Skip to content
Jul 21 / King Kaufman

Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith on the changes in media and journalism

Buzzfeed editor in chief Ben Smith visited the Nieman Foundation at Harvard back in February and gave a talk about the state of online media.

As we discuss all the time around here, online media changes quickly, and it’s been five months, but I think we can still derive some value out of this ancient document, “12 Things BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith Thinks You Should Know about Journalism.”

That piece has an hour-long video of Smith’s conversation, but if you don’t have that kind of time, it helpfully pulls out a dozen of his best points. Here are the ones that caught my eye:

One of the advantages of starting from scratch is that you can rethink beat structures. Gay rights is this huge story of the last 10 years, but it’s covered as a B-list beat at a lot of publications just because it always has been. For us, it’s very much a frontline beat and we’re able to hire the best reporters who really own that beat.

This is a huge point. An important question I think the people in any media organization should be asking themselves, constantly, is: “If we were launching today, how would we do things?” It’s a great way to keep up—or catch up—and avoid getting bogged down in legacy issues. That is, “This is how we’ve always done it.”

Each story has a potential audience and if it’s a story about Ukraine or a story about lobbying in D.C., there are maybe tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people who might, in an ideal world, share and read that story. If it’s a feature about rebuilding a house in Detroit, there may be millions. If it’s a list of cute animals or something that’s about a universal human experience, there may be tens of millions. We think: What’s the possible audience for this piece and let’s try to hit that whole audience.

Similar to the points made by New York Times sports editor Jason Stallman, as discussed in a B/R Blog post last week. Who’s the audience? What do they want? We can of course substitute different types of sports stories for “Ukraine,” “lobbying in D.C.” and “rebuilding a house in Detroit.”

You can’t trick people into sharing things. They have to really like it and be proud to share it.

And …

If you’re in the social mix, what you’re getting is an individual story that has punched through because it’s really good. It doesn’t really matter if you’ve heard of the writer before.

If you want people to share your stories, make them original, interesting and good. That’s all you have to do!