Journalist Q&A: Ben Smith, BuzzFeed

Ben Smith, who has been editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed since January 1, talks to Emory Sullivan about staffing up and the site's new focus on original content and breaking news.

Name: Ben Smith
Title: Editor-in-chief
Outlet: BuzzFeed
Preferred contact: ben@buzzfeed.com
Website: Buzzfeed.com

Ben Smith, who has been editor- in-chief of BuzzFeed since January 1, talks to Emory Sullivan about staffing up and the site's new focus on original content and breaking news

How do you respond to those skeptical of your move from Politico to BuzzFeed, a site known for meme aggregation?
I don't think people are skeptical - at least not anymore. We're reacting to the news world as it is. Reporters and readers are spending a lot of time on these social media streams, so it would be crazy not to operate in that space.

The shift to social media, which can sound a bit jargony when people talk about it, is very much the world I inhabited as a political reporter. Twitter is where political conversation is taking place and it drained a lot of the life out of my blog, but I enjoyed being on Twitter. The idea that you write for social media just seemed totally natural.

How is social media changing politics?
There's this new immediacy between political figures and operatives and anybody who wants to be in the conversation. If you're witty or crazy enough, you can interact with President Obama's top advisers. They're likely reading their at-replies - and that really is new.

What has been the most professionally satisfying moment for you?
The debates - to be breaking news and have political reporters doing really sharp analyses and storytelling from the scene of these debates. In addition, we are cutting videos faster and more intelligently than anybody else, making memes, GIFs, and photo posts that are more attractive, smarter, and more plugged into the political conversation. We're having fun mixing these things up and not imagining that there's something illegitimate about one form or the other.

How will BuzzFeed's expanding beats affect the website's layout?
The site's look will change to accommodate all the original content we produce, but we won't scrap what's working. We will be careful with our changes so we don't alienate our existing community, who we love. We want everything to be very easy to find, which is always a challenge.

You're shaping a new staff. How will you build a cohesive team?
Hiring is incredibly emotional and intense. I brought in people who really know their way around. For example, Matt Buchanan, who will run our tech vertical, is a real star. He was one at Gizmodo.

Will any PR, marketing, or ad efforts accompany BuzzFeed's makeover?
We will hire a publicist to get some of our content and our reporters to people who are interested in them along more traditional channels. We'd like to see our reporters on TV.

Do you plan to stick to hard news or expand into cultural beats?
Both. Doree [Shafrir, BuzzFeed's new executive editor] has written and edited a lot about pop culture, so she has a great understanding of those beats. More often, however, we will roll out harder news articles. I'll continue to play on politics, as well as manage the whole thing. The political team will report directly to me.

What stories have BuzzFeed journalists broken?
In January, Andrew Kaczynski dug up the 200-page opposition book that John McCain had done on Mitt Romney - a great find and an exclusive. We also broke the news that McCain was going to endorse Romney. Rosie Gray broke the news that Rick Santorum would not be returning to Florida.

How will making BuzzFeed stand out from more established online news sources, such as sister site The Huffington Post, affect content?
We're not trying to be comprehensive. We want to tell people something new with every item - something that's new to people who are living in the social streams. That's different from what a lot of people are trying to do.

Most people who care about politics realize it's complicated, yet funny, but there's not really a full way in your traditional 1,200-word news article to reckon with that. We've been able to capture that really well.

I'm thrilled with the quality of the reporting we've been able to do, and the mix of great explanatory reporting and scoops, as well as clever approaches to news. I look forward to seeing us do that again in these other spaces.

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