Ben Smith on BuzzFeed’s mass deletion: Part of being experimental is deleting your failed experiments

BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith has responded to criticism of the media company’s mass deletion of thousands of old posts, a move that Gawker and others have slammed as an ethical breach of the highest order: in an interview with the Poynter Institute’s “Regret The Error” columnist Craig Silverman, the BuzzFeed editor admitted that the way the articles were deleted was not handled well, but he said both the deletion and the criticism of it are a part of the site’s evolution.

Smith echoed the defense that BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti has provided since Gawker first detected early signs of the mass deletion, saying most of the articles were created when the site was seen as “an experimental lab” for media, rather than a journalistic organization. Many of the pieces that got deleted, he said, were jokes that no longer worked, or posts with Flash games embedded in them, or posts that no longer displayed properly because of all the changes to the site’s content-management system over the years.

Writers chose which posts to delete, not editors

While some have suggested that BuzzFeed deleted posts because they contained plagiarized material or were poorly sourced — something the site has been criticized for a number of times — Smith said that this was not the main problem with a majority of the posts that were removed. And he agreed that the process could have been handled differently, and the site could have communicated the reasoning behind it more effectively:

“We didn’t fully think through as we should have what the reaction would be. We should have thought a bit more about how this would be perceived… if anybody didn’t know this before, we absolutely know now that the best way to call attention to something is to delete it.”

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the deletion was the fact that the articles to be removed weren’t selected by Smith or Peretti or other BuzzFeed editors, as I think many critics of the move assumed they were — judging by the number of comments that implied some kind of centrally-directed conspiracy to cover up plagiarism, etc. Instead, Smith told Poynter that half a dozen writers were given the choice of which posts they had written before 2012 they wanted to delete, and which they wanted to fix or update. “Go through your stuff and save what you care about,” Smith says he told his staff.

BuzzFeed screenshot1

Writers had the option to repair broken links or fix display problems, or update the posts by filling in the various content fields required by the company’s new content-management system, Smith said — adding that in hindsight, the deleted articles should have had a note attached to them or some kind of explanation, so readers wouldn’t be surprised by their disappearance.

Maintaining that entrepreneurial spirit

The BuzzFeed editor also said that the process of deletion, and the fact that it was left up to the writers to decide which posts to remove, were an attempt to retain some of the experimental spirit that BuzzFeed had in its early days. As the site continues to grow — thanks to an ambitious global expansion plan and $50 million worth of financing from a group of venture investors — Smith said he felt that it was important to keep some of the entrepreneurial aspects of the company alive.

“One of the big challenges for me has been maintaining that spirit, which is very central to how we operate. [It’s] a big challenge to maintain that experimental spirit at the moment when a lot of people are looking at us, and it’s more intimidating to try something and fail.”

More than anything, the deletion reinforces the fact that a big part of BuzzFeed’s struggle as it tries to evolve is the need to somehow marry that experimental nature with its more serious journalistic ambitions. As Smith put it, BuzzFeed is “a media company that includes a news organization, but that is not solely that.” Standards around plagiarism and sourcing and other ethical concerns have to be addressed — and as Poynter notes, editor Shani Hilton is putting together a standards guide for the organization — but there are parts of BuzzFeed that will likely always adhere to somewhat different standards, because they aren’t meant to be journalism.

The site is trying to communicate those differences better by taking a number of steps, including separating its content into sections like News (for serious journalism), Buzz (for experiments) and Life (for lifestyle topics), but Smith suggests it will continue to be a process of experimentation. Unfortunately for BuzzFeed, experimentation and the mis-steps and failures that inevitably come with it aren’t something most traditional media outlets or journalists are that familiar with, so the criticism of the site is likely to continue.