BuzzFeed’s Jon Steinberg Trumpets Shift to Hard News

President/COO admits, though, that traffic from scoops pales compared to lighter fare

Adweek: Tell me about BuzzFeed’s Social Storytelling program, which you launched in May.

Jon Steinberg: It’s very much evocative of the kind of authorization and training programs that we did when I was at Google [where Steinberg was strategic partner development manager on the company’s small medium business partnerships team], and we’ve seen Facebook do as well. Basically, when you have a new format or new ad product, you can’t just expect people to start using it. You have to offer training and accreditation and help. So the Social Storytelling program is very much a training program. We’re basically taking the training and education programs that we have for all new BuzzFeed hires, whether they’re on the business side or product side or creative side, and offering them up to agencies so they can understand how to use our dashboard and publishing system to create content that’s really good for young people and native to the Web.

Your editorial side is completely separate from the group who works on sponsored posts, right?

Yeah, we've been very rigorous about this. There’s a team of about 25 people that work on creative who are totally separate from the team of 90 people that does reporting. When I got here three years, we were 15 people, and we just crossed 300 people, not including interns.

You also partnered with CNN to produce co-branded news videos earlier this summer. Do you think that BuzzFeed videos can achieve the same vitality as your lists and other content?

Yes, it absolutely can. We had our first CNN video cross a million views—it was the Awkward Celebrity Moments one. We brought on Ze Frank as our evp of video—he was one of the original Web video stars—and he took a very different twist on video than what people were doing before. A lot of people were just creating a large volume of video content that resembled television. And that’s not what works on YouTube or the Web. Ze likes to say that there’s no beginning, middle or end in Web video. There’s just end, end and end. Video has to be compelling and jam-packed with interesting and novel information.

Have you done sponsored video yet?

We’ve done numerous ones for GE and Virgin Mobile.

You hired Peter Lauria from Reuters to help launch your business vertical last spring. How is that going?

I’m a big business news junkie, and it’s almost always the coverage that I wanted. The team is poring through earnings call transcripts or going to analyst days and picking up nuggets that a lot of people might have passed over. They also do a lot of interesting things in the BuzzFeed style, like a post about “People Looking Excited in Front of Their Bloomberg Terminals” or “Why Short Selling Stocks Is Like Mean Girls.” But we’ve also gotten some pretty good scoops.

Are there any more verticals left to launch? It seems like you have most of the Web covered.

Well, I think we will do more. I don’t think [editor in chief Ben Smith] wants to create a vertical in everything. Right now, we’re very focused on international. I don’t see us opening giant bureaus in every country, but we definitely want to cover more of the world. To say we can have a reporter in every major city sounds daunting now, but in five years, almost anything is possible.

At first, a lot of the reporters you recruited had digital backgrounds, but now you’re hiring from legacy print organizations, like Miriam Elder of The Guardian or Lisa Tozzi from The New York Times. What’s the appeal for them to go to a purely digital company like BuzzFeed?

I think there are two factors. One is that we’re really focused on social as a distribution mechanism, which is a really high standard for content. The other is our emphasis on scoops. It’s exciting for a reporter to come in and know that your mandate is to find original information that people want to share, as opposed to aggregating or regurgitating.

[BuzzFeed founder and CEO] Jonah Peretti has said that it’s a lot harder to make hard news go viral. How much of your traffic comes from hard news versus lighter content?

About a third of the distribution is verticalized content. For us, a very successful hard story will get hundreds of thousands of views, with a significant portion from sharing. A very successful piece of social/emotional content will get 5, 6, 10 million views.

And people don’t visit the verticals to get content as much as they find it through social shares, do they?

Ben likes to say that the front page of the politics vertical is Twitter, and I think that we’ve tried to leverage that. A lot of outlets want to have everybody come to their front page. Our attitude is that we want people to consume lots of BuzzFeed content in the ways that they want to. The front page has grown to be enormous over time, and during certain world events we see people heading to the front page to see what’s happening, but we have a very distributed worldview as far as how people get the content.

How much BuzzFeed content is user-generated?

The community vertical is relatively nascent. At one point, about three years ago, we had much more community content than we do right now. Part of that is because we’ve spent so much time focusing on the original reporting and our full-time staff, and it’s crowded the community out to a certain extent. But we realized that there’s a bigger opportunity with community content, so we needed to reboot the whole community vertical. I don’t know what the actual percentage [of user-created content versus BuzzFeed content] is, but we’re starting to see the amount of community content go up. I think we’ll end up having thousands of community contributors that get content that gets large amounts of views. But I don’t think we’ll ever be a site with millions of contributors because creating a great BuzzFeed post is not something that can be done easily.

Do you think that the novelty of BuzzFeed as a real news outlet will ever wear off? Will you stop being referred to as the cat meme website?

I think we have to keep evolving. To me, what’s exciting and scary is that 18 months ago when Ben joined, we had no hard news, and now, we’re routinely mentioned as a place that you would get hard and serious news from. It makes me think of the Andy Grove line, “Only the paranoid survive.” Part of the reason why we moved so hard into video, or DIY, which does so well on Pinterest, or business, where LinkedIn is basically the go-to network, is because we wanted to keep exploring these new pathways. People are afraid to disrupt themselves.