A quick note: Chris Dixon of Hunch has posted the full text of a memo sent by BuzzFeed’s CEO, Jonah Peretti, to his staff listing what he sees as the strengths of BuzzFeed. The site has plenty of detractors – not a few of whom added their comments and criticism onto Dixon’s post. It is not overall a site that the typical news organization could or should try to duplicate on a local level. But there is much in the memo that resonated with me as philosophically sound approaches to media, at all levels, in the digital age, and just because a whole thing is not something to try to duplicate doesn’t mean there aren’t parts and practices you could learn from.
How I would summarize the parts of the memo that resonate with me: The goal is building something sustainable in the long term. To do this, you pursue practices that build your credibility with your audience. Driving traffic is nice, but if it undermines what you want your audience to associate with you, it’s not sustainable.
What BuzzFeed wants its audience to associate with it is “the most talked about items” on the Web. You can argue about the choices the site’s staff make in that pursuit, but being in the thick of the buzz of your community has to be one of your main goals. If you aren’t in it, you’re on the periphery of everyone’s attention, and it’s hard to build a sustainable business out there.
Highlights of what stood out to me:
“When you compare web publishing today with what Hearst and Conde Nast built in the last century, it is clear that online publishing has a long long way to go. As sites like Facebook and Twitter mature, the moment is right to build a defining company for a world where content is distributed through sharing and social media instead of transitional print and broadcast channels.”
“We care about the experience of people who read BuzzFeed and we don’t try to trick them for short term gain. This approach is surprisingly rare.
“How does this matter in practice? First of all, we don’t publish slideshows. Instead we publish scrollable lists so readers don’t have to click a million times and can easily scroll through a post. The primary reason to publish slideshows, as far as I can tell, is to juice page views and banner ad impressions. Slideshows are super annoying and lists are awesome so we do lists!
“For the same reason, we don’t show crappy display ads and we make all our revenue from social advertising that users love and share. We never launched one of those ‘frictionless sharing’ apps on Facebook that automatically shares the stories you click because those apps are super annoying. We don’t post deceptive, manipulative headlines that trick people into reading a story. We don’t focus on SEO or gaming search engines or filling our pages with millions of keywords and tags that only a robot will read. We avoid anything that is bad for our readers and can only be justified by short term business interests.
“Instead, we focus on publishing content our readers love so much they think it is worth sharing. It sounds simple but it’s hard to do and it is the metric that aligns our company with our readers. In the long term is good for readers and good for business.”
“[D]oing something hard can actually be an advantage for a business. It means that there are not that many other people trying to do what we do or capable of doing what we do. … There are lots and lots of things that random, unpaid web users suck at doing. In particular, the best reporting and the most entertaining media is usually created by people who do it for a living – that means us!”
“BuzzFeed is unique in that we are equally obsessed with 1) entertaining content, 2) substantive content, and 3) social advertising. The teams that focus on each of these areas are equally important which is a key part of our success. We want our cute animals, humor, and animated gifs to be the best of their kind on the web – they aren’t just a cheap way to generate traffic. We want our reporters to have the best scoops, the smartest analysis, and the most talked about items – they aren’t just a hood ornament to lend the site prestige. And we want our advertising to be innovative, inspiring, and lead the shift to social – and not just be a necessary evil that pays the bills.
“Some companies only care about journalism and as a result the people focusing on lighter editorial fare or advertising are second class citizens. Some companies only care about traffic which creates an environment where good journalists can’t take the time to talk to sources or do substantive work. Some companies only care about ad revenue and actually force editors to create new sections or content just because brands want to sponsor it.”
7/26/12 UPDATE: The Nieman Journalism Lab has a related article on BuzzFeed’s experiments to reinvent the wire story for the social Web. I think the key thing for others, especially local media organizations, to keep an eye on is the principal of looking for the best way to convey the information at hand, not just defaulting to a traditional, paragraph-based story:
“[O]n any given day news on the site doesn’t have to take a predictable shape. It could be a collection of photos, a dominant photo with links, or a collection of quotes.
“ ‘It’s something that does the work of a wire story and informs people about this very important piece of international news in this way that was authentically in the language of the social web,’ Smith said.
“While Smith wants BuzzFeed to tinker with wire stories and try new ideas, that doesn’t mean the site won’t be producing more traditional looking stories. He told me one reason he wants his reporters to think smarter about wire stories is to free them up for original reporting.”