On April 16, Gawker contacted BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith with evidence that his site had deleted a post criticizing Pepsi, a BuzzFeed advertiser, under pressure from the beverage manufacturer. In response, Smith invited Gawker to interview him and BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti at the company’s New York office. A transcript of the interview, which took place on April 17 and concerns BuzzFeed’s ongoing review of deleted content, can be found below. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Keenan Trotter: I, uh, got in, but then you guys switched it. Yeah. I mean, I did get the memo, with the login code, but then they switched it to where you needed a BuzzFeed email address to get in.
Jonah Peretti: We should give you a call-in number, just because you’ve sort of become our public editor, our ombudsman or something, our ombudsman at BuzzFeed.
Ben: When we were sending around a draft of the standards document, what I said to everybody was, hey, read this really closely, because what you do when you publish standards, is that you make Gawker your public editor. Sure, we’ll be looking for [violations of standards internally]—[but] you’ve got all of Twitter, and you’ve got Gawker. So I have really little to complain about, in some sense. Do you want to talk about this post that you emailed about?
Ben: So we’ve been doing an internal review all week, and thinking about what—you know, pre-our-having-real-procedures-and-standards, and having rules about deleting things, and looking back at everything that we deleted since January 1 of 2012, when I started, and basically the present, although starting some point last year, we had more rules. And so that’s one of the posts I’ve been thinking about. Honestly, I’m pretty proud of what we found in it. Although, also, at times, you look back at what was published—you’re sort of pained by [it].
Keenan: Just to back up, this is the internal review you’re conducting now?
Ben: I was hoping you’d wait, just because we have a team of reporters, who are interviewing—Annie-Rose Strasser, who’s [BuzzFeed News executive editor] Shani [Hilton]’s deputy, has been putting together a team of reporters, and they pulled a list of every post that’s been deleted.
Keenan: OK. That must be...
Ben: Well, it’s not that long a list. I’ll get you the numbers. A lot of them—
Keenan: Is this a timeframe?
Keenan: There’s only one or three.
Ben: And so the period after that, when I was here. And, you know, we were in some sense on this trajectory. And so Annie-Rose has this team of a small handful of reporters who are basically interviewing the editors and the writers of those posts and asking what happened. In virtually all of the cases—
Jonah: This was a period where we didn’t have a deletion policy. If you were an editor and you wrote something and then you thought later, oh, this is kind of dumb and I was to delete it, you could delete the post.
Ben: And that was fine. And there’s not huge numbers of them, but there’s a fair number of those, there were posts that were dup—
Jonah: Duplicates, or errors, or text tests, or stuff like that.
Ben: I’ll give you the numbers, but there were two that were about church and state. One of which was the one you emailed me about. So I just figured that I would talk you through that. Because that was actually a real moment for us in dealing with something that we’d never dealt with. And so [BuzzFeed senior editor] Samir [Mezrahi, the author of the deleted post that criticized Pepsi]—and I would love to, to the extent that I can make this not about him, he doesn’t have a background as a journalist, he comes from the depths of the internet in a wonderful way. And he had—several days before that post, and I think you didn’t see this, he had taken—the creative team at BuzzFeed, they were working with Pepsi around the Grammys. And they had a done a post, which you can probably find, it was about other things that might be under Pharrell’s hat.
Ben: It was actually a great post. There were many hilarious things under his hat, including doge. And Samir had taken the GIF of doge coming out from under Pharrell’s hat. Or, I’m not even sure if he’d seen it. But I got a complaint from the creative side that editors were taking their stuff and remixing it and not crediting their post or Pepsi. It was a confusing situation. Not—it was just a confusing situation. And I said to him, hey, we’re working, our creative team—which at this point is across the hall—is working with Pepsi on this social stuff, so don’t take their stuff, don’t use it in an editorial context. Church and state.
Jonah: One of the concerns is the impression that an editor was posting positive things about a brand because they were an advertiser. And that’s something I think, you know, as we grow, I don’t have much experience with church and state stuff. But as we grow, you start thinking, ok, if someone really loves pumpkin-spice lattes and they write a whole post about it and then it turns out that Starbucks is an advertiser, does that create the impression that they were influencing editorial, even though they had no idea that someone was an advertiser, and so there was—
Ben: So this is not something that we’ve totally resolved. But what we did resolve there was—so I had a conversation with Samir, and I was just like, “what is this, don’t do that,” it wasn’t like a super-theoretical conversation. Couple days later, again, I get an upset call from creative, that Samir has done a post that is titled “Brand Twitter Accounts You Should Unfollow.” First one is Pepsi. Our creative team is running the Pepsi account for the Super Bowl. This is the thing I have discussed with Samir three days earlier.
