The main brains behind the Internet publishing phenomenon BuzzFeed — Jonah Peretti and Ben Smith — joined us onstage at the second Code conference.
During their interview with Peter Kafka — which you can watch here in its entirety, or read in the transcript below — Peretti and Smith talked about BuzzFeed’s rapid evolution from “a great cat site,” into a site that still gets lots of traffic from cats — and dresses — and is increasingly doing high-impact journalism, and distributing it to multiple platforms.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Watch the whole interview here:
“BuzzFeed’s site now is … one of many places we publish.” — Jonah Peretti
Peter Kafka: What’s it like to work at a really big digital publishing company? Do you have any tips for me?
Jonah Peretti: You know, once it gets past 200 people, everything changes, and it’s just miserable.
Kafka: Better? Oh. We’re going to have some scale now at Re/code; we’re psyched about that. Jonah, we had a conversation about this at South By Southwest. You said, “200 million unique users is great, but we really think we have a bigger audience, and we’re less concerned now with getting people to come onto our website. We’re going to go bring all our media, all of our stuff, to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest” — I don’t know if you said Snapchat or not. Can you briefly explain why you want to sort of move from this website that most people in this audience — most people in the world — would be very happy to have, and say, “We want a bigger reach”?
Peretti: Yeah, so it was somewhat accidental. We were hopeful when we bought Ze Frank’s company that he would build a big video business. But he was in a little office in Culver City with three other people, and over the last two and a half years, he has built something that is really huge and material to our overall business. BuzzFeed Motion Pictures does over 1.2 billion video views each month, and that’s all original video that we make in our studio.
Kafka: That happens where? People watch those videos where?
Peretti: Where do people watch them? We started by trying to put the videos on BuzzFeed, and it worked okay, but not great. And people would come to BuzzFeed.com, or come to our app, and we would get comments like, “Why wasn’t this a list? I was expecting a list, or a quiz.” Or, “I don’t have headphones on, and I’m at work, and I can’t watch this.” So Ze, being very enterprising, started putting them on other platforms, and now we’re on 20 different platforms — Facebook video has been huge for us, YouTube was our first partner and still probably our most important video partner, and the video views are happening all across these different platforms.
Kafka: But basically, you said, I think, 90 percent of those views are happening outside of BuzzFeed?
Peretti: Almost all the views.
Kafka: Almost all of them, and I think the biggest number is YouTube, and then Facebook. And so that’s a model. You think you can do that with all of your content?
Peretti: So then we started looking at — okay, if we can make great content, and we get data back about how consumers are using the content, and we can see the content has an important role in people’s lives, and it’s having an impact, then it doesn’t matter whether it appears on BuzzFeed or whether it appears in BuzzFeed’s app, whether it appears on YouTube or Facebook or other platforms. And so we started to do that across all of BuzzFeed, and BuzzFeed’s site now is — you know, we think of that as one of many places we publish.
“We do not get bristly — it was a great cat site.” — Ben Smith
Kafka: Ben, you’re the guy who makes all the stuff. And you’re a digital journalist, but you’re still a sort of very traditional journalist. So how do you think about making stuff that’s not going to be consumed on your property? Has that changed the way you think about what you make, how you make it, when you make it?
Ben Smith: Actually, beat reporters have been doing this probably longer than most, in that you spend a lot of your time on Twitter. I spend more of my time on Twitter, possibly.
Kafka: We should spend less.
Smith: We’re putting our content out on somebody else’s platform, and it feels very, very natural. And it obviously makes us stronger reporters in some ways, gets us more scoops. It’s where you put the incremental stories that then sometimes make the big stories.
Kafka: We tell ourselves, right, that it’s good for our brand or our publisher’s brand. But traditionally we say, we want you to come read the story on our site, where we make our money, and that’s where we get the most benefit — we don’t want to publish our scoop on Twitter, we want to publish it on our site.
Smith: Yeah, I mean the way I think about this is that — I mean, I think this has been true for a while. There are certain stories where you do need to write a couple thousand words and really explain what’s going on, and there are some stories that you do not. I mean, there are certain kinds of tech acquisitions where a sentence is enough; leadership fights on Capital Hill — no one who is not in that little Twitter audience cares, but they’re also very, very important stories.
