with readers in the same ways that readers share with one another. First there’s the tone component:

“We did this story about an abortion vote, the D.C. abortion bill,” Stanton said. “Well, the bill was never going to go anywhere. It wasn’t even going to pass the House. And they knew it wasn’t going to pass the House. It’s just this kabuki theater. And so we wrote the lede saying this was probably the most blatant example of kabuki theater all year, which it was, and for the art, we used an image of kabuki dancers. Roll Call would never do that. It’s sort of a fun way to tell people this is just a bunch of crap that’s going on, and it’s a political vote, and if you believe in it or not, don’t think it’s going to happen because it’s just to pander to both sides.”

Then there’s structure. The value of smart analysis notwithstanding, why write a long narrative describing a video clip in words when we have the technology to publish and share video in a matter of seconds? Forward a video clip to a friend, and you might just paste the link in the body of an email with a brief message in the subject line. So, for example, if the video you wanted to share was about a campaign promise the president didn’t keep, maybe that subject line would be: “Democrats prepare to attack Paul Ryan for his proposal to overhaul Medicare for those 55 and under, but lack a clear plan themselves.” Boom. You just wrote a BuzzFeed article. If the best way to tell a finance story is through GIFs, then that’s what you should do.

But BuzzFeed Editor Ben Smith wants you to know that the Washington bureau will be doing the hard work of journalism, even if it’s packaged in a new wrapper: “We’re going to break news, and tell stories in a really compelling way. There’s no trick.”

“Who cares? Put it on the front page. If it’s news, it’s news. If it’s interesting, it’s interesting.”

If there is a trick, it’s in breaking down the divide between the light and the serious.

“It’s the whole thing of the cats versus hard news,” Stanton said. “Who cares? Put it on the front page. If it’s news, it’s news. If it’s interesting, it’s interesting.”

The shareable quick hits are a vivid part of BuzzFeed’s DNA. But what Smith means when he says the site doesn’t have any tricks is that its D.C. bureau will be run with boots-on-the-ground tenacity. The constant flow of new content to the overall site means that there’s less pressure on the political reporters to file for the sake of filing. Paradoxically, because there are only four reporters in the bureau, BuzzFeed has the luxury of being selective. If there’s no way you can do every story, you get to be choosier overall. But ultimately, it’s all “very traditional,” Stanton insists.

“I go to press conferences and hang around in hallways,” he said. “How I’m approaching the job, it hasn’t changed. Stalk people, harass people. The only thing that’s different is there’s not this — because we have so much content on our site — there’s no need for us to feed the beast. Little micro-movement stories, we don’t have to write. That frees me up a lot.”

BuzzFeed prizes speed, smart analysis, and a willingness to burst the beltway bubble and plainly tell readers what something means or why it matters. Geidner, a lawyer who joined BuzzFeed’s D.C. bureau after a stint covering Congress for the LGBT newsmagazine Metro Weekly, will contribute stories to both the politics vertical and a new LGBT vertical (a move that D.C. bureau staffers unanimously consider “brilliant”).

“When Ben [Smith] approached me about possibly coming to BuzzFeed, he said, ‘Since I was at Politico, I didn’t really understand why this wasn’t being taken seriously as a stand-alone beat. The biggest places were sort of like — the legal stories were with the courts reporter, the politics stories were with the politics reporter, the defense stories were with the defense reporter — and you sort of lost the cohesive sense of what this means in the bigger picture,” Geidner said. “I think that failure is sort of why there are all these stories of ‘When did this happen? Gay rights is now normal,’ and it’s like maybe if you’d been covering it as a cohesive unit, you would have seen it.”

BuzzFeed’s D.C. contingency also aims to disrupt White House coverage, which Stanton says Miller will cover infiltraton-style, as an outsider coming in. (Though he’s at the beginning of his journalism career, it’s somewhat of a stretch to characterize Miller as an outsider: He’s been on the presidential campaign trail since he started at BuzzFeed in January.) “I want to see if Zeke can — and I think he can — crack the White House,” Stanton said. “It’s like getting blood from a stone to get them to comment on something that should be easy to comment on. Like, is it Tuesday? ‘Well, off the record, I can’t tell you.'”

For his part, Miller says he plans to be at the White House as much as he can. Again, boots on the ground. But wanting to change the Brady Room institution is much different than actually doing it, and how to make it happen is something that Stanton and Miller say BuzzFeed will figure out as it goes.