Keenan: They’re running the Pepsi Twitter account?
Ben (to Jonah): Yes. Is that exactly accurate? I’m not in the weeds in this, but they had been—
Jonah: They had been making content for Pepsi.
Ben: Because they were running the account.
Jonah: And it was—I’m not in the weeds on this, either, but I know the creative team was doing real-time marketing with Pepsi and posting stuff—
Ben: And they were going to have some sort of real-time collaboration with the Super Bowl. And this was exactly the thing I had talked about three days earlier. The post also was—it was, saying to unfollow some, and it was also a celebration of other brands, it was just like, Oh, this is a thing that is new, which is, we have church and we have state, but what happens when church reaches over—or, state?—which is which?
Keenan: I believe that church is...
Ben: It depends how you look. But when the priest wants to reach over—I’m sorry, I’m [unintelligible], block that metaphor. When church, when edit, what is our rule about edit playing in our advertising? Not in advertising in general, not around advertisers, but specifically with advertising being created across the hall by people at our company. And this is something I had never in my life considered, but seemed actually like a thing that we should absolutely not do. So we deleted the post, which at the time was what we did with posts that were inappropriate.
Keenan: Who was involved in that decision?
Ben: You know, I don’t actually know. I was involved in that decision. I didn’t need a big push. But I do think creative was quite upset about it. I don’t know who—I saw your whole list of names, I don’t know.
Keenan: OK, I mean—
Jonah: Ben makes all of the editorial decisions.
Keenan: Right, but under pressure from the business side, though.
Ben: I get pressure every day from lots of different people.
Keenan: But in this case—
Ben: This was not high on the scale of pressure I’ve gotten, this was just something that was obviously a problem.
Keenan: What was the problem? Say more about what the problem was.
Ben: That you had an editor who was engaging specifically with things that were created—specifically with stuff that our creative team was working on, twice that week, with the same project.
Keenan: What’s wrong with that, exactly? What do you mean by “engaging”? It was clearly critical of it.
Ben: Well, no, the first one he was promoting. The second one, he was critical but—maybe the post is lost, but there was other celebratory stuff in there. He was just, like, touching it, you know? He was writing about advertising that was created by BuzzFeed that he knew, or that I believed, that was—
Keenan: I don’t see the ethical issue there, though, if he’s just writing about advertising.
Ben: Would you see an ethical issue with a post that was like, this BuzzFeed ad is the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen and it makes me cry? I don’t know if it’s an ethical issue, exactly, it’s obviously—
Keenan: I mean, I would probably laugh.
Ben: It’s obviously an appearance issue. It’s something that I feel really strongly about, it’s in our standards, you’ve probably seen it. There’s an exception to that, which is news. If there’s an ad on BuzzFeed, if there’s an ad—you know, if The New York Times carries an open letter, and it’s news, New York Times reporters will write about it as news. But the bar is at least as high, and probably a little higher, I think, just for—because, what are you doing? It seems really obvious to me.
Keenan: I mean, the—
Ben: This is how we dealt with problematic stuff, that we felt was problematic. You don’t have to agree, but it seems strange to me that I would let BuzzFeed writers do ad criticism, praise or criticism of stuff that’s on the site, that our teams are working on—
Jonah: It feels to me much less complicated, and much less conflict, that your beat, or what you cover, is advertising on BuzzFeed, and not advertising on Gawker.
Ben: Do you ever?
Keenan: Do we ever cover advertising on Gawker?
Jonah: If you put the same focus on our advertising, if you put that same focus on Gawker’s advertising, and that was your beat, it would be strange, you’d be in the same room with people, you’d have people who meet with the business team, and say, there’s a confidential new product that we’re launching, and you could go look at their desk and find, like, what the product was, and report that on Gawker. Part of church-state isn’t just for the edit side. And I, unlike Ben, am involved in BuzzFeed’s business, and when you look on the business side, people want to know, when I go and meet with people on our business team, can you trust that they’ll keep your secrets confidential, and that they won’t pass things over to the editorial side? And sometimes that’s even contractual, where you end up with—
Ben: You don’t have to agree with us philosophically here. But this is where we’re coming from. There was a lot of internal email traffic about it at the time, we talked about it internally, we developed standards based on it. I can forward you the email I sent editors the next day.
Keenan: I mean, so, OK—
Ben: So basically, in our standards, it says, “Please do not write positively about advertising that appears on BuzzFeed. Please do not do ad criticism about ads that appear on BuzzFeed. If it’s newsworthy that’s an exception to this rule.” That feels appropriate to me. Well, I don’t know, do you guys do that? Have you ever written about, like, this is a gorgeous banner?