Kafka: You were doing this before you got to BuzzFeed, right? You were publishing scoops on Twitter, and then publishing them on your site?
Smith: Yeah, and I think part of the reason I came to BuzzFeed — which, at the time, it was like it was this cat site, and it was very confusing to people — was that they had been thinking about what they had really spent all their time thinking about was a reader who was going primarily to Facebook, but also to other platforms first, and not worrying so much about your homepage. And I had started to feel about the homepage, like, “Oh, got to feed the beast,” the way I used to feel about the New York Daily News, page 17 — we lost an ad, got to blow a little air into this thing.
Kafka: You said, when you came to BuzzFeed it was a cat site, and you guys get very bristly when people say …
Smith: We do not get bristly — it was a great cat site.
“We need someone who actually knows how to be a reporter.” — Jonah Peretti
Kafka: When people talk about BuzzFeed today as a cat site or a listicle site, and you say, “No, we do all this great journalism” — it’s true. But can you guys talk about sort of why you brought Ben [Smith] to BuzzFeed? At the time, you were a well-known writer, at least in digital circles and D.C. circles — you were in Politico. How did that conversation start? Why did you want to bring in a real journalist to BuzzFeed?
Peretti: The main thing was the social Web had evolved. BuzzFeed started as a little lab; we were based in New York’s Chinatown, we had a team of five or six people. We were testing ideas in media, trying to understand how do ideas spread. These ideas like six degrees of separation, and small worlds were intellectual curiosities in the 1970s.
Kafka: This is stuff you were doing while you were still at HuffPo, right? Or you’d left HuffPo?
Peretti: This was in parallel with HuffPost. So HuffPost was a company, and was being run like a company, and then BuzzFeed was this little lab where I could play around with anything.
Kafka: Just for context, you were a cofounder of Huffington Post — you built up a very big site there, and then said I want to go play with a new thing.
Peretti: Yeah, yeah. And before that, I was doing kind of my own little projects often with my sister, trying to understand how media spreads. And so that’s really what BuzzFeed started as. And at that time, Facebook didn’t have news on it; Twitter was what you had for lunch, and people would joke about it. And people forget that — now Twitter is one of the largest news services, and everyone in media is obsessed with Twitter, and is on Twitter all day. People didn’t realize that there wasn’t really news on Twitter, or reporting on Twitter.
And so the social Web evolved, and all of a sudden, we said, “Oh my God, we have this opportunity to do reporting and have some distribution for it that isn’t searched and that isn’t a front page.” And that was really what was driving HuffPost’s traffic at the time. It means that this model of leaning into social now allows us to do news, and we don’t have anyone who knows how to do news. We don’t have any reporters on staff; we have a bunch of Web-savvy folks who are making things, but we need someone who actually knows how to be a reporter.
Kafka: But why news? Why not other stuff? Why was news important to you?
Peretti: I mean, it’s incredibly important content. It’s the soul of any media company that — even if it’s not their biggest business, it’s one of the most important businesses to the identity of any great media company. And it’s incredibly fun, and it has the ability to have a huge cultural impact. And all of a sudden, our distribution model lent itself to doing news, and so we had this huge opportunity to get into a new kind of content that we all really loved and wanted to do.
Kafka: So Ben, this guy runs a cat site, calls you up and says, “Let’s have lunch.” What was the pitch?
Smith: Well, there was a lot of very abstract stuff about six degrees of separation and the Social Web, and I didn’t really understand what he was talking about. And then I thought it through and came back to him. But I think, ultimately, to me it was, as a reporter, it was sort of a huge force multiplier not to match other people’s stories, not to constantly be thinking about the bundle and the package, making sure that you’re telling this imagined single reader everything about the world, but rather just to break news all day. Just to focus on exclusives, to focus on if a reporter needs to break off for a few days and just go after something big, to do that. And then also to play with form. I mean, I think this is no longer a novel idea, but the idea of sort of the reverse-pyramid structure, where you have like nine nouns in the first sentence, and then a second sentence that summarizes the story, and then a paragraph that just tells you a bunch of stuff you already knew, and then a random quote.
