Once upon a time, not very long ago, publishing was a massive, visceral operation. It required buckets of ink, reams of paper, and mammoth machines that clanked and roared and churned. To stop the presses was a violent decision—also, a costly one.
Publishing nowadays seems muted in comparison. All it takes to make a news article appear—or disappear—is the silent press of a button from a handheld smartphone.
But removing an article from the web is still arguably the most dramatic choice a news organization can make.* Which is why BuzzFeed caused a stir this week when it chose to delete a post that was critical of a new beauty campaign by Dove. (Gawker was first to note the deletion of the piece, which you can still read here.) "Once again, soap is acting condescending," BuzzFeed's Arabelle Sicardi wrote. The article was removed and replaced with a message that says, "We pulled this post because it is not consistent with the tone of BuzzFeed Life." (BuzzFeed republished the post Friday afternoon, saying the initial deletion was in violation of its editorial standards. BuzzFeed's top editor explained the choice in a memo to employees.)
The removal was puzzling for a couple of reasons. For one, from an outsider's perspective, there's nothing about the tone of the piece that seems clearly antithetical to the tone of any number of BuzzFeed pieces. And the decision to remove it from the site appears to run counter to BuzzFeed's own editorial standards, published to the site back in January:
Editorial posts should never be deleted for reasons related to their content, or because a subject or stakeholder has asked you to do so. If a technical issue arises—like a duplicate post or an incorrect URL—email bugs or your manager. If a post was published ahead of schedule, remove it from all site promotion and ask bugs to unpublish it for you. If two people inadvertently created a post on the same subject, both posts should be left on the site.
The situation is confusing, too, because a BuzzFeed memo apparently intended to clarify the decision introduced further inconsistencies. Here's an excerpt:
When we approach charged topics like body image and feminism, we need to show not tell. (That's a good rule in general, by the way.) We can and should report on conversations that are happening around something that we have opinions about, but using our own voices (and hence, BuzzFeed's voice) to advance a personal opinion often isn't in line with BuzzFeed Life's tone and editorial mission.
This is not something we or Ben have made as clear as we need to. We've never had to pull a post before, and it's something that came with a lot of back-and-forth debate. In other words, it wasn't an easy decision. But it is where we ended up at when thinking more about our editorial mission and how we can further chip away at what we do and what we don't do.
The main takeaway is: When we write about news-related topics revolving around class, race, and feminism and other heated topics, it's important that we show the conversation that is happening, or find other people who can give smart and valid quotes to make the point, or, ideally, add to the conversation with something substantively new. BuzzFeed Life has had such a huge positive impact on people's lives by communicating our values in a fair and demonstrative way, rather than telling our audience how to think and feel.
The idea that BuzzFeed doesn't tell its audience how to think and feel is, to anyone who has read the site, obviously wrong. The site routinely writes posts meant to persuade its audience about newsworthy issues—like the California drought and the decision to get vaccinated. The reluctance about taking a stance is also weirdly old-school for a media organization that's usually better than its peers at navigating the contemporary news environment.