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Internet sites offer high-brow news, low-brow fluff and everything in between. When Huffington Post co-founder and SEO wunderkind Jonah Peretti started BuzzFeed, it was best known for cute animals, “can-you-believe-that?” pop culture scoops, and a devoted community of “WTF” and “LOL” taggers. But he has since set his goals higher, seeking to create a hybrid model that incorporates everything from cat picture slideshows to political scoops.
The recent naming of Ben Smith, formerly of Politico, as editor-in-chief, heralds the transition to a news diet that involves more hard journalism, but still enough LOLs and Courtney Stodden news to keep page views high.
Whitney Jefferson, an alumna of Gawker Media was one of those recent hires, working in the verticals of pop culture and television; and feels she has joined a team with a forward-thinking business model.
“Whether it’s a follow on Twitter or subscribing to someone’s updates on Facebook, I tend to get my information from those who I value and trust on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook,” she says in an email. “I feel like it’s only a matter of time until my parent’s generation stops getting their news from crappy local papers and the evening news and decides to seek it elsewhere, even if that means it’s via their favorite local writer or anchor’s tweets or updates, but in real time.”
Jefferson notes that BuzzFeed’s strategy focuses on community engagement — its staff in this department is four times the size of her previous employers — and variety of content. “Sometimes after a downer of a story you NEED a funny cat video for some kind of catharsis. So I think BuzzFeed will excel in that kind of coverage since we clearly have the silly side down,” she says. Her bosses, Mr. Smith and Peretti agree.
“As the world has realigned from being about portals and then search and now social, how do you build a media company for a social world?” Smith told David Carr at The New York Times. “And a big part of that is scoops and exclusives and original content, and it’s also about cute kittens in an entertaining cultural context.” Peretti explained to Carr that, “People are now used to having everything mixed together in a Facebook newsfeed. A story about the Arab Spring will be next to a picture of your sister’s new baby. Why not have a publishing site that embraces those colliding worlds?”
So far the model is working, as consumers become creators and distributors of content. BuzzFeed’s 10.8 million unique visitors in December 2011 was more than twice the number from December 2010.
Matt Stopera, a BuzzFeed editor who started at the company as an intern in 2008 feels the company’s traction with readers is its willingness to try everything. “We’ve worked really hard for the past four years, we knows what works and what doesn’t,” Stopera says in an email.
There is also an element of teamwork, where all employees, editorial or elsewhere, are encouraged to post as well as comment on each other’s work. ”People from the Community, Creative, and Sales departments post on the site — as does Jonah and our President Jon Steinberg,” Jefferson says. “So not only is everyone in the office posting their own buzz, but everyone is also reacting and I cannot tell you how nice it is to see your co-workers responding to your work.”
Many other publications are taking note of Buzzfeed’s hybrid model, bringing readers a mix of silly and essential news to where they are - on Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms.
In Capital Tom McGeveran writes, “The number of people who rely on… [social] feeds to tell them what to view on the web—to use it as not just their main but really their only portal to the wide web—is constantly increasing. Right now is the time to kick everyone else out of there. That, I believe, is what BuzzFeed is being built to do.”