Kafka: But was the pitch, “We want to build a giant news site?” Or, “We have all this stuff, and we want you to layer on top of that some stuff that gives us a little more credence”?
Smith: No. I’m not sure we talked that explicitly about it, and I did not expect this kind of scale. But Jonah’s ambition was never really in question, that there was a huge opportunity. For me, at first, it was just a big opportunity to really go after the 2012 presidential election very, very hard.
Cat stories, listicles, quizzes … and news
Kafka: There’s a perception, I think, in this audience and outside, that the stuff you do is very cool and worthwhile and interesting and serious and good, but it’s not really what drives BuzzFeed — that what drives BuzzFeed are still cat stories or listicles or things that are effervescent, and you’ve sort of been brought on to give the thing more gravitas and to make it a better sale to advertisers. Do you feel that perception outside?
Smith: Yeah, I certainly feel that perception outside. From the start, we invested very heavily in two things — in news, and what we call “buzz,” and from the start really invested very heavily in making lists and quizzes. And really, what that is really about is experimenting with form, and a lot of those forms are now really how we tell breaking news stories. And now the third arm is BuzzFeed Life, which has been huge for us, which is lifestyle media, which is style and health and sex and food, and things like that. In our internal culture, they feed off each other and really draw a lot of energy from one another.
Peretti: And it also depends on the time, right? So the Boston bombings happens, and immediately all of the most popular content on the site is hard news. Then there’s a slow news week, and the most popular content is lists or quizzes or entertainment, or fun content.
Kafka: How does that break down in the aggregate? What percent of the traffic is coming to sort of lifestyle or lighter news or listicles versus core journalism?
Peretti: I think it’s very similar to what you see kind of through the history of media, which is, the most popular things are pop/entertainment content, and often the most important things are serious news content. And when there’s huge news breaking, it becomes the biggest thing. But most of the time, it’s not the biggest thing.
Kafka: So, periodically, several times now, you guys have — Gawker loves to write about this — but people pay a lot of attention to you, and you end up sort of stubbing your toe as it looks like you’re trying to figure out how to create a new digital journalism model. I think the most recent thing was, you guys took down some posts — it turned out you took them down at the behest of advertisers. I think you said you did it over three times. There have been other incidents where I think you took down, you vanished like 4,000 posts, and I think, Jonah, you said at the time, “Well, those are things we did sort of before we brought on Ben.” Do you guys feel like you’ve got a sense of how you balance traditional things like advertising and content, and do you feel like you’ve got a newsroom model that’s set at this point?
Peretti: I don’t think that at all. I certainly don’t think we’ve totally figured it out, and obviously we’re learning in public and screwing up from time to time. But I think, in some ways we are very traditional on church and state. And there’s a creative team that reports up to our business side, and I do think that’s actually a pretty important division to keep.
Kafka: So can you explain — just because it’s interesting to me, and I think to other people — what happened with the posts you took down? I think you said you took them down at the behest of the advertising side, but it wasn’t the way I think most people would think about that.
Peretti: Well there — I mean, I don’t want to get into the weeds, and if you would like to read a 9,000-word interview on this …
Kafka: I don’t. I want the 30-second version.
Peretti: It is available on the Web. But what I think what you’re talking about is, we put out a report that went back into why we had deleted posts since I started, partly because things had been moving fast, and I wanted to be sure I knew before I went out and talked about it to people like you. And some of it really was us learning on the job how to figure out what you do in very specific cases, and making these rules that I think have grown up over hundreds of years in traditional media, but making them as we go.
Kafka: I guess one thing that was interesting to me was one of the issues was that — I think there was a conflict between something a writer had written and someone on the ad side had created. Because you guys create content for your advertisers, so you’re basically an ad agency in addition to your traditional publisher.