Keenan: Um, we’ve like, I mean, you could definitely—yeah, like on Gawker?
Ben: I’m sure you could, but do you?
Keenan: Do I?
Ben: Yeah. You’re a media reporter.
Keenan: I have written about Gawker at length.
Ben: Yeah, that’s true. Fair enough.
Jonah: Gawker is like—
Ben: I actually think this is a thing where, this is something I believe. I also think, I realize Gawker is philosophically coming from a different place. I don’t need to persuade you, but this is where I’m coming from. And I think our standards document says it more probably clearly than I do.
Keenan: I just don’t see what the problem is with criticizing advertisements on BuzzFeed.
Ben: I don’t think in principle it is [a problem], I think anybody who doesn’t work for BuzzFeed should do it. But I don’t want our editors engaging in either criticism or, what we do much more, celebrations, of advertisements that are on BuzzFeed that are created by our creative team.
Keenan: But what is the scope of “advertisements”? Does that mean the brand, or—?
Ben: No, it does not mean the brand, it means specific campaigns, it means, they were creating content for this Twitter feed that he was talking about, that week, at the Super Bowl, where he was talking about the Super Bowl. It’s narrow. It does mean the company, it does not mean, hey there’s an ad on another site from an advertiser.
Keenan: So what if he doesn’t know?
Ben: That’s a big challenge. Well, no, but—in this case, I had talked to him two days earlier, so that wasn’t the issue.
Jonah: So he did know.
Ben: And in most cases you know because it’s on BuzzFeed.com
Jonah: If you’re critiquing an ad that’s on our site, our ads are not standards ads—
Keenan: But he was critiquing Twitter feeds.
Ben: Right, a Twitter feed that so happened that, it was being run, that we were creating the content for it, and I had had a conversation with that editor three days earlier, about specifically that. And the creative team was upset about it, and to my mind justifiably.
Keenan: Why is it justified?
Ben: Because, well they were upset about the first one for a different reason. They were upset about it because he had ripped a GIF and put it into a Vine and not credited Pepsi.
Keenan: OK, that’s an attribution issue.
Ben: I was upset about it because, as I put it in an email that I can forward you, any fair-minded person seeing an editor tweet an ad in a Vine is going to say, they’re working for advertising. That was the situation. It was sort of a weird situation, but it was one that we thought a lot about, and made a rule that it’s our standards guide off [of].
Jonah: Part of it is having some critical distance from your subjects, and not, you know—
Ben: It’s hard for me to think of other media companies that do ad criticism of ads that are on the facing page.
Keenan: I feel like The New York Times covers themselves pretty, like—
Jonah: They cover newsworthy ads, like an open letter or something, but would there be a New York Times article about, this Audi spread on the facing page has cool design but the car’s gas mileage is kind of low, and—
Keenan: With the latter post, it’s not on BuzzFeed.
Ben: I agree with you that the stakes are not massively high. I don’t think coverage of advertising [has high stakes]. I agree, it could go either way, but this is definitely my view, and it’s in our standards guide, it was put in our standards guide probably because of this incident which had happened year earlier.
Jonah: Speaking from the business side, I don’t want any brand or advertiser to think that when they are working with us as partners, and they tell us confidential information about their business, that that is going to get passed back and forth to edit, and our editors are going to be trying to find information—
Keenan: What is the confidential information that we’re discussing, that theoretically would be passed in-between?
Ben: That’s a good question.
Jonah: Advertisers tell us confidential things all the time.
Keenan: Can you give just a general template of what that would be?
Jonah: Like a general template is, we are launching a new cell phone, and nobody knows that it has these special features to it, and can you—to our business team—can you market this and promote this?
Ben: This is true at every and any company, who don’t want reporters knowing about stuff.
Keenan: How would Samir’s post—?
Ben: This wasn’t really that.
Jonah: I’m not talking about Samir’s post, I’m talking about it as, why you have in a standards documents that you don’t—
Ben: To me, it’s just like, you want readers to know that edit and advertising are separate things and that they don’t touch each other. And if that’s reporters, as happened twice in a week, if that is reporters promoting advertising, if that’s reporters criticizing it, no thank you. There’s an infinite number of things to write about, it just feel like, whether you celebrate it or criticize it, you just winding up blurring a line that readers are always struggling to understand in the best of times.
Jonah: Maybe you’re criticizing it to punish an advertiser for not renewing.
Ben: No, stop it, I don’t know—
Jonah: You can make up a lot of—
Keenan: We can make up a lot of theoretical scenarios—
Ben: I would rather just talk about the principle, I don’t think it’s ambiguous.
Keenan: To me this is what it looks like, it looks like you’re attributing this to creative being mad, but why was creative mad?
