Commentary Magazine


Topic: BuzzFeed

What BuzzFeed’s Success Can Teach Vox

National Journal has earned the ire of progressive bloggers today with its story noting that the White House long ago figured out how to essentially incorporate liberal writers into the Obama communications shop. The article notes the access given to some of these bloggers, though it does not exclude targeting the liberal bloggers not invited to the White House, whose willingness to parrot administration talking points does not require flattery or coordination.

But there is one that stands out, and I think it’s an interesting aspect to some of the recent developments in political new media. From the story:

Consider: A search of White House records shows Ezra Klein, then with The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, visiting more than 25 times since 2009; last week, a Post story detailed the travails of Lesley Clark, a White House reporter for McClatchy who has been to the Oval Office three times in the last three years, and has asked one question directly to Obama in all that time.

Klein’s visits with Democratic politicians have always been about more than pressing a message; elected Democrats see his status as a “wonk” as an opportunity both to glean information from him and as a messenger of their own perspective who carries more credibility with the policy community than other bloggers. But that presumed credibility is a trap both sides have fallen into.

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National Journal has earned the ire of progressive bloggers today with its story noting that the White House long ago figured out how to essentially incorporate liberal writers into the Obama communications shop. The article notes the access given to some of these bloggers, though it does not exclude targeting the liberal bloggers not invited to the White House, whose willingness to parrot administration talking points does not require flattery or coordination.

But there is one that stands out, and I think it’s an interesting aspect to some of the recent developments in political new media. From the story:

Consider: A search of White House records shows Ezra Klein, then with The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, visiting more than 25 times since 2009; last week, a Post story detailed the travails of Lesley Clark, a White House reporter for McClatchy who has been to the Oval Office three times in the last three years, and has asked one question directly to Obama in all that time.

Klein’s visits with Democratic politicians have always been about more than pressing a message; elected Democrats see his status as a “wonk” as an opportunity both to glean information from him and as a messenger of their own perspective who carries more credibility with the policy community than other bloggers. But that presumed credibility is a trap both sides have fallen into.

Klein left the Washington Post to run his own “explanatory journalism” site, Vox.com. It’s off to a rough start. I explained here how uninformative its foreign-policy explainers are; Sonny Bunch detailed here how uninformative its sports reporting is; and after Klein used the site’s launch to explain how political bias infects consumers of data, it turned out Klein had misread the data himself. And this week Jim Antle demonstrated how Klein and his health-care writers have resorted to essentially cherry-picking numbers and moving the goalposts in order to spin the struggling ObamaCare as a success story.

And that gets at the problem with Vox. Despite its mission statement, the site is notably light on information and heavy on the pretense of authority. It does not prove; it proclaims. And it is, along with those mentioned in the National Journal story, a vehicle through which the White House can speak.

Vox’s struggles, then, are actually indicative of a more positive trend on consumers of political news. Vox started with high expectations and landed with a bit of a thud. The reverse is true of another new media trendsetter, and for all the right reasons. When Ben Smith left Politico to direct BuzzFeed’s expanded news coverage, more than a few were scratching their heads. BuzzFeed was known for humorous memes and pet listicles, and many wondered whether Smith could ever lead BuzzFeed’s news division to garner the credibility that would take, to some extent, undermining or at least shifting the (successful) brand BuzzFeed had already created.

Though it’s still fairly early, it seems clear at this point that Smith has largely succeeded. BuzzFeed still fights for its reputation, but the site did a very simple thing to prove itself to its doubters: it hired exceptional journalists.

Rosie Gray has led an energetic investigative news effort, scoring repeated scoops without playing ideological favorites. To do foreign-affairs reporting, BuzzFeed hired Gregory Johnsen, an experienced writer on Yemen and terrorism, and the AP’s Max Seddon. For its Washington bureau, the site hired Roll Call’s John Stanton. And while reporters get most of the attention, BuzzFeed has made exceptional editing hires as well, including Katherine Miller from the Washington Free Beacon and the superb Miriam Elder.

In other words, while Vox concentrated its energy in its brand, BuzzFeed decided the best way to prove itself was to publish undeniably good journalism. Does BuzzFeed still struggle with the sometimes awkward marriage of cat gifs and on-the-ground foreign reporting? Sure, but that’s in large part due to the fact that BuzzFeed’s initial, pre-Ben Smith branding efforts were so successful. It’s a battle BuzzFeed doesn’t always win, but it seems pretty clear they beat expectations in a rout.

Online-only new media startups are proliferating for all the obvious reasons. It would be an encouraging sign if the market for them continued to reward those who don’t act as brand-obsessed adjuncts of the White House press shop.

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