Peretti: For the most part, advertisers understand the separation of church and state, and sometimes they — you know, big companies have communications departments, and that’s how they engage. They don’t use their ad buyers as their way of engaging. For the most part, people understand that. There are occasions where advertisers put pressure. There are occasions where a subject, particularly a wealthy or powerful subject, puts pressure and threatens to sue, even though they don’t really have grounds to sue, because they know that it’s very expensive to defend a case even if you’re right. Actually the most common one is someone who is a friend of someone at the company, and says, “Don’t do this story,” or whatever. And what you need to do to build a great news organization over the long term is be able to resist those pressures.
Kafka: But in this case, at least one of the issues was that you guys were creating your own advertising.
Peretti: Yeah, this was a case I think we came across probably a year and a half ago, that was something that I had never considered before, which was that an editor had taken images from an ad post and put them into editorial content, and was writing about … I mean, the company, the advertiser, is obviously fair game — an advertisement that is news, that is itself news, is obviously fair game. How you navigate the line — I guess my impulse is just to tell editors not to play games with the wall.
“We’re not like a traditional tech business. We’re not a marketplace, and we’re not something where we just write code and everyone else does all the work.” — Jonah Peretti
Kafka: I guess I’m just trying to get to the business model. I’m just wondering if it causes more strain because you’ve got a big team. How many people make content for advertisers at BuzzFeed?
Peretti: Probably 70 people, something like that.
Kafka: You’ve got a big team that makes stuff like that, you’ve got a big team that makes editorial. Traditionally, at the New York Times — or at least up until now — those guys weren’t making advertising, right? Someone was bringing that to them. So does that make it more fraught overall, or do you think you’ve settled that?
Peretti: I don’t think so. I think I get screaming calls from people at probably the rate that Jill Abramson … I get screaming calls from people, which is pretty regularly.
Kafka: A lot of screaming at the New York Times.
Peretti: But you’ve got to listen.
Kafka: Can we talk a bit about your business model? You make ads that, again, run — well, you make ads that are content. This was a novel idea a few years ago; now everyone is doing it. You seem to be doing it better than everybody else. There’s a question about how you scale that business. And again, traditionally, I think people who invest in a tech company like the idea that you do something once and it multiplies many times. You guys have to keep making new content. Do you think you’re going to be able to sort of jump over that hurdle at some point and it scales more like a traditional tech business, or is this always going to be you hiring more people to make more ads?
Peretti: We’re not like a traditional tech business. We’re not a marketplace, and we’re not something where we just write code and everyone else does all the work. We actually have lots of creative people who come up with ideas and make things, and then they have technology that allows them to reach a much bigger audience and have more leverage than their peers at another organization. So if you work at BuzzFeed in editorial, or if you work in BuzzFeed on the branded side, the work you do is seen by more people, it spreads internationally more fluidly, because we’ve expanded so much internationally. It spreads across different platforms more easily, because we’ve figured out how to adapt content from our own site to video to other social media formats. And we have a much closer connection with our audience, because we have data about what people share and how they engage with our content, so that also informs the creative process. And so it means that each person who works at BuzzFeed has more leverage and can have a bigger impact than …
Kafka: So you scale by letting everybody around you sort of grow, and you ride on that coattail?
Peretti: You scale by hiring a lot of people — we have 1,000 people now at BuzzFeed, and we’re growing quickly — but then, giving those people tools so that they can have a bigger impact than they could somewhere else. And so it’s not a thing where we’re going to have 12 employees and be like Instagram when it sold, or something, and have this massive scale. But we have a cost structure and economics that are vastly superior to traditional media companies. We reach more people than any of the cable networks. If you compare our comScore numbers to their Nielsen numbers, we reach more people in the U.S. than ABC or CBS or NBC …
Kafka: You can ask Les Moonves about that when he comes on in a minute.
Peretti: And we spend a fraction of what those media companies spend. So if you think of the amount of money it costs for Les Moonves to reach a massive audience — I hear him laughing in the back — is many magnitudes more than it costs us to reach an audience of a similar scale. Now, they also make a lot more money per audience, so the costs are much higher, and the revenue is much higher. What I think we’re going to see in the coming years is having a better cost structure that allows you to reach a really large audience with high-quality content — because you understand the audience better because you’re directly engaged with them — is going to allow us to move up-market and go into other markets where there is better monetization.
