Late last night, the news that Politico writer Ben Smith would be joining viral content site BuzzFeed as its new editor-in-chief sent waves through the media sphere. The partnership seemed unlikely, to say the least: Smith, who joined Politico at its launch five years ago, has made a name for himself as one of the site’s top bloggers on politics and media news. BuzzFeed, meanwhile, has made its own reputation as a source of cute animal photos and Web memes.
But according to BuzzFeed co-founder Jonah Peretti, the site's grand plan to add original reporting to its viral offerings is part of a natural progression. “As the social Web evolves, it gets more and more mature, and becomes the way people get all of their content information,” he said by phone. “One of the most viral kinds of content is breaking news, so it fits really nicely.”
To that end, one of Smith’s main tasks as editor in chief will be to hire a team of scoop-hungry reporters. “I think the one piece that was missing from BuzzFeed was breaking news and original reporting,” said Peretti. “So having a dedicated team will allow us to create lots of entertaining and humorous content that people want to pass around, but also news and stories that are meaningful and substantive.”
While Smith’s move certainly wasn’t expected, it may not come as a complete shock to anyone who has been closely following BuzzFeed’s most recent editorial moves. BuzzFeed had already begun quietly ramping up its editorial staff, announcing last week that Whitney Jefferson and Gawker’s Matt Cherette would be joining the site—and not, presumably, just to comment on videos of kittens. In the past several months, the site has also started featuring a smattering of original reporting on events like Occupy Wall Street, as well as BuzzFeed-created events, like a rally for Ryan Gosling as People’s “Sexiest Man Alive.”
If this blending of breaking news and highly clickable content seems to evoke another popular site, consider the fact that Peretti also happens to have co-founded The Huffington Post (along with his BuzzFeed partner Ken Lerer). But Peretti declined to draw any comparisons between the two sites, saying only that “our vision is to build a site that is for the social Web, not for search, not for getting headline clicks, but focused instead on how you make things that are interesting and informative and that people want to share with their friends. I don’t think that there has been a news organization yet that thinks of the world that way.”
As for how Peretti managed to lure a big-name political writer to BuzzFeed, he gives much of the credit to his friend Peter Kaplan, the editorial director of the Fairchild Fashion Group who was once Smith’s editor at The New York Observer. “I definitely sold Ben on the vision of how social content is transforming the world and the media industry, but Peter really helped him understand how it could be big for journalism and reporting, and that got Ben really excited on two levels,” Peretti said.
After Smith officially joins BuzzFeed on Jan. 1, he’ll continue to write a once-weekly column for Politico, and considering where BuzzFeed’s political news coverage currently stands (articles include “The Time Mitt Romney Was Forced to Poop in a Bucket”), Smith’s ties with Politico could prove a big advantage for his new site. “We’ve been thinking about ways we can work [with Politico],” said Peretti, “and I’m sure we’ll have a friendly relationship where we’re linking to each other and supporting each other.” (Smith's blogging duties at Politico will largely be taken over by Dylan Byers, formerly of Adweek.)
For now, Peretti isn’t ready to make any announcements concerning which verticals his editorial team will focus on, saying only that the site is still planning its next moves. Said Peretti: “It’s going to be a busy and exciting year.”