At the bureau’s launch party in a U Street bar, things were getting meta. Four chandeliers made out of antlers! Edible BuzzFeed LOL/OMG/Win/Fail tags! Tweeting about tweeting about tweeting!

Among the few men wearing suits were a couple of guys from C-SPAN, camera crew in tow. They were mock-sheepish about being “the oldest guys here,” but they were also giddy about BuzzFeed. The two organizations are kindred spirits of sorts. Both launched from outside of the media establishment, and got attention for busting out of its traditional format.

Just beyond the entryway, a couple of youngish guys in matching thick-framed glasses peered at the list in the bouncer’s hands. “Ben Smith said I could come to this,” one said. This seemed odd, the temporary air of exclusivity, the cadence of the guy’s voice when he thought he couldn’t get in, which he did. BuzzFeed’s editorial attitude is that everyone’s invited. Cat videos are as important as serious campaign analysis. And readers aren’t stupid for liking both.

“The myth of the news is that people are stupid,” Stanton said. “Editors and publishers have been saying this for years: The public is too stupid to understand hard news. To the extent that that’s true, it’s our fault. People say, ‘Okay, fine,’ and ‘they’re only interested in a Kardashian posterior.’ But people aren’t stupid. I think we need to show people that it’s up to us to write it in a way that has the context, has a compelling narrative to it. If you give them more of this and mix it in with fluff, and it’s treated equally by the publication, the public will start to treat it the same way too.”

To the people who get what BuzzFeed is trying to do, all of this seems obvious. But the site isn’t the easiest sell in the traditional media world. Jim Roberts, an assistant managing editor with The New York Times who made a trip to Washington for the party, says orchestrating a partnership with BuzzFeed — they’ll produce video together at the conventions — took months of cajoling within the Times. “Our partnership is something I wanted,” he said. “I engineered it. I said, ‘This is something we need to do.’ I had to convince a lot of really skeptical people. It just wasn’t the easiest thing for everyone to accept.”

Stanton says the industry reaction to BuzzFeed in Washington has been welcoming thus far. Along with the Times and C-SPAN, partygoers included folks from Politico, Slate, The New Republic, Roll Call, HuffPo, and so on. Stanton says people have razzed him a little bit about the unusual mix of content on the site — and reaction to BuzzFeed’s rapid ascent calls to mind some of the conversations that took place in the early 1980s, when a colorful, graphic-rich newspaper called USA Today debuted.

Stanton: “You know, when Ben came over [to BuzzFeed], I think the entire industry was like, ‘What!?’ But the campaign coverage has become something that all the other reporters read. Sources here who have been paying attention to the campaign or have been somehow involved, they were like, ‘Oh yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah, go work for BuzzFeed. It’s a legit shop.'”

In coming months, BuzzFeed’s Washington team will work to build upon that reputation. For a group of reporters that is looking about as far into the future as the presidential debates, thinking about what they’ll be saying about BuzzFeed a year from now seems borderline impossible.

“It will be like, ‘The New York Times folding into a subsection of BuzzFeed was amazing,'” Stanton jokes. “No, I want to be able to just say that I don’t think we have screwed up and we have done our readers a service, and not a disservice, and we have not fallen into the traps of either getting too wonky down in the weeds where nobody cares or becoming so sensational that nobody trusts you. Hit them with the news but don’t hit them with any unnecessary force. You see it in a ton of publications these days. Hell, you see it in the little wars that publications have with one another. I don’t understand any of that, the catfights between publications.”

Miller, too, says he’s uninterested in neatly drawn rivalries with other publications. “It’s not that we’re peerless, it’s that we have this massive universe of peers. I want to beat all of them on everything. Maybe it’s BuzzFeed versus the Internet. Every day is us being as good as we can possibly be that day. You’re going to BuzzFeed because you want to be entertained, you want to be informed. And we will give you all of the things you are looking for. I’m competing against the Internet, so anybody on the Internet — which is just about everybody at this point — is my competition. And the Internet’s a big place.”

Oh yeah, sorry for all the words. Here’s a GIF that BuzzFeed thinks might be the greatest in the history of the Internet (I agree):

Image derived from photo by used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 21, 2012, 11:30 a.m.
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