“We want to build an engine for R&D for the media industry, where we’re able to create new formats, develop new ways of telling stories, understand what consumers — particularly young consumers — want.” — Jonah Peretti
Kafka: What are other markets with better monetization?
Peretti: So, as a cross-platform media company, television and film are areas that could be initial places where we could experiment.
Kafka: So you’re going to start making TV shows and movies?
Peretti: I think that there are ways of using our process for understanding what consumers want, what they care about, what they’re engaging with. And there are ways of using that data and understanding, not just to adapt our content for Facebook or YouTube, but also for traditional media and linear television, and things like that, as well.
Kafka: So when’s the first BuzzFeed TV show, and where’s it going to run? You going to get your own network, like Vice?
Peretti: We don’t have a plan to have our own network. We want to build an engine for, really, R&D for the media industry, where we’re able to create new formats, develop new ways of telling stories, understand what consumers — particularly young consumers — want, and then be able to use that to make media that goes across many different platforms. And some of those will monetize really well, but will not give us much data back, and others will give us lots of data and learning. And if you can do all of them, you can learn some places and earn other places.
Kafka: But just to beat this into the ground, you’re sort of making this pitch that says, “Look, we’re going to get smarter and better at making this stuff, and then eventually, we’re going to move upmarket to TV and movies.” But that’s such a different model than what you’re doing now, right? Now, you can publish the dress post, and figure out who was watching it and looking at it and why. Once you sell your show to Les Moonves, you lose most of that data, right? It’s very limited data — it seems like your story, in some ways, gets less sexy then.
Peretti: I’m not interested in the end product of television — I don’t really watch television. Most of the people, or a lot of people who read BuzzFeed don’t watch television that much.
Kafka: Sorry, Les.
Peretti: But it’s not the end product; it’s a process for making media, and the form that it takes could be something that looks like a television show. It could be that you’re watching things that are eight minutes long, or six minutes long, or lots of short-form content. It could be that you’re consuming the media on Snapchat or Spotify or Netflix or Amazon Prime or CBS. And so we’re focused right now on building the machine that allows us to learn and to make great content, and to give creative people real data feedback. Where that’s going to be extended is, I think, an exciting opportunity for us, but it’s not like our dream is to make a TV show, or our dream is to make a movie.
“I don’t think the data by itself, though, allows people to make great content.” — Ben Smith
Kafka: We had Evan Spiegel of Snapchat up here yesterday — you guys were supposed to work with them on Discover, and something fell apart at the end. Why didn’t you go to Snapchat’s Discover platform when it launched?
Peretti: I mean, we’d love to be on Discover, and I think Snapchat is super-interesting as a platform, and hopefully we’ll be on Discover someday.
Kafka: Are you creating stuff for Snapchat, Ben?
Smith: Yeah, we have teams who are playing around on Snapchat, sure.
Kafka: It’s experimental right now?
Smith: I mean, everything we do is experimental. Some of it’s pretty large-scale, but yeah.
Kafka: Have you had any successful experiments with them?
Smith: You know, it was interesting — when we interviewed Obama, one of the main channels we were getting questions on was through Snapchat, which was interesting.
Kafka: So it’s inbound right now?
Smith: Well, we were going in both directions, but it’s just such a massive service, that you sort of see the opportunities.
Kafka: One of the issues of Snapchat, from publishers, is there’s not a lot of data coming from them. They’re not telling people, “This is how things are performing.” There aren’t links, there’s not a lot of analytics. Is that an issue for you?
Smith: There’s some data, and I think generally as platforms mature, they share more data with content creators, because it allows the content creators to make better content. I don’t think the data by itself, though, allows people to make great content. Sometimes people just use data to try to game a system or try to find short-term ways of driving numbers, and so I think having the right context and the right business relationships and data can allow you to create interesting things on different platforms.
“It’s crazy not to have a diverse staff.” — Jonah Peretti
Kafka:We also asked Evan [Spiegel] about diversity; I think we’ll ask a bunch of folks. We’ll ask you guys. You published some diversity numbers about your workforce last fall — pretty white. This is a good discussion for three white guys to have onstage. I think about half your staff was women. So how do you feel about the numbers that you have? How do you think they might change over time?
