BuzzFeed’s First Election Night

Tuesday was a big night for Obama, as well as digital journalism

Just after 7 p.m., BuzzFeed's 12th floor newsroom is jammed with nearly 100 employees. Editor in chief Ben Smith, taking a brief break from his dual screens, surveys the crowd, which is currently gathered around an assortment of free pizza and beer.

It's a diverse collection of the site's design, tech, editorial and sales teams, who have chosen to stick around and watch the 2012 election night results. Sidling up to Smith, who is tucked away in a corner of the newsroom with the nine or so dedicated election night staffers, he's asked how he's feeling as the returns start to roll in. Flashing a smile, Smith's not the least bit on edge.

"I hope this doesn't end up being some disasterous mistake on my part," Smith says of Adweek's presence in his newsroom on this big news night. The comment was meant as a joke, but there's no doubt the stakes are high for both the BuzzFeed brand and its chief editorial architect.

"I've never run an entire election operation before," Smith says matter of factly before shuffling away mid-sentence to powwow with politics reporter Zeke Miller over some early returns from North Carolina. Smith's ability to move abruptly between conversations and tasks perfectly captures BuzzFeed's ethos, which puts heavy value on the ability to lock-in and do work anywhere and everywhere. In fact, just watching Smith work is a sight unto itself—throughout the evening Smith fires off tweets, IMs and emails at his computer in a variety of contorted positions, sometimes splayed out in a nearly horizontal "Superman" position kneeling across a chair, another time squatting like a catcher at his desk at eye level with his keyboard, and at all times dialed-in.

In less than one year, BuzzFeed is almost unrecognizable from its humble beginnings as a viral link aggregation site. Over the past 11 months, the site has amassed an ever-growing staff of nearly 175 while constructing a fully functional national news operation. Known initially for its former meme-friendly social publishing strategy, BuzzFeed changed expectations last December when it brought on Smith, a former political blogger and quintessential Internet reporter, to become its editor in chief.

While BuzzFeed boasts 10 content verticals, the site has risen up around Smith and its politics vertical, which has attracted the likes of both seasoned and fresh-faced reporters alike. It goes without saying that a presidential election night is the Super Bowl for political reporters, yet, for the fledgling property, Tuesday night also felt like a coming of age milestone, as Adweek watched the online publisher trying to cement its place in an ever-changing news landscape. 

For a newsroom that usually produces dozens of pages of content an hour, there's suprisingly little to do this election night. "There's just no story line right now," community manager Ryan Broderick said around 9 p.m. "There haven't been any great CNN hologram-type moments yet," he noted, referring to 2008's election night, when Wolf Blitzer famously interviewed a virtual will.i.am after Obama's victory. BuzzFeed sports editor Jack Moore chimed in: "Twitter's also been hard to follow. There's so much going on it's hard to hone in on any specific event."

The lull is indicative of the non-central role that BuzzFeed and many other digital platforms occupy in this particular election cycle. Unlike cable and network TV, which have retained their role as the place to watch the returns come in, so far election night's proved less interesting on social platforms than its debate and primary counterparts. Whlie Smith and Miller feverishly follow the minute details of the race, feeding up-to-the-second returns information to BuzzFeed's social media editors and updating a live electoral map and post on the site's homepage, many on BuzzFeed's editorial staff don't shift into high gear until around 11 p.m., when it's clear Barack Obama will win re-election.

Smith is acutely aware of his site's role in this process. "A majority of people probably aren't sitting on our page all night hitting refresh on our maps," he said at the beginning of the night. "I think you'll see some of our best stuff come later in the night from our reporters out in the field. I'm encouraging everyone to write long—to write the big stories."

Aiming for big stories used to be traditional media's domain. But BuzzFeed works against the grain of a typical newsroom, which is frenzied and often hostile during breaking news. Around 11:15 p.m., even as the networks called the election for Obama, Smith and his editorial crew never break their even keel, hardly even reacting to the result.

"Shit," said politics reporter Andrew Kaczynski, looking a little shellshocked after Smith declares Obama the winner. "What do I do now?" Then, as if nothing had happened, Kaczynski put his headphones back on and resumed his perch monitoring Tweetdeck. For Kaczynski, a 22-year-old who has essentially invented his own brand of deep Internet-researched political reporting, this race has been the focal point of his short professional career, but as is often the case with this new brand of digital journalists, there is no time to stop and reflect, just more stuff to report.

Around 11:45 p.m., BuzzFeed's editorial staff is in full-tilt, picking apart the most important and potentially viral cultural, technical, and purely political moments from the night. Moore scours Twitter, noticing the racial backlash against President Obama, while tech editor John Herrman contributes a short post on an Obama tweet that has quickly set a record for the most retweets (within a matter of hours, Herrman's post goes viral, pulling in over 100,000 pageviews). Editors and reporters pitch their post ideas quickly to Smith, who usually responds with a simple "yes," which sends the writers scurrying back to their laptops to get to work.

The whir continues, as Smith and Miller plot their evening wrap story—which would go on to get 111,000 pageviews in 12 hours—and by 12:30 a.m., most of the non-essential editorial staff has left the office. Standing up from his desk to take a break, Smith declares the evening a success. Four years ago, Smith spent his election night in Grant Park at Obama's election night headquarters, rubbing elbows with campaign staff and journo elite, like the New Yorker's David Remnick. This year, however, sitting among his skeleton crew of mostly under-30 reporters, Smith seems immensely satisfied with his place at the head of the operation.

Across a row of desks a few editors discuss a viral photo on Tumblr of a mother who is "twerking to celebrate Obama's victory." "Do I need to Google what twerking is?" Smith asks cautiously. Immediately one of his young editors indulges him, standing up to mimic the suggestive dance move as Smith nods with a wry smile. "I should probably use what's left of my brain power to finish writing," he said.