This post opens with a hat-tip to Martin Moore, who pointed out to me the other day what a remarkable document is the message recently sent to the staff of the viral video site Buzzfeed by its founder Jonah Peretti. I’d seen mention of it, but failed to see its importance.
It is fascinating and well worth a read. Peretti’s start-of-term pep talk is both new – digitally aware, thinking ahead and celebrating innovation both editorial and technical – and at the same time old. Improbable, even shocking, innovation to grab an audience and income which can later fund journalism has happened before. In fact it’s happened throughout most of journalism’s history with the exception of the late 20th century.
What Peretti’s memo describes is the compressed history of a site begun to make it easy for bored people at work to swop silly videos and lists is now hiring foreign correspondents and investigative reporters, often the two most important and expensive tribes of journalists found in any newsroom. Peretti did not reach this position by waking up one morning and deciding to help democracy be better informed; he put together a team of alpha geeks who built a site which was unbeatable for sharing video of skateboarding cats on smartphones and social media. With that foundation, he can now go out and compete for high-prestige journalism prizes.
Many experiments fail; Buzzfeed might. It uses its not inconsiderable creative skill to make fluent, clever semi-disguised ads for companies which pay for the service. Critics allege that this will blunt the site’s reportorial edge; we’ll see. (In my book Out of Print just published, I record a senior Buzzfeed person who seems to admit this: page 221). The giggling frivolity might simply overwhelm trying to explain what’s happening in Nairobi or Nablus.
But the importance of what Peretti has written is that he’s set the bar high for where Buzzfeed wants to go. This is it:
“We will continue to hire the most talented reporters
and writers in the world, we will expand our breaking news coverage,
build the infrastructure and team for large-scale investigative
journalism and all the intense research and reporting that entails,
and inform our readers about the issues that matter to them and their
world. We, of course, still don’t have the trust the traditional news
brands have won over the past 100 years, but we are working hard to
earn it, and it won’t take us 100 years to get there.”
There are five Buzzfeeders on the masthead of the UK version of the site. I think that masthead will grow a lot bigger. When it started, mainstream journalists complained that the site did no “original reporting” and was “more buzz than feed”. That’s harder to say now.