Peretti: I think that it’s something that we’ve been pretty obsessed with, and really see it, I think, as an opportunity from the start.
Kafka: Why are you obsessed with it? Why is it an opportunity?
Peretti: If you look at the way media is structured, around both ethnic minorities and LGBT people, you have traditional, kind of strong niche publications, and these are treated as second-tier stories at mainstream publications. And really, I had always covered marriage very aggressively, because I think for a lot of people of our generation, that isn’t a niche story. And when I was at Politico, there was this guy, Chris Geidner, who was just beating me on stories quite regularly, so he was one of the first people I hired at BuzzFeed. And then, you know, 2013, marriage — it was probably the biggest story in the country
Kafka: Gay marriage?
Peretti: Yeah — was the biggest story in the country — we were really, I think, one of the dominant forces in that story, because we were covering it like a central, American story, not like this niche LGBT story.
Kafka: But then you’re talking about how you cover things, not who covers them.
Peretti: Well, I think those things are related — not 100 percent. Last year, we saw an opportunity with Hispanic readers in particular, and have really across a very broad spectrum invested both in hiring people — I think our staff is somewhere like 9 percent Hispanic now. And we did publish these numbers, because I think that is how you get held accountable in public. And that meant having a Selena Week, where we published all kinds of fun things, but also covering the hell out of the immigration story, and related stories.
Kafka: But this sounds like you’re saying, “I want to cover this story, or I want to expand this market — I’m going to go hire people from that demographic group.” Am I getting that right, or is it not that direct?
Peretti: I think that, certainly, people in our business have, for at least since, I would think the ’50s or the ’60s, felt a kind of overarching appropriate ethical imperative to hire a diverse group of people, and have done more or less nothing about it for 50 years, based on that ethical imperative. And I think we certainly feel that ethical imperative, too, but I also think, on Web publishing in particular, where you’re not thinking, if you’re in a traditional magazine, “My reader is this exact person, and everything is focused on this person,” but where you’re thinking, “Wow, we have this huge opportunity to reach a giant, diverse audience where each story is going to travel out in a slightly different direction to a different audience,” it’s crazy not to have a diverse staff. And obviously not only black people are going to be obsessed with black culture, and you know, there’s not a one-to-one overlap between who you are and what you care about. But at the same time, there’s some overlap.
Kafka: Do you have internal goals? We want to get to this percent, whatever demographic group — we want to hit this number?
Peretti: No, I mean, the internal goals are wanting to meet with diverse candidates and be able to tap the broadest possible pool of talent. I mean, when you think about what media was like 50 years or 100 years ago, there were newspapers that only Catholics worked at, and newspapers that were all white men, and when you think about all of the talent that those newspapers and those publications didn’t have access to, it was a huge liability. And I think we’ve seen that every investment we make in diversity has had a tremendous effect on our business; it’s brought in the perspectives of people who work at the company, it’s helped us cover areas with more knowledge in some cases. And then in cases where there’s people who don’t want to write about anything related to their identity, just having critical mass in the workplace allows us to recruit people who don’t want to be the only person in a company who’s black, or the only person in a company who is from a particular background. So having a critical mass of a diverse range of people with different backgrounds allows us to recruit better people.
Kafka: Practical economic advantage for you in having a more diverse workforce.
Peretti: Yeah, and it’s very easy to draw the line when you look at editorial, where you see whole areas of coverage that we do being opened up, because we have people who are knowledgeable, both from their lived experience and because of expertise that they learned professionally. But you also see it in tech, on the tech side, and you also see it on the business side. So it definitely has big returns for the company; it’s something that I would encourage everyone to push hard on.
“Being an independent company feels like the right path for us.” — Jonah Peretti
Kafka: A couple years ago, you had a chance to sell this company to Disney — people say you had a handshake deal, and that you thought about it and decided not to. Why didn’t you sell this company to Disney?
Peretti: I never really wanted to sell the company. I think that Bob Iger is a very impressive and persuasive guy, and the company, Disney, is an impressive company, so I spent some time talking with him. But I think being an independent company feels like the right path for us, and allows us to do more, and so I never really wanted to sell the company, and we’re continuing to chart an independent course.
