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The social media site BuzzFeed has built a huge following by producing a steady stream of offerings, like a list of the 10 most life-affirming dog rescue stories ever, and 11 horror movies that never should have been remade. These get tweeted, forwarded, liked and read by millions of people around the world.
Yet as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, BuzzFeed is also building a team of journalists to offer original news reporting; raising the question of what, exactly, it wants to be.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Sections on the site include LOL, WIN, OMG, CUTE, TRASHY, FAIL and WTF. But BuzzFeed's news reports have earned respect from journalists at more established news organizations.
BEN SMITH: I mean, when we look at, like, you know, who we feel like we're really competing with - look at The New York Times, look at the Guardian because they're doing, you know, great stories that people are sharing on Twitter, on Facebook because, you know, these are meaningful stories, or these are stories that are advancing the news
FOLKENFLIK: A pretty bold claim. That voice belongs to Ben Smith, the charismatic BuzzFeed editor-in-chief hired two years ago from Politico. Under Smith, BuzzFeed has hired reporters to cover politics and culture; and added others in Cairo, Istanbul, Russia and most recently Nairobi; offering stories with distinctive takes, not just the latest development.
BuzzFeed attracted more than 130 million unique visitors in November, yet most arrive for the viral posts that made it famous. Publicity director Catherine Bartosevich points out conference rooms at its new Manhattan headquarters which have memorable names.
CATHERINE BARTOSEVICH: There's No-No-No Cat, Cat with a Tiny Hat - Kitten with a Tiny Hat, excuse me; Birthday Cat, Business Cat, Little Bub.
FOLKENFLIK: These were important cats.
BARTOSEVICH: Very important, yes.
FOLKENFLIK: The stuff of which digital dreams are made. Many of BuzzFeed's several hundred editorial staffers create GIFs - brief video clips used to comedic effect or sometimes, to do more: to illustrate current events. So the reality show "The Hills" illustrates strife in Syria. I lost count of the number of posts invoking Tina Fey's movie "Mean Girls." The whole thing is pretty hilarious, but therein lies the rub.
James Bankoff is CEO of Vox Media, a network of sites focusing on such varied topics as sports, technology, video games, real estate, food and fashion.
JAMES BANKOFF: Retail outlets have brands - Target means one thing, Wal-Mart means another, and Saks Fifth Avenue means yet another thing.
FOLKENFLIK: BuzzFeed has a brand, too, Bankoff says, and stands in some peril of blurring it.
BANKOFF: A brand that at once floods the zone with a lot of interesting, cute lists; and also has aspirations to be a journalistic outlet, you know, really has to reconcile with exactly how they're going to build brand identity around two things that might not be compatible, in a lot of cases.
FOLKENFLIK: Ben Smith argues there's no confusion. More than half of BuzzFeed's traffic comes from people's tweets, Facebook posts, emails and other referrals. So Smith says many people don't experience BuzzFeed as a unified publisher or website. Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed's CEO and founder, points to the site's creation.
JONAH PERETTI: The joke used to be that you'd share what you had for lunch on Twitter and Facebook, with pictures of your friends getting drunk. And then cute animals and jokes and humor and Internet geek culture started to emerge on those platforms, and that's really where BuzzFeed started.
FOLKENFLIK: But then, Peretti said, the Arab Spring happened and played out on Facebook, and people took to Twitter to monitor breaking news. Hiring reporters is expensive for BuzzFeed, as it is for everyone else, and yet it proved necessary to draw certain kinds of news readers and advertisers.
PERETTI: We realized we had a huge hole in the content we were publishing. We didn't have news. We didn't have reporters. We didn't have any of the kinds of things that were starting to become increasingly shared across the social Web.
FOLKENFLIK: The strategy involves targeting different content for different platforms. On Twitter, news junkies and experts may share BuzzFeed's more detailed stories; while Facebook users may be curious, but less well-informed. They're aiming for people under 40, hence stories about gay rights in Russia ahead of the Winter Olympics, or a post focusing on racist tweets after the crowning of the first Miss America of Asian-Indian descent - 5.7 million people clicked on that link. That's a lot of people.
Kelly McBride argues the posting was successfully designed to be hugely popular. But as a result, she says, BuzzFeed misled readers about the extent to which the new Miss America sparked a racist response.
KELLY MCBRIDE: People who were sharing it, were sharing it because they were outraged - not because they shared the sentiments of the tweeters that were making the posts.
FOLKENFLIK: McBride is a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla. She says BuzzFeed missed the larger story - that people overwhelmingly embraced the new Miss America.
MCBRIDE: What does it mean when something goes viral on BuzzFeed? Does it mean that it's the most important topic for the day, or is there another issue behind it?
FOLKENFLIK: The very fact that people share that content with others, Peretti and Smith say, proves it is meaningful. They say BuzzFeed is really best understood like an old-fashioned television network; with newscasts, sitcoms, soap operas and sports at different times of day. Tens of millions may feast on BuzzFeed posts about animals, Smith says...
SMITH: And the audience of people who care about the latest incremental development in Syria or in - you know, may be hundreds of thousands; and the people who may care about the latest incremental development in the law regarding, you know, whether or not you can fire someone for being transgender, may be 10,000.
FOLKENFLIK: BuzzFeed wants them all. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.
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