The astounding part of the New York Times-BuzzFeed video collaboration isn’t just that the New York Times is collaborating with BuzzFeed. It’s that the New York Times proposed the arrangement.
“It was Jim Roberts’s idea,” says Ben Smith, editor of BuzzFeed, referring to the Times’s assistant managing editor. When asked if that’s an accurate depiction, Roberts responds, “Well, it was my notion.” QED!
That idea is to build a relationship between an outlet that’s been covering politics seriously since 1851 with one that’s been covering politics seriously since January. (That’s when Smith came over from Politico to retool BuzzFeed). The New York Times and BuzzFeed will be producing live-streamed video from both the Republican and Democratic conventions, not to mention some stuff leading up to those big events.
So does that mean that we may see BuzzFeed’s Zeke Miller alongside, say, the New York Times’s David Leonhardt, chatting about Mitt Romney’s vice presidential selection? Yes, among other enticing combos, says Smith.
Content- and video-sharing partnerships are generally the snooze material of the media beat. They’re always getting announced, they rarely work and they almost never mean anything. Write about them only when there’s absolutely nothing left to tilt at.
Here we have an exception to that sturdy rule. Regardless of how this partnership plays out, its very existence is remarkable, for two reasons.
1) What is says about the New York Times. Is there a coverage area that the masters of the New York Times prize as greatly as politics? Certainly not sports. Maybe foreign coverage. Or Sunday Styles.
But really: With its hulking Washington bureau and a political sensibility penetrating more and more sections — the Home section carried the controversial story about Mitt Romney’s NIMBY problem in La Jolla, Calif. — the New York Times finds its pride in politics.
That pride is changing, too, from a belief that the New York Times exists to tell people to one that emphasizes also listening to people. What sold the New York Times on the BuzzFeed partnership was its staff’s fluency on social media — the ability to command a large following and to strike up the sorts of online conversations for which older, well-paid, traditional newspaper reporters aren’t famous.
So the partnership with BuzzFeed represents a recognition from high spots on the org chart that even though the New York Times’s political coverage may be comprehensive, well edited and expertly written, it’s not everything. And the part of “everything” that it’s missing is just what BuzzFeed supplies. “If things work out,” says Roberts, “it does a couple of things — it creates some interesting video and equally important is exposing the great journalism in print and on the Web to a broader and more diverse and — dare I say? — younger audience.”
2) What it says about BuzzFeed. The story of BuzzFeed’s transformation from novelty site to political-reporting force under Smith’s leadership is a very, very well covered one. The media’s affection for the site, though, is a merit-based proposition: If BuzzFeed isn’t breaking out morsels of news on the national political scene, it’s digging up a fascinating archival video or obsessing over, say, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism.
Yet the press release about the partnership on the New York Times Web site provides official recognition of BuzzFeed’s eight-month ascension. Smith puts it this way: “We’re really trying to do good, original journalism with the kinds of journalistic values that the New York Times stands for. So, yes, I’m psyched that they want to do this with us,” says Smith. “I think my reporting staff knows its way around Twitter as well as or better than any news organization.” Both organizations hope that such social-media expertise will drive hordes of traffic to the video coverage of the conventions.
And even though the press release cites the merging of two brands, there’s a third one in this formulation: BenSmith.com. In a brief interview, Dick Stevenson, the New York Times’s top political editor, mentions Smith several times. The former Politico reporter, says Stevenson, washes away any concerns that the paper may have about linking arms with a youngish news operation.
“I don’t think that’s really a question when it comes to Ben,” says Stevenson. “He’s somebody whose work we respect. . . . This is us bringing Ben into a medium under our umbrella that we retain control of and giving him, I hope, a different and, I hope, bigger audience and us getting a smart person to help us cover and comment on conventions.”
That said, the work of Smith’s political hires hasn’t gone unnoticed at the upper levels of the New York Times. AME Roberts, for instance, can cite BuzzFeed’s Twitter stars off the cuff. “I’ve watched the work of a lot of journalists that work for BuzzFeed. . . . Their names are quite active in my Twitter feed, names like Zeke Miller, A.J. Kaczynski and Rosie Gray,” says Roberts.
Such familiarity isn’t surprising out of the mouth of Roberts, who is an absolute monster on Twitter. But the compelling question behind this BuzzFeed-N.Y.T. news is how much resistance Roberts encountered in selling the partnership to his high-flying colleagues. From proposal to approval, says Roberts, the process took two-and-a-half months. Along the way Roberts encountered a “couple of people I had to convince.” Those folks, he says, weren’t opposed to or skeptical of the plan; they just required some explanation on how it’d benefit the New York Times. A turning point came about a month ago, when Roberts brought in Smith to talk up the shop. “It just felt like that was the moment where this was all going to make sense,” says Roberts.