BuzzFeed (www.buzzfeed.com) is living up to half its name: It’s generating buzz.
Launched by Jonah Peretti, who helped start the Huffington Post (www.huffingtonpost.com) with Arianna Huffington, BuzzFeed has been dissected, praised, and critiqued in New York magazine and other leading publications.
It wants to stake out the next prototype of online magazines, going beyond its forerunners and competitors. While Newsweek has faded and Time hangs on by several threads, Buzzfeed is hiring and now has a staff of 215 writers and editors.
BuzzFeed’s mission is to “deliver high-quality original reporting, insight and viral content across a rapidly expanding array of subject areas.” It describes itself as “the leading social news organization,” a revealing phrase. It aims to disseminate news the way Facebook connects friends, encouraging its readers to circulate its stories via social media. But what does it do that other sites don’t?
It specializes in topics that emulate Salon (www.salon.com) and many other sites. Nothing revelatory there. It’s organized into Politics, Tech, Entertainment, Celebrities, Music, Lifestyle, Food, Gay Issues, Sports, Animals and More. So, clearly its major goals are to be topical, newsworthy, and popular, and cover the issues that Generation Y craves. It also hired Ben Smith, the former blogger/writer/editor from the New York Observer and Politico as its editor-in-chief, giving it immediate cachet and credibility.
Reporter Edwin McMorrison’s article shows how Progress Kentucky, a Democratic political action committee dedicated to defeating influential Republican senator, Mitch McConnell, is backfiring. In fact, he explores how the group has done more harm than good based on its goals. McMorrison said the group “has turned McConnell into a sympathetic figure, generating good headlines for him time and again.” It also hinted that Progress Kentucky masterminded the secret taping of McConnell’s bamboozling potential opponent, actress Ashley Judd. McMorrison’s article pinpointed how activist groups try to debunk and defeat opponents--sometimes not very successfully.
In another effective article, reporter McKay Coppins analyzed the chances of Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, to become its party presidential nominee in 2016. The article summarized some of Rubio’s ethical violations in the past and opined that his lengthy track record as a congressman could return to haunt him. But Coppins also noted that Rubio so far has avoided any mine fields and is primed to run for president in 2016.
Many stories focus on capturing the reader’s attention, adhering to search engine principles and avoiding substance. For example, “33 Startling Photos of Pornstars With and Without Their Make-Up On” aims to attract viewers with a catchy headline rather than exploring any worthy news. Indeed much of its entertainment pages engage readers with topics such as “15 Awesome Things You Can Make with a Stupid Pizza Box,” instead of analyzing our culture.
The British newspaper The Guardian in April 2013 lambasted BuzzFeed for repeatedly posting empty-headed articles about animals. Articles such as “31 Cats Who Have Seen Things You Wouldn’t Believe” or “60 Bassett Hounds in Costumes” will likely never be nominated for Pulitzer Prizes but seem to catch the fancy of its readers.
BuzzFeed has also been criticized because it specializes in sponsored editorials. Nike, Coca-Cola and Virgin Mobile, for example, are called “featured partners” and sponsor articles about a variety of subjects. Most newspapers carry advertisements, but separate its news columns from its ads so the news stories are independently written. Nonetheless, BuzzFeed has been attracting 40 million readers a month so most people are not deterred by the sponsored features.
Many of BuzzFeed’s entertainment articles cover the same ground as mainstream media. For example, popular comic Louis C.K., who graced the cover of Rolling Stone was also featured on BuzzFeed. When Justin Bieber said some abrasive comments visiting Anne Frank’s house, BuzzFeed followed with another story on the incident.
Launched in 2006, BuzzFeed is still finding its voice. It may break through the frivolity and seriously establish its own niche. Stay tuned.
Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.