Why is it so hard for us to imagine that a site like BuzzFeed could do serious journalism?

BuzzFeed may be known to most for its “viral” posts about dogs who look like Richard Nixon and other ephemera, but the site has been making some significant moves into more serious fare over the past year, a wave that began with the hiring of Ben Smith from Politico. In a recent post at the Poynter Institute, writer Kelly McBride took the pulse of those efforts and also talked with Smith about the site’s ambition to produce long-form journalism. Some members of the mainstream media will no doubt scoff at these goals — but why is BuzzFeed any less likely to produce serious content than a newspaper?

Since it hired Smith to broaden its editorial efforts, BuzzFeed has launched a British edition of the site — as well as new verticals aimed at sports and women — and introduced a business hub (which sparked some imaginative headlines) as well as made a move into longer-form content, such as a feature on the history and evolution of video games. As McBride notes, the site has also done serious investigative pieces about topics such as the failure of the new G.I. bill and the impact of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism on the election.

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Serious and entertaining can co-exist

When McBride asks Smith about the dichotomy between the site’s serious journalism and its “viral” entertainment content, the BuzzFeed editor says he thinks drawing that kind of artificial distinction misses the point, since it doesn’t really explain posts like the one about the most inspirational photos of 2011 — which is one of the most-read pieces in the site’s history. Was that post serious journalism or entertaining ephemera? One could argue it was both (and it should be noted that BuzzFeed has been criticized for how it aggregated those photos).

In many ways, a realistic appraisal of BuzzFeed’s chances to become a home for “serious” journalism can only come when we stop thinking of BuzzFeed as a single media animal — the one that is hiring an “animals editor” and asks job applicants for another position to create an instruction manual for making a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich — and think of it as a media entity like any other. If the Huffington Post can win a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism, why couldn’t its offspring carve out a process for doing that as well?

We like to think of newspapers like the New York Times or the Washington Post as monolithic bastions of “serious” journalism, but the reality is that newspapers have always been a blend of the ephemeral and the important. In most cases, it’s the entertainment column or the fashion feature on a drug-addled celebrity that pays the bills, and allows newspapers to send reporters to Afganistan or undercover to investigate a health scandal. But we ignore those aspects of what they do because we have come to see them as primarily engaged in “serious” journalism.

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Read some Sartre, pat a cute dog

BuzzFeed co-founder Jonah Peretti (who was also instrumental in the creation of the Huffington Post) has said that he thinks of what the site does as similar to someone reading a serious novel at a cafe, and then stopping to notice a cute dog — in other words, appealing to the full range of human emotions. And McBride makes a good comparison when she notes that BuzzFeed is a lot like ESPN, a blend of pure entertainment and hard-hitting journalism:

“BuzzFeed’s journalism model is a bit like ESPN’s, an organization I’m familiar with. They both produce a large volume of highly entertaining information, sprinkled with some regular journalism and some high-end stuff. BuzzReads reminds me of ESPN’s 30 for 30 film documentary series, not least because both are produced mostly by outsiders.”

The Poynter writer also points out some of the ways that BuzzFeed needs to improve, including better editing and getting the attention of those in positions of power so that it can actually effect change. If that’s the goal, BuzzFeed may be closer than McBride thinks: a post at National Journal notes that the Republican National Committee is launching a site redesign — and they are doing their best to imitate BuzzFeed. “BuzzFeed’s eating everyone’s lunch,” a spokesman said. “They’re making people want to read and be cognizant of politics in a different way.”

(Note: BuzzFeed president Jon Steinberg will be joining us to talk about the site’s business model at paidContent Live on April 17)

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / wellphoto