Digital journalism: The next generation

Michael Massing writes: Arriving at BuzzFeed’s editorial offices (housed in temporary quarters while the main office is being renovated), I found two adjoining cavernous spaces filled with long tables, at which sat some two hundred people gazing at computer screens. I was introduced to Shani Hilton, the executive editor for news. Thirty years old, she had worked for, the Washington City Paper, and the Center for American Progress before joining BuzzFeed in 2013. I asked her to cite some recent stories she felt were noteworthy. She mentioned a report by Ben Smith about the threat by an Uber executive to dig up dirt on a reporter who had criticized the company (it kicked up a storm); a story by Aram Roston on financial conflicts of interest involving a top NSA official (which led to the official’s resignation); and “Fostering Profits,” an investigation into deaths, sex abuse, and gaps in oversight at the nation’s largest for-profit foster care company. As for regular beats, Hilton mentioned two in which she felt BuzzFeed had excelled—marriage equality and rape culture.

From talking with Hilton and with Ben Smith (now editor in chief) and from sampling BuzzFeed’s home page, I came away convinced of its commitment to being a serious provider of news; there’s a sense of earnest aspiration about the place. At the same time, I was surprised by how conventional—and tame—most of its reports are. Much of BuzzFeed’s news feed seems indistinguishable from that of a wire service. Its investigations, while commendable, fall squarely within the parameters of investigative reporting as traditionally practiced in this country, with a narrow focus on managerial malfeasance, conflicts of interest, and workplace abuses. There’s little effort to examine, for example, the activities of hedge fund managers, Internet billionaires, or other pillars of the new oligarchy.

In April, Ben Smith removed two BuzzFeed posts that were critical of the advertising campaigns for Dove cosmetics and the Hasbro board game Monopoly. Both Dove and Hasbro advertise on the site. After coming under much fire, Smith restored the posts, though he denied that their original removal had had anything to do with pressure from advertisers. Soon after, the writer of the post critical of Dove, Arabelle Sicardi, resigned. So much for “true journalistic independence.” Overall, BuzzFeed’s practice of journalism seems nowhere near as pioneering as the sleek platform it has developed to deliver its product. [Continue reading…]

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