When Ben Smith announced last month that he was leaving Politico to become editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, the media industry responded with a collective, "Huh?"
Pundits wasted no time dismissing BuzzFeed as an aggregator of memes and pop culture. Smith himself even said during an appearance on CNN's "Reliable Sources" that Politico is the best place in the galaxy to be a political reporter.
"I expected people to be totally confused," says Smith, who had been a high-profile political blogger at Politico.
Tired of rehashing stories reported through social media, Smith decided to strike out on his own. Instead of playing catch-up, he would be breaking news. In his farewell blog entry for Politico, Smith laid out his intentions: to build the first true social news organization.
So he retired his Twitter handle, @Benpolitico, and became @BuzzFeedBen.
"I'm a consumer," Smith says. "Twitter is my primary way of getting my news. It just made sense to me to organize a news organization around that."
The announcement of Smith's hire — combined with a $15.5 million influx of cash from investors — created a surge of momentum for BuzzFeed. Since taking the position, Smith says he has been bombarded with feedback.
Said Twitter user @Deal_Junkie: "My twitter feed these days, buzzfeed, buzzfeed, buzzfeed, thanks to @BuzzFeedBen. I thought buzzfeed only showed pictures of cute cats?"
The overwhelming consensus: BuzzFeed is everywhere.
"I think we're off to an amazing start," Smith says. "It made sense to consumers — maybe not to insiders."
One of Smith's first orders of business as editor-in-chief was to shift BuzzFeed's focus more toward original content. To that end, he has hired a dozen or so reporters to enable the Web site to break news.
"I think scoops give you credibility," he says.
BuzzFeed's new journalists are already popping up on the campaign trail. On Thursday, for example, reporter Rosie Gray broke the news about Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum's response to a political flyer passed out in South Carolina that attacked his wife.
"They're people who want to do original reporting — not aggregation or commentary," Smith says of his reporters.
BuzzFeed is bolstering more than its political coverage. On Friday, Smith tweeted that the company had picked up Rolling Stone senior editor Doree Shafrir, who will head the Web site's pop culture section.
But while BuzzFeed is vying to become a trusted voice among those who get their news online, Smith is not downplaying the Web site's quirkiness. On Thursday, BuzzFeed scored the four participants in CNN's South Carolina GOP debate not with letter grades but with BuzzFeed's reaction buttons, or "Badges," tags usually awarded to images and videos that have gone viral. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich scored a "win" for denouncing CNN's John King for opening the debate with a question about allegations made by his ex-wife Marianne Gingrich. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was branded with a "fail" after an uneven performance. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul earned an "omg" and "cute," respectively. (The candidates avoided "wtf?" and "trashy," at least.)
Smith says he thought the badges seemed "sort of legitimate" to the debate.
"We shouldn't take people more seriously than they take themselves," he says. That mentality is also the reason why Smith doesn't see a problem with combining hard news and humor―when scrolling through their Twitter feeds, followers are free to pick and choose between BuzzFeed's original content and viral posts.
Perhaps surprisingly, Smith's presence (or lack thereof) on BuzzFeed suggests most of his work has taken place behind the scenes — his name is nowhere to be found on the "Team" page, for example. But on Wednesday, Smith wrote an editorial opposing the Stop Online Piracy Act, blacking out BuzzFeed's banner and joining Web players such as Google, Reddit and Wikipedia in raising awareness about the issue.
"The impulse [SOPA] acts on basically rejects the startling, wonderful media developments of the last decade, during which journalism — allegedly dead — has been vibrantly reborn," he wrote. The legislation stalled in the wake of powerful online opposition.
Smith says BuzzFeed will rarely take editorial positions but did so in this case because SOPA represented a clear threat to online innovation. "It seems to me like the impulse behind SOPA represents a real attack on the way people in fact consume or like to consume their information," says Smith, describing his opposition as an obvious position.
At first glance, BuzzFeed may appear to have more in common with its fellow SOPA protesters than with more traditional news organizations. Like Reddit, BuzzFeed organizes its content based on user feedback. Still, Smith says he is more focused on building a news source than an online community.
"I think that we are more like the New York Times than we are like Reddit," he says. "We're a news organization, basically. Every day, we ask ourselves, 'How are we going to outdo what we did yesterday?' "
While Smith may be staking out new ground with BuzzFeed, he says social media have blurred the lines between print and online journalism.
"I just don't think [online journalism] is a separate category," he says. "I just think great journalists are most concerned with how their stuff is received online."
And for a Web site that used to run exclusively on capturing online trends, generating feedback may be BuzzFeed's key to success.