The Mystery Team That Recruited Ben Smith to BuzzFeed

Buzzfeed co-founder Jonah Peretti played it pretty coy when we tracked him down to ask about how he lured veteran blogger Ben Smith startled to lead a new team of scoop-hungry journalists at fun-machine BuzzFeed.

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(Updated 1:36 p.m.) Buzzfeed co-founder Jonah Peretti played it pretty coy when we tracked him down to ask about how he lured veteran blogger Ben Smith startled to lead a new team of scoop-hungry journalists at fun-machine BuzzFeed. "I can't really tell the story because it involves a couple third parties that I haven't asked if they want me to talk about it," Peretti told The Atlantic Wire. "I basically pitched him on the way that our technology works and the way the content is moving towards the social web." He conceded, "He totally agreed and believe all that is true but was trying to wrap his head around what that means for journalism, and then I sent him to a couple of friends that got him really excited. So I can't take full credit for bringing him on."

Smith himself identified at least one third party who helped him make the jump: "Peter Kaplan, my old editor [at The New York Observer], definitely helped talk me into it," Ben Smith told us. "He has a great sense -- like what The Observer used to do -- to project a sensibility and explain at a fairly high altitude what's going on." (A few minutes later, Peretti confirmed in an email, "Peter is the mystery man!!!")

Smith went on to explain that he turned Peretti down, initially. "I had lunch with Jonah and thought, 'I could never do anything like this.'" It was also his wife Liena Zagare, a blogger and director of special projects for AOL's Patch, who got Smith to reconsider. But Jonah does deserve some credit. "He genuinely persuaded me," Smith. "I think it's going to be a very fun. We're not starting from scratch. We're sort of starting with the beating heart of the Internet."

Smith had startled his 59,000 Twitter followers with the news just after midnight with an announcement. The social media site and is better known for flagging shareable content (like this currently trending video of a blind kitten helping to set up a Christmas tree) than cornering lawmakers with tough questions. But BuzzFeed is about to evolve. "Home news: I'm going to be editor-in-chief of @buzzfeed," Smith first tweeted. A few seconds later Smith added, "Very excited to be joining @peretti, @scottlamb@mattstopera & to hire some great reporters to build the first true social news organization." The news immediately went viral. By the time the news cycle fired up on Monday morning, the, er, buzz was deafening. Around 9 a.m., Frontline's Andrew Golis seemed to sum up everyone's chief curiosity in a tweet: "I would kill to hear the pitch @peretti made on the future of @buzzfeed to lure @benpolitico over. Fascinating move." Smith replied right away, "Now that's actually a funny story."

Despite Peretti's coyness, another one of the mystery suitors for the recruiting of Smith could be Peretti's former Huffington Post partner, Ken Lerer. Smith admitted that he played a part but that he doesn't "have a great story" about Lerer's involvement in the hiring process. In a number of ways, the burgeoning BuzzFeed model for journalism doesn't sound too different than HuffPost. After he starts on January 1, Ben Smith will continue to scoop up talented young reporters -- so far, BuzzFeed's already nabbed Jezebel's Whitney Jefferson and Gawker's Matt Cherette -- and start to roll out content verticals specific to what the new breed of BuzzFeed journalists will be covering. Like HuffPost, the BuzzFeed approach to journalism aims to break the mold. Instead of just reporting on a major story, Peretti explained, BuzzFeed's new editorial team will "refract that story in a lot of different ways." Instead of just reporting that a teenager won the Siemens prize for developing a potential cure for cancer, we'd imagine, BuzzFeed would cover the news as well as the Internet memes that the story spawns as well as other fun, shareable reactions.

This sounds a lot like Peretti's famous idea: the "mullet" approach to content. At HuffPost for instance, the front page leads with hard news but reading down the page reveals clickier content: slideshows, viral videos, the notorious nip slip or two. It's not hard to find a HuffPost editor who will admit that the "party in the back" brought the kind of growth that enabled the site to start hiring reporters and become one of the first blogs with a reporter in the White House press pool. It would appear that BuzzFeed is approaching a similar point in its history, but Perreti insists that the web is a fundamentally different place today than it was in the mid-Aughts. And for that reason, BuzzFeed can leapfrog over withering conventions like tailoring content to Google's algorithms (think: HuffPost) and shaking off the shackles of a print legacy (think: New York Times) that remain challenging for the major players. Peretti was careful to say that he ended his involvement with HuffPost after the AOL acquisition almost a year ago, during which BuzzFeed grew from 8 million monthly unique visitors to over 20 million, and wouldn't speak directly about the comparison.
"I think the thing that I'm most excited about is having the social web be the starting point," Peretti told us. "That starting point is a huge advantage for a news site, and we want to build a big social news organization. It's hard to switch once you're addicted to Google." Peretti went on to explain how BuzzFeed's small team of editors has already started to come up with new ways of reporting that involve not only covering stories but engaging in them as they happen. The best example he offered was the coordinated effort spearheaded by BuzzFeed that brought dozens of people to People's doorstep with RyGos face masks to protest the magazine's not naming Ryan Gosling as the Sexiest Man Alive this year. Imagine a more serious future in which BuzzFeed readers show up on the campaign trail with masks.
Somehow refreshingly, we couldn't get Peretti to engage in the we're-gonna-kill-print dialogue we heard earlier this year when Arianna Huffington and former executive editor Bill Keller got into a public argument about aggregation. After all, Smith will continue to write a weekly column at Politico, and we wouldn't be surprised to see BuzzFeed start sending traffic to the wonkier sites that Smith frequently links to. It all sounds so… welcoming. "I don't think the media business is winner-take-all, so we don't need other people to lose for us to win," Peretti said as he headed off for his next interview. "We just wanna be a bigger and more vibrant part of the social web -- to help define what the social web is and build something new and different."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.