Ben: Oh, I don’t know, you should call the advertiser and ask them.
Keenan: I asked Pepsi, did you ask BuzzFeed to delete that post?
Ben: And what did they say?
Keenan: They declined—they haven’t commented back.
Ben: OK. So, I don’t know.
Keenan: You don’t know whether Pepsi actually pressured creative?
Ben (to Jonah): Do you? You probably do. Whether the brand was upset. I hear from people internally.
Jonah: I don’t remember.
Ben: I don’t think it would be crazy of you to assume they were. But people are upset at me every day. Once in a while, they’re right. That’s part of being a journalist, right?
Jonah: But so that’s the question—
Keenan: If Pepsi were upset at Samir’s post criticizing their Twitter feed, why would they be right?
Ben: Because we shouldn’t have editors writing about—because I—they weren’t exactly right, their complaint made me think about this, I don’t know if there was a complaint.
Keenan: But just on a bedrock level, you’re stating that readers want editorial and business to not interact. But you’re saying that they should interact. Because the activities of one should dictate the activities of the other.
Ben: This is a really complicated industry.
Keenan: It’s not that complicated.
Ben: Obviously we’re advertising supported.
Keenan: But then those advertisers should just talk with their money, and just not advertise with you.
Ben: So are we, OK—right, and that happens frequently. I mean that’s most of my interactions with advertisers.
Jonah: I would just say that the vast majority of advertisers understand the separation of church and state and they continue to advertise with publications, including ours, even if there’s editorial coverage that they don’t like. And in some rare cases they try to exert pressure, but in general the way the big, big companies who are the main advertisers operate, is they have a communications team, and that communications team tries to put pressure on editorial people, and their P.R. people try to spin them, and say, you know, this is factually inaccurate, or this or that or the other, and then they have a marketing team led by their CMO who buys advertising, and they have a way of engaging on both sides of the wall. Most of the time, it’s not an issue. Occassionally, there’s people who put pressure in an unfair way. We’ve written stories about Scientology, we’ve written a story that mentioned David Geffen, we’ve had an arms dealer threaten to sue us, and you look at that, and if even if we’re right, this could cost the company millions of dollars in a lawsuit, and there’s all these precedents of it doing it. In those scenarious, Ben gets a whole bunch of pressure. Every single time, Ben has said, OK, let’s make sure the story is not libelous, and let’s make sure the claims and everything is justified, and the reporting is good, and then you stand by the story, and you have some financial risk. And I think across the board, what I have seen Ben do, and Ben runs edit not me, is make decisions based on editorial judgement. Now, if the pressure comes from a brand, and the brand happens to be right, like for example an article that might have factually inaccurate information about nutrition or something, then you should still correct it, because the brand is right. Just because it’s a brand and it’s an advertiser, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t correct it. It’s well known—
Ben: I think is stuff every editor-in-chief time immemorial has dealt with.
Keenan: It’s obvious.
Ben: I do see where, I sort of like the radical—the way Gawker operates.
Keenan: But BuzzFeed says it’s radically transparent.
Ben: I’m not sure I would use the word—I don’t know.
Ben: Huh. I didn’t say that.
Keenan: I know, but Ashley did. She said, we don’t really care about leaking things.
Ben: J.K., this was in our standards guide. And I’m about to tell you about another post. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to get in the way. But I think we disagree about this. And I do think—
Keenan: I think you’re holding two contradictory ideas in your head and thinking that they are the same thing.
Ben: I’m not sure.
Keenan: How exactly do you separate business and editorial but then say business decisions should affect editorial decisions?
Ben: Business decisions should...
Keenan: You’re saying that the business departments’ activities should essentially circumscribe what editorial can write about.
Ben: I think this specific question of advertising that is created by our advertising team is actually a really weird—a strange, marginal case, and a very small one, and one that I had never in my life thought about before, but that once we thought about, and I talked about with my team, we had a long conversation, internal and external, about standards. Starting with this post, we wound up thinking, that is a very strange little case, and it’s one that makes us—I would be very—here’s the real thing, I would be very uncomfortable with a post that was, this ad that I saw on BuzzFeed moved me to tears and I think it’s the most brilliant thing in the world. That would be a very strange thing, don‘t you think, or no? Do you think I should publish that?
Keenan: I mean...
Jonah: This is actually more about me, and the contradiction you’re describing, than Ben.
Ben: Yeah, he’s much more contradictory.
Jonah: In the sense that, as the CEO of the company, editorial reports to me, and business reports to me, and so I do have to be involved in both. So I don’t think Ben should be involved in both, and his team should be involved in both, except so far as—
Ben: Yeah, I don’t see my job as a balancing job.
