Digital Journalism: The Next Generation

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Chang W. Lee/The New York Times/Redux
Jonah Peretti (left), cofounder and chief executive of BuzzFeed, with Ben Smith (center), its editor in chief, New York City, August 2014

1.

It was with great anticipation that I arrived for my appointment at the editorial offices of BuzzFeed on West 23rd Street in Manhattan. Among journalists, no other website has stirred more interest, resentment, or envy. “Why BuzzFeed Is the Most Important News Organization in the World,” ran the headline atop a recent post by a widely read tech blogger. The answer boiled down to BuzzFeed’s having found a business model that allows it to enjoy “true journalistic independence.” (That model is “sponsored content”—copy that is produced jointly by BuzzFeed and an advertiser to blend in with editorial copy, with a small, inconspicuous identifier of the sponsor.) In 2014, BuzzFeed’s revenues surpassed $100 million (or so the company says—it’s privately held and publishes no financial records). Its post in February asking people to vote on the colors of a woman’s dress—was it white and gold or black and blue?—became a national sensation, attracting more than 38 million views.

Earlier, in a tour of first-generation digital news sites, I found most of them stuck in place, unable to advance beyond their initial innovations.* I was now visiting a second generation to see whether they’ve done better at harnessing the unique powers of the Internet. BuzzFeed was founded in 2006 by Jonah Peretti and Kenneth Lerer, both of whom helped create The Huffington Post, and though the site is only a year younger than that organization, it’s generally considered the face of journalism’s future, so it seemed a good place to begin.

From the start, BuzzFeed has been known for its lightweight listicles (list + article), jaunty GIFs (brief animated clips), teasing headlines, and, most of all, cute cats and dogs. When the site a while back announced that it was looking for an associate editor for animals, it received hundreds of applications. At a certain point, however, BuzzFeed realized that it could not live by listicles alone—that its readers were as interested in news and current affairs as they were in celebrity and pop culture. In December 2011, BuzzFeed hired Ben Smith, a respected blogger at Politico, to strengthen its coverage of the 2012 election campaign.

After the Boston marathon bombing sent a surge of traffic to the site, BuzzFeed brought over Lisa Tozzi from The New York Times to build a breaking-news team. It also hired Miriam Elder, a correspondent for The Guardian in Moscow, to create a world desk; it now has a dozen reporters and editors stretching from Mexico City to Nairobi. In 2013 BuzzFeed formed an investigative unit and to run it hired Mark Schoofs, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist at ProPublica. Last August, BuzzFeed added to its home page a news feed to run parallel to its…


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