Breaking News Is Broken; Could Buzzfeed Be the One to Fix It?

The social news site is figuring out ways to bring "breaking news" and "social news" together (cat GIFs optional).

Screen Shot 2013-04-25 at 12.51.44 PM.pngThe headlines summed it up, or tried to: "Major breaking news errors." "The brokenness of breaking news." "Breaking news is broken."

And, yep: Last week's big breaking news story brought, as it always does, a long string of misinformation that was spread and then amplified by the media. The running man. The Reddit bomber hunts. The police scanners that were connected, via human interfaces, to Twitter. We were awash in data, but had, at first, very few ways to convert it into knowledge.

This, says Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed, was not new. "There was this illusion pre-Twitter that news wasn't messy," he told me. But breaking news on any platform, he notes, has always been messy. And dealing with the chaos -- ordering it, prioritizing it, deciding what to emphasize and what to underplay -- is part of what it means to be a news organization, particularly in a real-time news environment like the one the web has given us. Buzzfeed, home of cats and corgis and 26 Reasons Kids Are Pretty Much Just Tiny Drunk Adults, was one of the outlets engaging in that real-time Swiffery last week. Buzzfeed's visits, like those of many other news sites, spiked as people in the U.S. and abroad hungrily sought news about the bombings and their perpetrators. "We had people coming to us in a new way to see what was going on," Smith says. And while it wasn't the first time Buzzfeed found people turning toward it as a source for breaking news -- the site has found again and again, Smith says, that people flock to it during big, breaking-news events -- "I was really proud of our coverage, and we learned a lot from it."

Today, Buzzfeed is taking a step to advance that learning, and to make breaking news an even more integral -- and even more deliberate -- aspect of its approach to social news. The outfit is bringing on a News Director who will manage its breaking-news coverage on a day-to-day (and, if situations call for it, night-to-night) basis. To fill the role, Buzzfeed has made yet another big hire from The New York Times: Lisa Tozzi, an editor on the paper's news desk. Tozzi, Smith says, is that Buzzfeed-ideal combination of hard-boiled news reporter ("she's covered murders," he points out) and savvy social-media user. She is also, to extrapolate from Buzzfeed's News Director job description, "an experienced, fast, obsessive, and Twitter-savvy player-coach."

At Buzzfeed, starting mid-May, Tozzi will supervise a team of ten reporters. Her role, though it's new and still somewhat to-be-determined, will be to oversee a mix of what Smith calls "straight-ahead news stories" and more image-focused, list-friendly, generally Buzzfeed-y fare. Though Tozzi will assign and write stories, her job will also be strategic: to figure out how best to use social platforms as both reporting and delivery tools, and to determine Buzzfeed's particular role to play in an environment where news is fast and furious and, at first, not always factual. "A big story breaks, and there's a kind of puzzle before you," Tozzi puts it. "You're trying to figure out how all these pieces fit together."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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