Significant and Silly at BuzzFeed

The New York Times Feb 05, 2012 Back to press

When a Web site called BuzzFeed broke the news on the night of the Iowa caucuses that John McCain was endorsing Mitt Romney, more than a few readers scratched their heads and said, “What is a BuzzFeed?”

They’re about to find out.

BuzzFeed is the creation of Jonah Peretti, a graduate of the MIT Media Lab with an expertise in content that is likely to be “liked.” He took those skills to The Huffington Post, where he was the wizard in back of the curtain, brewing a bubbling cauldron of tatty celebrity news and goofy cat shots behind a front page of serious news and commentary. Using search optimization, he knew what people wanted almost before they did.

Mr. Peretti started BuzzFeed as a laboratory at first, making it less about what people were searching for and more about what they might share. He developed technologies that allowed BuzzFeed to determine very quickly what media content was being posted and shared — items that were contagious, the kind of thing that ends up on one person’s Facebook page and then suddenly, many other people’s. When The Huffington Post was sold to AOL last year, Mr. Peretti left and began working on BuzzFeed full-time.

With its mix of oddities, listicles and Web memes, BuzzFeed was at first something like The Huffington Post without the pretension of producing news and commentary. But in December, Mr. Peretti hired Ben Smith, the highly regarded blogger and columnist for Politico, to be his editor in chief. Right after he started in January, Mr. Smith broke the news of Mr. McCain’s endorsement of Mr. Romney for the New Hampshire primary. The message was clear: BuzzFeed was a player in news. (Mr. Smith still writes his weekly column for Politico.)

Soon afterward, BuzzFeed raised $15.5 million from Kenneth Lerer’s Lerer Ventures, New Enterprise Associates, Hearst Interactive Media, Softbank and RRE Ventures. Mr. Smith immediately began hiring reporters, including Matt Buchanan from Gawker Media; John Herrman from Popular Mechanics; Rosie Gray from The Village Voice, and Doree Shafrir from RollingStone.com. BuzzFeed wasn’t just hiring brand names to serve as lustrous hood ornaments connoting credibility, the way Tina Brown and Arianna Huffington have. The hires at BuzzFeed were more like maypoles: young writers native to the Web who become pivot points for contents because they are bathed in both the ethos and practice of social media.

After a week in which Facebook announced an initial public offering that could end up in valuing it at $100 billion, it’s clear that the social Web — Facebook, Twitter and their ilk — will rival search — Google, Bing and their ilk — as a force for helping people find content. The average person’s Facebook feed, just like BuzzFeed, is a mix of the comical and the consequential, functioning as a kind of human-enabled RSS feed that belies the traditional architecture of media outlets.

In a sense, Mr. Peretti is reverse-engineering the HuffPo formula. At The Huffington Post, he used search optimization to create a gaudy funhouse behind a serious front page. At BuzzFeed, the funhouse was the point of it all. The main headers on the home page told the story: “LOL,” “cute,” “win,” “fail,” “omg,” “geeky,” “trashy” and “wtf?”

But with the addition of Mr. Smith and his new hires, BuzzFeed is growing some serious news muscles under a silly, frilly skin, and added the header “2012” for election coverage. (More traditional news verticals will be rolled out in the coming months.) It’s gone well so far, with comScore showing 10.8 million unique visitors in December, more than double that of the same month in 2010.

Its business model, in part, capitalizes on the mix of high and low content; instead of banner ads, BuzzFeed works with companies like Pillsbury to create content ideal for sharing, including “10 Things You Never Knew You Could Do With a Crescent Roll.”

If it is successful, BuzzFeed will generate the kind of traffic that will rival behemoths like, yes, The Huffington Post. Mr. Peretti says that BuzzFeed makes a profit some months, but given the level of investment and growth — there are now 78 people in its Flatiron offices — the burn rate on that new chunk of capital is significant. “It’s fun to watch them make all these hires,” said Choire Sicha, the founder of The Awl site and a veteran of the New York Web scene. “But it’s important that they don’t overspend. Web ad rates are what they are and that isn’t going to change.”

Mr. Peretti says he is not, and won’t be, competing with The Huffington Post, in part because that would be awkward since he and Mr. Lerer were among the founders of that site. Sitting in the coffee area of BuzzFeed’s offices on West 21st Street in Manhattan, he pointed out that there is nothing more viral than news that no one else has, so it makes sense to create some. With Mr. Smith sharing the table, he said that BuzzFeed is a natural response to a changing ecosystem.

“As the world has realigned from being about portals and then search and now social, how do you build a media company for a social world?” he said. “And a big part of that is scoops and exclusives and original content, and it’s also about cute kittens in an entertaining cultural context.”

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