Jonah: Yeah, his job is not balancing, I am the balancing job. So I‘m saying we need to make sure—
Keenan: Then why is [Ben]—
Ben: And honestly I’ve never have, and this is what I said to my team, but I’m sure you’ve talked to lots of them, which is, have you ever felt pressure from advertisers, have you ever felt me pressure you on behalf of advertisers. It’s sort of a thing that they know.
Keenan: It’s not necessarily—the sense I get is not that people feel pressure from advertisers, but they feel this sort of ambient pressure not to necessarily impugn potential advertisers.
Ben: I mean, I don’t know, we just hired a food industry reporter, I just think you should just read our coverage. We cover every major—I mean, read what [business editor] Tom Gara’s team writes every day.
Ben: Read Sapna Maheshwari’s every day.
Keenan: Right, but—
Ben: You gotta have a little more than that to make that claim. That’s very ethereal.
Keenan: Sure, sure, sure. That’s what I said, it’s ambient. It’s not concrete.
Ben: It’s tough to respond to that.
Keenan: I’m not asking you to respond to it.
Ben: That said, it is good to know. And the thing that worries me most about your story, honestly, is that people will think that there’s a nod and a wink. And so I’ve been going around to my team this week, last night I had a call with our Australia editor, saying, hey, there is not a nod and a wink. There is not some unspoken thing about advertising.
Keenan: But there is—I mean, it’s in your standards guide.
Ben: It’s not unspoken! It’s in our standards guide! It’s the opposite of unspoken.
Keenan: Right, but one of the questions I was going to ask you was: Why did BuzzFeed publish the ethics guide if people like you are empowered to completely disregard it?
Jonah: He’s not empowered to...
Ben: I guess I don’t feel all that empowered—I guess I think, in the end—
Keenan: You violated one of its bold-faced dictums.
Jonah: He restored both of the posts and apologized and has been getting beat up for two weeks.
Ben: Yeah, and I apologized... That’s how the enforcement of these things work.
Keenan: But why did it take a month?
Jonah: Why did what take a month?
Ben: I mean, you make mistakes, and sometimes you don’t immediately say, wow, that was a mistake.
Jonah: I mean, our position—
Ben: I don’t really know what more you want from me than saying that was a mistake.
Jonah: Like another apology?
Ben: I could apologize again.
Keenan: I guess I’m curious, what the point of an ethics guide is, if—
Ben: The point of publishing it is literally to be held accountable by you. Strangely enough. That is actually why you publish these things, so that people like you—to me it’s both, it’s both scary and flattering that we have replaced the Times as the number one target for Gawker. But I think in the 2000s you guys made the Times way better. I think media criticism makes its targets better.
Jonah: You’re making us better too.
Ben: I mean you’ve obviously made us better. This is a useful process.
Keenan: The Monopoly post was a fairly unique case, because you guys not only deleted it, but you endeavored to make sure people could not find it.
Ben: Yeah, I wasn’t in the loop on the technical stuff.
Keenan: Who was that—what was that process?
Ben: I asked our UK team to do it.
Ben: The Monopoly one, because I called them and said, what is this.
Jonah: You’re talking about something else.
Ben: I saw that when—
Jonah: Sometimes when there is a controversy or an internal debate and we’re reviewing something, we’ll put that [post in the robots.txt file] while we’re reviewing it, and then it never got removed.
Ben: This was honestly—
Jonah: This was, Ben didn’t know anything about that. But I’m just like, OK, there’s a conversation, what is happening, it was a mistake, we shouldn’t have done that—but if we’re reviewing—
BuzzFeed staff member (entering room): I’m just letting you know it’s five o’clock.
Ben: Thank you, we have a few more minutes.
Ben: We could keep going. There’s this other thing we found in the review.
Keenan: What else did you find in the review?
Ben: I think there was one other post that was a church-state thing.
Keenan: Which was it?
Ben: I’m just trying to hand you news here. [checks watch] Half an hour. Very early in my time—well, June 2013—again I don’t know exactly where it came from, because I heard it from the business side, but there was a post about ... We have had a couple of people in the history of BuzzFeed move from creative to edit, and one of them very soon after he left as head as creative wrote a post about an advertiser, and we took it down.
Keenan: Head of creative...that’s not Melissa Rosenthal?
Ben: No, no, Tanner Ringerud, he was her predecessor, he had been an old-time edit guy, he’s [worked in] creative a little, he moved back, it’s not a thing that happens a lot. And again, it was something like, we’re new, this is all new—
Keenan: What did he write about?
