The lesson of BuzzFeed: Media companies are everywhere

The online media business got a surprise on Monday, when the news broke that Politico correspondent Ben Smith was joining BuzzFeed, the pop-culture meme generator whose current offerings trend more towards funny cat videos than in-depth political coverage. But Smith isn’t giving up reporting for a beat trolling 4chan for new memes — he is becoming editor-in-chief and said he will be hiring at least a dozen reporters to break news of all kinds, including political. Can BuzzFeed become a new Huffington Post (s aol)? Why not? If the rise of Arianna’s media empire has shown us anything, it’s that new media entities can spring from the most unlikely sources.

The Huffington Post arose from Arianna Huffington’s personal Rolodex of contacts, most of whom agreed to write blogs on the site for nothing, and that helped provide the foundation for what became a giant media entity in less than five years — one that rivalled the venerable New York Times website in terms of traffic, and was eventually acquired earlier this year by AOL for $315 million. Huffington has since become the head of all the former web giant’s media properties, and thus one of the most powerful executives at the company next to CEO Tim Armstrong.

Understanding how media functions in a digital age

But just as important as Arianna Huffington’s contact list was the understanding of how a new-media outlet functions in the web era, and that knowledge came in part from one of the key players behind BuzzFeed — namely Jonah Peretti, who co-founded the Huffington Post (and also Ken Lerer, one of the Huffington Post’s early financial backers). Peretti in particular has been credited by many with turning the blog network into a new-media machine, by focusing on the power that social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook could have in driving traffic and engagement.

Long before many other media outlets decided to dip their toes into Facebook integration by implementing comments powered by the social network, or creating “social reading” apps like those the Washington Post and The Guardian recently launched, the Huffington Post had launched a deep integration with the site through what was then called Facebook Connect — and within a matter of months, it saw a massive increase in comments, logins via Facebook and traffic from the social network.

Arianna Huffington by World Economic Forum

The Huffington Post has also been one of the leaders in using other social tools such as Twitter as both news-gathering and news-distribution methods — something that many traditional media entities are still only coming to realize can be a very powerful driver of engagement with readers, and hence of important advertising-related metrics like time spent, repeat visits, etc. And while BuzzFeed’s content may not be at the same kind of intellectual level as Ben Smith’s Politico coverage, or even the Huffington Post, the site has shown that it also understands how media works in a social age. Smith said he sees his new job as being to build a new media entity on top of this foundation:

to help build the first true social news organization — that is, an outfit built on the understanding that readers increasingly get and share their news on Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms.

Social sharing is how the news is distributed now

In a sense, BuzzFeed is coming at the building of a new-media company from the exact opposite perspective as most mainstream media entities such as the New York Times or the Washington Post. While they are taking traditional strengths in things like reporting, analysis and other tenets of journalism and trying to add social features and integrate what they do with new tools such as Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr, BuzzFeed is taking a platform that understands how social media works and trying to add journalistic features. Which approach is likely to be harder?

It’s easy to dismiss BuzzFeed as a foolish waste of time, a site that cares more about off-color jokes than serious journalism (it even happily chronicled the various memes that sprang from the news about Smith joining the company). But for a growing number of web users — regardless of their intellectual abilities — sharing a remixed video or image related to a popular news event is a big part of the way they consume media now. Media companies that fail to understand that and take advantage of it will find themselves on the sidelines while others like BuzzFeed prosper.

Whether BuzzFeed can create a new-media entity — one that becomes known for its serious journalism and political scoops — on top of the social-sharing engine it has already built remains to be seen. But traditional media players should resist the temptation to dismiss this potential competitor: they did that with the Huffington Post, and it didn’t end well.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users George Kelly and World Economic Forum