Thirty-Nine Listicles Whose Sourcing Is Shaky at Best.
One Writer Fired for Plagiarism.
Four Thousand Old Posts That Mysteriously Disappeared.
Fourteen Media Critics Who Are Very Disappointed in BuzzFeed.
If you ask BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti, it adds up to One Viral Media Company That Isn’t Evil, Just Misunderstood. And, perhaps, one that could have handled certain things a little better.
In the past three years, BuzzFeed has grown from a relatively obscure viral-content skunkworks to one of the most widely read media outlets in the world. According to the Web traffic analytics firm Alexa, it’s the 44th-most-popular website in the United States, putting it in a class with Fox News and the New York Times.
BuzzFeed’s mastery of the dark arts of making things go viral on Facebook has endeared it to tech investors, including Silicon Valley power players Andreessen Horowitz, who recently led a $50 million venture capital round. But it has also invited envy and scorn from rivals. And it has opened the site’s practices to a level of journalistic scrutiny that its creators never anticipated.
In 2012 my former Slate colleague Farhad Manjoo revealed that several of BuzzFeed’s most popular listicles were lifted in large part from other websites, including Reddit. In the years since, the site has been hit with lawsuits and public accusations from people who feel it has exploited or flat-out stolen their work. Last month the site fired staff writer Benny Johnson after a pair of sharp-eyed bloggers documented several instances of evident plagiarism; for example, a U.S. politics quiz whose answers appeared to be partly copied and pasted from Wikipedia.
The latest backlash came this week when Gawker’s J.K. Trotter reported that more than 4,000 old BuzzFeed posts seem to have simply disappeared from the site. The discovery came as Trotter was following up on a July post in which he revealed that at least four posts, including three by senior editor Matt Stopera, had mysteriously vanished.
Those revelations sparked fresh fury in media circles, where retracting a story is viewed as a serious blow to one’s journalistic credibility—and to do so without notifying readers is a cardinal sin. Retracting four thousand posts without telling anyone is simply unheard of. To many in the industry, it smacks of a disregard for journalism’s basic tenets of accountability. That apparent disregard is especially galling when it comes from an upstart that is raking in VC rounds and gobbling up top journalists from established outlets that are struggling to survive.
In a phone interview on Tuesday, Peretti confirmed that BuzzFeed embarked on a project earlier this year to take down old posts that didn’t meet its editorial standards. He said he didn’t know exactly how many posts had been deleted in all. But when asked about Gawker’s estimate of more than 4,900, he said, “I wouldn’t be shocked if it was a number like that.”
Peretti acknowledged that BuzzFeed took the posts down without alerting readers. In retrospect, he said, “We probably could have communicated better, or handled it better.”
But he insisted that the purge was not the blatant breach of journalistic ethics that it might seem. To understand why, Peretti said, you have to remember that BuzzFeed began as a tech company, not a media company.
As Peretti explained at length in a recent interview with Felix Salmon, he and his fellow Huffington Post co-founder Ken Lerer started it in 2006 as a side project, a digital laboratory focused on understanding how things go viral on the Web. Rather than creating content of its own, BuzzFeed built software designed to detect and track content that was beginning to circulate widely on other sites, whether journalistic or otherwise.
Along the way, a few BuzzFeed employees—including then-intern Matt Stopera—began toying with ways to create viral content of their own. Those included the thinly sourced listicles that would later become BuzzFeed’s bread and butter. But, Peretti told me, they also included scores of other experimental posts and pages that would make little sense to readers today.