Kafka: Was there a moment where you said, “Okay,” and then you backed out?
Kafka: I think last summer you were valued at $850 million; I’m sure you’re a unicorn by now. At some point, you get very expensive for anyone to acquire, so can you imagine this being a standalone public company at some point?
Peretti: Yeah, we’re very focused on building out internationally, we’re very focused on building out across multiple different platforms, we’re very focused on building out our video business, building out BuzzFeed News. That will give us a diversification both of revenue and geographical diversification and diversification across different kinds of platforms, to allow us to build a big independent company with much more predictability and things that would allow us to be a public company or an independent …
Kafka: I’m looking forward to your earnings calls — they’re going to be fun.
“We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about targeting by age.” — Jonah Peretti
Question: As your population gets older, as the way the world works, do you see a need to attend your audience to the age as it gets older, or do you worry about the younger people who are coming in? Which way do you move?
Peretti: I think we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about targeting by age. I mean, I think our audience lives on mobile devices and on these social platforms, and that, in a very rough way, sometimes is used as sort of a proxy for age. But I think that people of a lot of different demographics care about news and care about what’s happening in the world, and I think it’s sort of — sometimes there’s this idea that the kids want to be kind of spoon-fed news that’s chopped up into these very easy-to-digest little pieces. That’s been an idea that people have been trying to do things with, again, forever. But I think that’s sort of an oversimplification.
Kafka: And there’s no BuzzFeed Senior section coming?
Peretti: We have a lot of parenting content that does great, so there are apparently parents on the Internet these days.
Kafka: Of all ages.
“Making incredibly entertaining, hugely viral lists or quizzes is easier than being, like, a beat reporter.” — Jonah Peretti
Question: You’ve talked a lot about starting to invest in original content, and some of the low-cost model that complements that has sort of been originally created or also sourced from other sites, like Reddit, so on and so forth. How do you think about originating content from other places, and there’s a whole bunch of folks who I think have misread your low-cost model as literally ripping stuff off even from you, and just republishing on viral sources. How do you think about that internally?
Peretti: The main reason that our model is low-cost relative to traditional media is that we don’t have the economics of broadcast television or print. We have reporters, foreign correspondents around the world, who are doing original reporting. We have a little over 200 people in Los Angeles that do all original video, so that 1.2 billion video views that I mentioned is all original video. We don’t aggregate video, we don’t claim channels like an MCN, or anything like that. It’s all content we make.
And then BuzzFeed content is very engaged with the culture of the Web, and when something is viral — like, for example, the dress — some of you may have seen the dress that looked different colors to different people. Our community manager was pinged by the person who took the photo of the dress who had posted it on Tumblr to a relatively small audience, and had said, “Hey, my friends are debating this — what do you think?” And she took that, embedded it into a BuzzFeed post, put a poll so people could vote on what they thought what color it was, and that went to 40 million people, just our post; and another 10 to 12 million of reporting that we did around the dress. So we had reporters covering it, we had entertainment reporters writing about what celebrities were saying about it, science desk writing about the science behind it …
Kafka: I think she said that this took her five minutes to make, right? She took it off of Tumblr and posted it on your site in five minutes.
Peretti: Yeah, it didn’t take her — it took her a lot of time to cultivate relationships with all these people on Tumblr, and for BuzzFeed to build this site where people said, “Oh, if something has the potential to go big, you should send it to BuzzFeed because …“
Kafka: I think what Hunter was maybe getting at was like, it seems like a lot of folks are saying, “Well, it’s much better to just have someone take posts off of Tumblr or Reddit and publish those in five minutes than to send someone to the Ukraine, or cover the 2016 elections.”
Peretti: I mean, I guess we feel like we don’t have to choose. And I actually think that there is this idea that making incredibly entertaining, hugely viral lists or quizzes is easier than being, like, a beat reporter. I mean, I think you and I know that our jobs are not that hard.
Peretti: Like, you know, getting somebody drunk at that party last night and tell you a secret isn’t like an active tremendous intellect —
Kafka: They showed up drunk.
