Readers have low expectations of entertainment and news site Buzzfeed, cognisant of its flippant, free content, its pop culture focus and the journalistic limitations of a media company staffed by low-grade provocateurs, social media addicts, attention-seekers, social activists and second-rate bloggers.
(Yes, yes. I know what you’re thinking… why am I not working there.)
But when the site aspires to reporting excellence, or, worse, publishes multiple smug, self-righteous stories about the journalistic failings of more established publications, it risks becoming a hostage to fortune.
For example: late last week, British political blog Guido Fawkes revealed that Buzzfeed UK had removed an article from its website that embarrassed an advertiser. The article was a frivolous, derogatory rant about the board game Monopoly by recent recruit Tom Chivers.
It turns out that Hasbro, which publishes Monopoly, had paid Buzzfeed to promote one of its other games. Anxious about upsetting a major sponsor, someone higher up the chain at Buzzfeed yanked the article. Buzzfeed even added a line of code to its website so no one could find the page using a search engine.
It would have been predictably skanky behaviour, but not a scandal, were it not for the fact that Buzzfeed UK had, a few short weeks earlier, gleefully reported on allegations that the Daily Telegraph gave HSBC, a regular Telegraph advertiser, an easy ride in its business pages.
Arguably, Buzzfeed’s sin was greater, both because it involved a retroactive deletion and also because the stakes were so low: if the site was prepared to edit the code on its website to cover up such a trivial article, how could the site be trusted to write fairly about the social issues it aspires to cover in its long-form journalism?
The chutzpah and hypocrisy are jaw-dropping.
This isn’t the first time Buzzfeed has been accused of impropriety in its short life. When a senior Buzzfeed editor childishly broke etiquette and reported on off-the-cuff remarks by an Uber executive about its dealings with reporters, it triggered a firestorm of criticism for the cab company… until we found out that Buzzfeed’s chairman has personally invested in an Uber competitor.
And then, of course, there was another article, written by an editor who has since quit over her work being meddled with, about Dove soap. That was deleted too, just like the one on Monopoly, before eventually being restored when the site was caught red-handed by readers.
Although the Monopoly post is now back online, at a new URL, it is not readily locatable using the site’s search function.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that editorial integrity at Buzzfeed is a distant second to the interests of the site’s sponsors and advertisers, in defiance of the site’s moralising editorial guidelines. Gawker even called the company “deliberately deceptive.”
Other criticisms of Buzzfeed boil down to taste. I can’t personally fathom why the site publishes so many risible low-pass polytechnic media studies essays as journalism, for instance. And it does occasionally feel as though the site is desperate for ideas, however absurd or dull, to feed the ravenous content distribution machine it has created.
The tragedy—and comedy—of Buzzfeed is that its editorial staff consists largely of tired, bitter 35-year-olds furiously dictating to millennials about how the latter should live and what their political and social attitudes ought to be. It reeks of impotent anger and disappointment.
Fortunately, no one believes much of what the site writes anyway. A Pew Global poll last year revealed, to the shock of absolutely no one, that Buzzfeed was the least trusted media brand among dozens of mainstream outlets. No one, anywhere on the political spectrum, has confidence in what Buzzfeed publishes.
It turns out that funding supposedly high-minded journalism with listicles isn’t an effective route to credibility—particularly when you are guilty of precisely the same ethical solecisms you pompously draw attention to in others.