AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
While Internet and tech giants like Google and Apple battle for dominance in the world of software and potentially hardware, there are social news sites trying to stake a claim on the enormous amount of Web traffic flowing to your phones and tablets.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Social new sites. Audie, explain what that means.
CORNISH: I hadn't heard of it either. Turns out those are the websites like BuzzFeed that used to make their bread and butter from funny animal videos, celebrity pictures and pop cultural jokes that go viral. That's social news.
BLOCK: I'm looking at buzzfeed.com right now. Audie, here's one of their top headlines: Samuel L. Jackson Sings About Bees in a Pink Wig. Who's coming up with this stuff?
CORNISH: I had the same question, so we spent a day with one of BuzzFeed's most popular editors, this 24-year-old guy named Matt Stopera. And his day doesn't start in the office. It starts on his couch in his apartment in Brooklyn where he spends the morning on his laptop clicking through hundreds of pop culture blogs, Tumblr picture pages and wire feeds looking for - well, it's not entirely clear.
MATT STOPERA: Weird, crazy dude on stilts. That is cute. A little girl with an ice cream cone up her nose, and a doll with eyebrows - always cute. I love corgis. That's like my favorite thing in the world. You know, anyone in the public eye with weird zoo animals is always a plus.
CORNISH: Now, any of these could inspire him to write a post that will, if he's lucky, go viral and capture the attention of millions of slack-jawed desk workers looking for a moment's diversion.
STOPERA: So David Beckham shirtless could always do like a gallery of that.
CORNISH: But creating a viral phenomenon isn't just about getting people to click, say, on that shirtless celebrity or picture of a cat yawning. Matt Stopera says BuzzFeed's business is built on getting people to go one step further and share on social networks like Facebook or email. By now, it's 8:45.
STOPERA: So this is when I start panicking a little bit.
CORNISH: Time to head to the office. Stopera grabs his helmet, bike lock and wraps the giant chain that goes with it around his waist. It'll take him about 40 minutes to bike in to BuzzFeed's new offices in Manhattan. There, most of the company's advertising sales team members are already at their desks working the phones and the gong.
(SOUNDBITE OF GONG)
CORNISH: Sales reps smash a tabletop gong every time a new company signs an ad deal with them. It's also a sign that BuzzFeed makes money. Ad revenue is still a dicey game for Internet media companies, but BuzzFeed says it's offering something different. The company's in-house ad writing team crafts advertisements that look and feel just like the funny charts and lists on the rest of the site.
STOPERA: So it's 10:35 right now. And I was really, really hot on my bike ride in and miserable. And right when I came in, everyone was miserable and talking about the heat.
CORNISH: As senior editor of pop culture and viral content, Matt Stopera is looking for ideas that everyone can identify with and therefore share and make viral. So he leans back in his chair and scrolls through wire pictures related to the heat wave.
STOPERA: And, you know, an elephant water splashing water...
CORNISH: He's sitting in the editorial section at a long white table with a dozen other people. The office is an airy, sunny loft cubicle-free with endless rows of computer monitors. Every few feet, wall size decorations of bright yellow circles with Web catch phrases are painted in black block lettering. They read LOL and OMG. Across the room, three TVs are airing congressional hearings. Nobody is watching.
(SOUNDBITE OF A CONGRESSIONAL HEARING)
CORNISH: Everyone's eyes are trained on their monitors. The army of 20-somethings click through Twitter streams, blogs, YouTube videos at a dizzying pace. If it sounds a little strange, that's because it is, says Kate Notopoulos. She used to have a day job at a PR firm and kept blogs with names like Shoes on the Subway as a hobby. That hobby got her a job at BuzzFeed.
KATE NOTOPOULOS: It took a lot of adjustment to feel like I was sitting at my computer and that I wasn't supposed to be doing something else. Like, that I didn't have a spreadsheet I was supposed to be working on, or this wasn't me goofing off. This was me actually doing what I was supposed to do.
CORNISH: But before Kate or Matt can get going, the company's new editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, has called a meeting. And he's got news.
BEN SMITH: Is everybody in here?
CORNISH: The site has opened a politics bureau in Washington and will partner with The New York Times for online coverage of the upcoming party conventions.
SMITH: And I think as the election comes up, I do think I've been pestering Stacy(ph) about like kind of memefying Joe Biden a bit more. But like, that conversation is going to get like, noisier and noisier and more central of the cultural conversation through November, at which point it will drop off a cliff. But until then, like, I do think there'll be fun riffs to be had on that.
CORNISH: It's all part of the four-year-old company's strategy to edge its way into serious news. Ben Smith, formerly a writer at the politics site Politico, was step one in that strategy. In January, investors poured $15 million into the company, essentially gambling on the question of whether BuzzFeed, the go-to place for cat videos, can evolve into the go-to place for hard news scoops. It's not as big a leap as you might think, says Ben Smith.
SMITH: Politics, in particular, has always been funny. The political conversation is always full of running jokes and riffs. And seems like it isn't something you should cover in a kind of stuffy humorless way.
CORNISH: Did anyone give you maybe a little bit of guff about making this transition?
SMITH: Oh, yeah. I mean, there was a whole series of Ben from BuzzFeed memes that were like, you know, Hello. I'm Ben from BuzzFeed. What's your favorite honey badger mashup, Mr. President?
CORNISH: So these are pictures of you and people with superimposed funny text over it.
SMITH: Yeah. A guy from Reuters started it.
CORNISH: The man who convinced Smith that the co-called social news Web could be more than honey badger videos was company founder Jonah Peretti.
JONAH PERETTI: Things like the Arab Spring were happening on Facebook and Twitter. Real serious reporting was spreading across Facebook and Twitter. And so we needed to evolve along with the social Web.
CORNISH: So you're essentially formalizing a process you think was already underway.
PERETTI: Yeah. We notice that the shift was happening. And I love long form content, and I love reporting. And so, seeing this opportunity to do that was really exciting and inspiring for me personally. But it also was something that we saw the big shift.
CORNISH: Are you looking at some point for this to be a news organization?
PERETTI: We already are a news organization.
CORNISH: He looks out in the newsroom where editor Ben Smith is huddling with a reporter over a new scoop, about an ugly email sent by the president of the Catholic League to a liberal rabbi. Meanwhile...
STOPERA: It's 2:00 right now. It's been a quiet day online. I've posted a picture of a seal that escaped a zoo.
CORNISH: But first, Matt Stopera has a brainstorming meeting with a special ops team of the best viral content editors, including the animal vertical chief - the guy actually paid to look at all those cat videos. They bat around some ideas.
STOPERA: How something looks like to you and what it looks like to a cat.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Proof that, like animals have souls or something. Like, you know what I mean? Like...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And then, like, how your pets are going to kill you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh, I love how your pets are going to kill you.
CORNISH: Oh, I love (unintelligible).
And Matt Stopera gets the inspiration he needs to finish his big post of the day.
STOPERA: So it is 3:55. Just finished my Steps to Chill Yourself Out. And there it is on the front page, and my thumbnail is actually the little girl with the ice cream cone up her nose.
CORNISH: And, Melissa, that was Matt's big post of the day.
BLOCK: Steps to Chill Yourself Out?
BLOCK: Did it go viral?
CORNISH: No. Actually, it only got about 40,000 views. The post with the most amount of hits right now, it's called: 21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity.
BLOCK: This was popping up on my Facebook feed all this weekend. I didn't open up the picture, so I have no idea whether they actually will restore my faith in humanity, Audie.
CORNISH: Well, it's the biggest hit on the site. It's got nearly seven million views, and it's by the editor of the Animal Beat.
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