Peretti: And actually making a list of jokes you can tell your kids, or something like that, is, I find at least, is pretty hard work. And we pick from among people who are amazing at that, and it’s hard work.
Smith: Yeah, and there’s a reason that a messy Reddit thread doesn’t go viral sometimes, because it’s missing things, you know. And there’s lots of unpaid people who are participating in community sites having paid people who are professionals, who understand what’s a hoax and what’s not a hoax, and how Internet culture works, and what things are happening elsewhere on the Web, and how to turn that into something that is original work that builds off of things that are happening elsewhere, is a valuable skill, and it’s actually really hard to do.
Kafka: And you guys can survive without Reddit. You don’t need Reddit to fuel the site.
Smith: Yeah, sure.
Question: I’m curious what you think about social audio and spreading, and what your experience with podcasting has been so far.
Smith: We’ve had a kind of running argument about this in which we’ve, I think, flipped which side we’re taking at any given moment. There was a great Digg piece about how audio doesn’t go viral, just as a rule, that preceded “Serial” — which, I don’t know if you would call those individual pieces of content going viral — what was obviously this huge phenomenon. We’ve launched just two podcasts so far — “Another Round With Heben and Tracy,” and one called “Internet Explorer” — and they have, surprisingly to me, big audiences. Honestly, they’ve been doing really well, but also there’s an intensity of engagement around audio that is really striking, and Heben and Tracy headlined some women’s podcast event in New York and sold out instantly. And there is that there is this real intensity of engagement that is in some ways different from a lot of what we do, and it’s something that we’re kind of learning how to do. It’s pretty exciting.
Question: About a year and a half ago at a Facebook holiday event, there was a BuzzFeed reporter there, and there were a lot of reporters there — we were all asking about Facebook and the future of social media. The BuzzFeed reporter asked, “You guys just changed your algorithm — you’re hurting us. Why are you doing that?” Which leads me to ask you, do you feel like you guys are over-reliant on these platforms? How do you know for sure that platforms like Facebook or Snapchat in the future, or Pinterest, or wherever, are really going to support you and be your friend? How do you know the circumstances aren’t going to change beyond your control?
Smith: I mean, I think there are sort of two answers and I’ll just take the editorial one, which is that we cover these platforms and don’t consider them our friends.
Kafka: And Jonah, how do you view the Demand Media problem?
Peretti: I think you can’t assume that a platform will have your interests at heart. You have to assume that if they’re smart, they’re going to have the user’s interests at heart. So if we’re making content that Facebook users really love, that should be the goal, not making content that Facebook’s algorithm loves. Does that make sense? So focusing on the ultimate consumer — one of the advantages of being on multiple platforms is you see how people behave on different platforms. So if you see something goes huge on Facebook and doesn’t spread anywhere else, then you say, “Oh, maybe this was some quirk in Facebook’s algorithm and people didn’t really like this, it was just shown to too many people.” But if it also is big on Twitter, and it’s also big on Pinterest, and people are commenting on it, and there’s lots of engagement, you say, “Okay, we’re probably doing a good job.”
Facebook is massive, and I think global culture has a Facebook dependency, just by the scale of how much information is discovered on Facebook. We actually have a system called Pound that lets us track cross-network sharing, and so we can see how things that blow up on Twitter bleed to Facebook and start getting shared to Facebook, because so many more people are Facebook users than Twitter users that when something is discovered on Twitter, people will share it to Facebook so their friends who aren’t on Twitter can see it.
So there’s a lot of complicated dynamics to how media spreads across these platforms, and you just have to be honest with yourself and try to measure what are actual people doing with the content. When we post a recipe, are they posting examples of them actually cooking the food? Because that’s a powerful metric, much more than traffic. Or when we break a news story, is it resulting in laws being changed, or Congressional hearings, or impact that way? So we always try to look at what are we creating — does it have an impact on the actual lives of the audience, and does it have an impact on the world beyond that? And if it does, it’s going to be in the interest of all the social platforms to promote content like that, because it will be good for their users and good for their business also.
Kafka: Got it. Thanks, guys. Ben, Jonah, thank you very much.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.