That changed in December 2011, when Peretti surprised the tech and media worlds by hiring a well-known professional journalist—Politico’s Ben Smith—as BuzzFeed’s first editor-in-chief.
“It was a huge decision, one that most people in the tech industry thought was crazy at the time,” Peretti told me. Silicon Valley investors preferred “a pure tech platform, something scalable,” with the content either plucked from elsewhere or provided by users for free. But Peretti was more excited by the idea of BuzzFeed using what it had learned about virality to create viral content of its own. That pivot, beginning with Smith’s hire, “completely changed the structure of the company, how we post, and what it means to post something on the site.”
It worked. Under Smith’s leadership, BuzzFeed’s editorial team grew fast, adding not only a cadre of young, pop culture-obsessed listicle-makers, but also seasoned reporters and editors like the Guardian’s Miriam Elder, the New York Times’ Lisa Tozzi, and Rolling Stone’s Doree Shafrir. It became a source of original reporting, as when it became the first outlet to definitively track down the Twitter account of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
BuzzFeed’s ambition today, Peretti said, is to be “a global media company for a world where social and mobile are the biggest ways people consume media.” That means embracing journalistic practices and ethics that were not part of the site’s original DNA. And this year BuzzFeed decided it also meant going back and removing old content that conflicts with its new standards.
The deleted posts, Peretti told me, were of several varieties: “technically broken, not sourced to our current standards, not worth improving or saving because the content isn’t very good. … At one point we had something called ‘Left vs. Right’ that would pull headlines from left- and right-wing blogs, and it never worked, but it generated a lot of posts.”
The deleted posts all dated back to before Smith came on board, “as far as I know,” Peretti said. Posts published after Smith’s arrival, he said, are treated differently: They fall under the site’s correction policy, and in general they aren’t removed without notice. Peretti admitted, however, that he can’t say with certainty that the policy has invariably been observed.
Journalistic organizations are supposed to stand behind everything they write, even if it was written years ago. They don’t just delete things because they’re no longer proud of them. (In the print era, of course, they couldn’t even if they wanted to.) But Peretti believes that BuzzFeed prior to Smith’s hire simply was not a journalistic organization. It was a tech company.
And tech companies do just delete products and pages that are no longer functional or relevant. They view broken or outdated features as “bad user experience,” or “bad UX.” In the tech world, bad UX is a far greater sin than lacking transparency or accountability.
Peretti admits that “if you look at that era of BuzzFeed through the lens of newspaper or magazine journalism, you would say [deleting those posts] was a strange decision. We just didn’t and don’t look at that period of BuzzFeed as being a journalistic enterprise.”
The neat dichotomy that Peretti draws between pre-Smith and post-Smith BuzzFeed is unlikely to fully persuade the site’s critics. After all, the site has also gotten in hot water for deleting terrible and embarrassing posts that were published well after Smith arrived, like a puerile 2013 screed by Amy Rose Spiegel headlined “What’s the Deal With Jazz?”
Benny Johnson’s plagiarism was also committed squarely under the Smith regime—which may help explain why the site treated it far more seriously than it did the questionable posts from earlier in its history, like the early Matt Stopera listicles. After an internal review that turned up 41 instances of plagiarism by Johnson, Smith both fired him and posted a public apology to readers. “We will work hard to be more vigilant in the future, and to earn your trust,” he wrote.
That doesn’t mean the site is pulling back on the facile listicles or pandering personality quizzes, though. If anything, it has stepped up its efforts to engineer viral content that holds little journalistic merit. On the business side, BuzzFeed has continued to pioneer the lucrative but somewhat controversial practice of native advertising, using its social media expertise to craft ads that look a lot like its own stories.
Peretti said BuzzFeed will continue to push the boundaries of what a media site can be in the age of mobile computing and social media. It’s still partly a tech company, he said, even though it’s now a media company first.
“If you look at the way media companies have evolved over time, the trend is that you get better and better with time, create more trust over time,” he said. “From the time that Ben joined and we committed as a company to be an editorial operation, we’ve been on that path.” The road to credibility, it seems, doesn’t always run smooth.