Political and journalism circles were a-flutter Monday morning when Ben Smith, longtime blogging pundit for Politico, broke the news that Ben Smith would be joining BuzzFeed as editor-in-chief.
Smith is seen by many as part of the young political journalism establishment and his move to a site that offers up stories such as “Dogs Sticking Their Head Out of Car Windows” shocked many media watchers. The obligatory jokes about the level of depth on BuzzFeed began in earnest with Reuters social media editor Anthony de Rosa tweeting an imaginary pitch: “Mr. President, Ben from @BuzzFeed, what are your top ten Honey Badger mashups?”
The digs don’t concern BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti, who’s seen a healthy growth in traffic to his site over the past year. Peretti thinks there’s room for both LolCats and longform, in-depth journalism on his site. We spoke on the phone this morning to discuss how hiring Smith should be seen as a logical step in his site’s expansion and how social sharing may save journalism.
News distribution, Peretti says, has moved past a reliance on Google search to a reliance on sharing. “The media you share is becoming a key part of who you are,” he said, and that means that quality journalism is becoming increasingly important. People will anonymously click on a trashy gossip story, but they want to share “something that’s hilarious or smart or touching. ... People are going to share things that they’re proud of, that have an emotional resonance to them. That is good for reporters.”
Though Peretti won’t comment on BuzzFeed’s relationship to Huffington Post, it’s not hard to see this emphasis on sharing as setting the site up as a newer version of Huffington Post — a site Peretti helped co-found. What Huffington Post showed the journalism establishment about search, Peretti seems to want to show about people’s sharing habits. It’s part of why he hired Smith, who he sees as “an amazing combination of old school swashbuckling reporter and Twitter and social media fanatic.”
He said he envisions a reporting staff who inhabit the Web, and use “the whole universe of content” online to dig out stories and know how to report in the online world. It also means reimagining the way news is presented, something BuzzFeed has already begun to do, with short posts about Newt Gringrich’s views on Palestine and with visually strong posts, such as their hugely successful photo essay “The Most Powerful Images of 2011.”
How that style will translate with deeply reported content remains to be seen, but Peretti has big plans. His staff grew from 25 to 60 people this year, and he just moved into offices that can fit twice that amount. “I’m excited about 2012,” he said.