Ben: He wrote about Microsoft. He [wrote about] ways to get Internet Explorer off [your computer]—get your grandmother [to remove Internet Explorer from her computer]—I’ll send you the link. It’s probably in our archive. And it was a similar thing, he had been working on Microsoft campaigns—
Jonah: He was working on their business, doing work for Microsoft, and then switched to edit and started...
Ben: And started writing about Microsoft. And they complained. And inititally I was like, I don’t care if you complain. And then they said, well wait, this guy was making ads for us last week. And that felt to me, OK, that’s a really legitimate, strange situation. So we’re going to make a rule that in the very unusual cases—there’s one woman now, she’s a designer who crossed from advertising into editorial—we’re going to have a six-month cooling off period where you can’t write about ads. So that was the other one.
Jonah: He also had briefs from [Microsoft], on the business side, of what their strategy was, and how they’re trying to position the brand.
Ben: Which, I don’t think—maybe the brand might have imagined something or other, he was totally innocent in this, but the appearance was weird.
Keenan: OK, so that’s how many times? How many other posts? In this review, is it a dozen? Ten?
Ben: Here’s the thing, we were hoping to get it all done, but there are people in Australia, in London, and we won’t have it all done. Can I just do this, I’ll give you better numbers, can you not use the numbers I’m going to give you now, because they’re provisional? I think that—we have to figure out how to list it, I used to have this thing where I would publish under my byline that might be under other people’s bylines, and I deleted 20 of those by mistake and republished them under somebody’s else byline. There’s technical ones.
Jonah: Now we can change the byline without deleting the post.
Ben: There was one where somebody was using photos from Life magazine that we didn’t have the rights to, we delete that. There’s ones on a sort of scale of technicality, and I think there were some in the ballpark of 40, but like give or take 40, that were taste. That we like, ahhhhh, what is this, we don’t like this, I don’t think this, eh, this was stupid, this quiz didn’t quite work. And those things we would delete, that was the thing. And so we went through those, and talked to Annie-Rose’s team, and we’re not totally done, so maybe there’s something else. But those were the two that involved church and state.
Keenan: OK, got it.
Jonah: The other thing, your question about “why have an ethics guide,” it’s not that we used to be bad, and now we’re perfect. It’s that we used to do things that would be, kind of, not that proud of, that don’t meet our current standards. And we’ve gotten better. But we’re still gonna learn more things. And the way we’re gonna fuck up next, we don’t know yet, I wish we did know, maybe you can tell us. Hopefully we’ll learn from that, and get better from that.
Ben: I have to say, looking back on this stuff, I was pretty proud of—you know, this mess, we navigated it reasonably well, this messy situation, in this really fun, exciting growth, that we navigated it pretty well. With some bumps and situations that—
Keenan: Ben, I’m not a New York Times reporter.
Jonah: What does that mean?
Ben: What do I say to Gawker reporters?
Keenan: I was wondering if you could—
Ben: I’m just like you, I am what I am.
Keenan: Part of the reason Gawker has to report fairly aggressively on BuzzFeed is that all of the other, sort of, traditional media outlets do not.
Ben: But you guys report fairly aggressively on everything for that reason, and I’m for it.
Ben: You don’t have to explain or justify reporting aggressively. I like reporting aggressively. Do you want to talk about takes?
Keenan: But I do have two sort of in-the-weeds things.
Keenan: The Monopoly post was replaced by an editors’ note that said “this post was removed at the author’s request.” Was that an inaccuracy?
Ben: It wasn’t inaccurate but it was incomplete.
Keenan: So [the author] wanted it taken down?
Ben: He or his editor asked that that be the note, and by the time—although, honestly, if your editor-in-chief calls you—I didn’t ask them to put that note up, they suggested it. It was incomplete. It was my call.
Keenan: OK. There’s a discrepancy in the memo that was sent by [BuzzFeed Life editors] Peggy [Wang] and Emily [Fleischaker]. That memo [concerning a deleted post by beauty editor Arabelle Sicardi about a Dove commercial] indicates that they were making the decision to pull [the post]. But it’s fairly clear that you were the one to make that decision. It was also unclear when they sent that memo.
Ben: Oh, they did send that memo. They sent that memo and they wrote that memo.
Keenan: But when?
Ben: Oh, that afternoon.
Ben: They sent it in the afternoon, they sent it before [Gawker’s post about the deleted Dove post]—so when I deleted it, when we deleted it... Did I actually physically [delete it]? When we deleted it, no I guess they did—I suggested it.
Keenan: Did Peggy and Emily protest?
Ben: I don’t want to get into it—
Keenan: I’m very reliably told that they vehemently protested it.
Ben: I wouldn’t wave you off that.
Ben: Or wave you off other people that have way better judgment than me here. That said—
Keenan: So what the fuck was that memo? Did you force them to write that?
