Can the BuzzFeed Formula Work for Real News?

Big hires at meme central hints at 'real' journalism

BuzzFeed, the meme-centric social news site known for its reserves of offbeat content and silly cat photos, is stockpiling journalists—serious ones.

Last week, it announced the hire of award-winning Rolling Stone writer Michael Hastings, adding to an impressive roster of reporters that include Gizmodo’s Matt Buchanan,’s Doree Shafrir, New York magazine’s Amy Odell and, most notably, Politico powerhouse Ben Smith. The recent spate of big hires has even sparked its own Tumblr.

It’s all part of an original content effort that CEO and co-founder Jonah Peretti said is intended to make BuzzFeed the leading social publisher. “We’ve been hiring a new breed of reporter who combines traditional journalistic values with fluency for the social web,” he said. “People can share and discover content on and email. The big opportunity now is making content worth sharing.”

Surely, every reporter believes their content is worth sharing. But as this new class of journalist attempts to remake BuzzFeed into a purveyor of consequential stories —not just catchy ones—what’s to say that its scoops on politics and culture won’t get lost amid the flood of posts labeled “lol,” “cute” and “omg”?

In a world where people already get news from Facebook News Feeds and Twitter streams, that’s not a big issue, said Peretti. “Consumers are used to seeing personal updates, mixed with cute cat pictures, mixed with election coverage,” he said. “Everything is combined together in one feed, and that is OK so long as each item is worth sharing.”

A look back at last year’s most shared stories on Facebook shows that people do indeed share a range of news (from before and after photos of the Japanese earthquake and following tsunami to posts about astrology and the life and death of Steve Jobs). But the list also reveals a clear bent toward stories about parenting and family. A study by Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman, two professors at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, which will be published in the April issue of Journal of Marketing Research, also gives some insight into what makes for contagious content. It showed that, among other factors, people tend to share content that is more emotional and more positive.

Jeff Sonderman, the digital media fellow at The Poynter Institute, said he’s hopeful about the BuzzFeed transformation and curious about the kinds of news the site deems shareable. But he said it will be important for the site to approach the different kinds of news with different mind-sets. Serving up “vintage cat” slide shows next to campaign trail updates is all well and good, he said, as long as the weightier content truly gets the care it deserves.

“It may be true that one individual reader cares about serious news and entertaining and silly news,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean that they want the serious to be silly.”