Ben: No. But—no, I absolutely didn’t. But again, and this is something I’m learning, as with this one, when your editor-in-chief feels really strongly with something, sometimes—I mean, you know what, I don’t want to speak for them. That’s a great question. But I would love to ask them how they—
Keenan: But they’re not empowered to speak to me.
Ben: I know. I guess I wouldn’t mind, that’s a great question. I don’t feel great about how I behaved here and don’t want to do something that makes them feel worse. So let me chat with them and see what—
Keenan: I mean, it’s...
Ben: I mean, they wrote it, it contains things that they think, but I may have also talked them into things.
Jonah: Well, I think the other piece of this, you know Ben and his work over the years, and he’s not a huge fan of opinion. He likes reporting.
Keenan: I think he is a fan of opinion, it’s just as long as it’s—I mean, I’ve read your stuff, and it’s like, it’s—
Ben: As long as it’s—well, I don’t know, you tell me.
Keenan: I mean...
Ben: These are hard lines, as I’ve been learning in the last—
Jonah: Right, so that’s sort of where I was going with this, which is that opinion is one of those things where people are like, I know what opinion is—it’s what the other people are doing. It’s like, underformed opinion, but it’s like, what I do [is not opinion]. Or whatever, right? It’s the kind of thing, you know, there’s a certain type of opinion piece that is like, you know, in this case, Ben acted impulsively and apologized for it, that he’s not a huge fan of. When you get in there and have larger conversation with the BuzzFeed Life team, which is doing a different kind of editorial content than you’ve done in your career, you start having conversations, and it’s like, oh, well, what is opinion, what’s not?
Ben: There’s this very strong tradition of opinion in lifestyle media that isn’t exactly—I don’t know.
Keenan: I feel like a really good comparison—not necessarily that they’re exactly the same—but I feel like a lot of BuzzFeed political stuff is sort of in the vein of the [Washington] Free Beacon, where it’s ostensibly straightforward but absolutely informed by priors.
Ben: But I would think everything is informed by priors.
Keenan: Right, so then how is that not in some way opinion?
Jonah: This is exactly the point.
Ben: I came out of the hot take conversation confident that by the end of this week I would literally have a flow chart that I could send my staff, there were index cards floating around ... you know what, this is really complicated. If you ask people at The New York Times what’s opinion today, and you ask them twenty years earlier, they would have different answers.
Ben: I have certain principles that I feel pretty strongly about in that context. Really, it’s fundamentally about not telling readers what to think. But you’re right, can you find things that I find very hard calls? Constantly, and I’m really struggling to figure out how to articulate them. I’m trying to—and I’ve been having long conversations about this. And it’s not like I’m not a happy consumer of opinion. I read Slate, I read Gawker, I read The New York Review of Books. I’ve been reading every—yes, even people who’ve written very long at Gawker. But it’s not where I come from or what I—
Keenan: Well it kind of is. You came from, you wrote for The New York Sun, right?
Ben: Yeah, but I was a City Hall reporter.
Keenan: Right, but that’s a very opinionated paper.
Ben: It’s funny, the American newspaper tradition has this obviously sort of artificial but also deeply felt idea of objectivity and opinion. And I’m not trying to have a long Twitter fight with [NYU journalism professor] Jay Rosen here, god forbid. But I come from the reporting side. And the Sun was founded by former Wall Street Journal people. And there’s that very strong feeling of, here were have news, here we have opinion, and never the twain shall meet. Is that obviously a complicated thing, if you look at any great newspaper actually, are there stories where you say, hey wait, this doesn’t—I mean, it’s complicated. That said, and then if you look at what we do, where does a take stop being hot? There’s obviously big analytical pieces that we’ve written. Like when [BuzzFeed News national editor] Adam Serwer, who’s been writing for 15 years about—how old is he?—maybe that overstates it, 10 years, about specifically the kind of history of police brutality around Ferguson, and makes this really rich argument about that, I view that as very well-reported analysis. But, you know, could someone else view it as opinion? Sure. I don’t know, I don’t find these things—I have trouble putting my finger on it. But it’s not the core of the business we’re in.
Ben: Um, you know it’s interesting, BuzzFeed Ideas is—
Keenan: Because you criticized Islam, or she criticized BuzzFeed’s coverage of Islam. Am I recalling that incorrectly?
Ben: You should ask her why she left.
Keenan: Do you think people who leave BuzzFeed are empowered to discuss BuzzFeed? You make them sign ironclad NDAs.
Ben: You are free to ask her. You’re a reporter. Report it out.
Keenan: I have asked her. She won’t tell me.
Keenan: Maybe you can ask—
Ben: So I’ll tell you about how I think—
Jonah: Sometimes people just don’t want to talk about it.
Ben: No, you’re actually as an employer not allowed to. But not that—in any case.
Jonah: Not that that’s the reason.
Ben: But I can tell you, I’ve thought a lot, she was one of the people who helped us think about our BuzzFeed Ideas, which is our entry into that space. And what [BuzzFeed Ideas editor] Kat Stoeffel’s line on this, is that you want to have writers who have skin in the game. And I think this is one of the ways—because obviously the arguments are fascinating and interesting, but also we have a huge megaphone and a very diverse staff and a very diverse audience, and I think we need to be very limited when we speak with the voice, when one person tries to speak for everyone. You have to really think about, and this is in the standards guide, that we have values, like LGBT rights is not something that we feel is up for debate. But most things are. And we’re not trying to speak with the voice of the site. One way to avoid speaking with the voice of the site is first person. Because that makes very clear that you’re speaking with—and to me, in some sense, the reported version of a op-ed is a first-person argument in which you have real, personal investment. To me the thing I really loved that we did, [BuzzFeed News Executive Editor of Culture] Doree [Shafrir] and Kat get credit for this. Remember there was this Deadline piece about ethnic actors?
Ben: It was a good tweet. “This is fucking stupid,” was a great tweet. And a million articles expanded on that tweet to be like, this is so [stupid]—that’s the classic hot take. What was [Awl co-editor and former BuzzFeed staffer] John [Herrman’s] line about this, there’s this excess of attention around that topic?
Keenan: Yeah. Surplus of attention.
Ben: Surplus of attention. So let’s just get stuff around that. But what Doree and Kat did, which took a couple days longer, was find some black actors who had specific things to add to that conversation about, like, no actually, they’re not just throwing the roles at me. And wrote pieces that were widely read and shared, because they added to the conversation, not because either of the cynical attempt to get into the conversation, or because of this idea that I’m of such personal brilliance that I’m going to, three times a day, dazzle you. Even though I have no existing expertise, and haven’t done any reporting. That’s not—
Jonah: Strategically, the company—this isn’t a secret—one of the things that we’re focused on doing is continually increasing the quality of the stuff we make, and the depth of it, and to make things that other people struggle to make, and maybe they struggle to make it because their CMS or their tech isn’t as good, or because they don’t have reporters who are able to pull certain stories together, or they don’t have storytellers or designers or graphic people, so—you know—part of it is, me as CEO, not as editor, and we talk about some of these things.
Ben: I’m not sure I understand this theory. But bear with him.
Jonah: How do we make things that are hard for other people to make, and take more investment, and don’t go for the easiest thing that gets the most amount of traffic in the shortest amount of time? How do you—even with web culture and entertainment stuff—how do you add value to it, and improve it, improve things that are already out there? And I think, in general, there’s a feeling of, OK, how do you get 350 editorial people around the world to continually try to up their game, and do more, and do harder things?
Ben: And that’s obviously an ongoing process, and has been before I’ve started. Every day there’s something published that’s at the bottom of that.
Keenan: But then, like—toward what end? Just being better? I mean, it’s—
Ben: I don’t speak for—I mean [Jonah] can speak for the business. I think breaking news is the end. Don’t you?
Jonah: When you’re talking about the Ferguson post that could be read as an opinion post, that took a lot more time and a lot more energy, and I think he traveled there as well. That is something we’re more proud of and is better.
Ben: Do you need another end, than telling a great story?
Keenan: I mean, Gawker has another end, which is essentially to publish what media elites talk about at their bars in Manhattan after work and that they won’t publish [themselves].
Ben: See, I’m interested in publishing that stuff when it’s really interesting to readers. But also things that media elites aren’t interested in. Like, mostly things media elites aren’t interested in, actually. I think most of the good stories—
Jonah: I feel like that’s Gawker 2008.
Ben: Yeah, really. I’m really proud of—like, media elites don’t talk about women getting unjustly imprisoned in Oklahoma. But I think that’s a pretty good fucking story.
Keenan: It’s the one thing you won’t talk about.
Ben: You know, here’s a question. Do you people say, I’m curious—I mean, I don’t have a long history with the Pulitzer board—do people typically say in advance what they’ve submitted, is that a thing, do they not? I mean, obviously, we’re super-proud of what we’ve submitted, these aren’t like stories that we’re unhappy with.
Keenan: Yeah, so why not?
Ben: This is not something I’ve thought deeply about, let me think about it.
Keenan: I mean, I could kind of tell what you guys submitted.
Ben: I think you should just do a list of our best posts.
Keenan: These are some good BuzzFeed stories.
Ben: I don’t know. I don’t see any reason not to. But let me check to see if that’s some breach of [protocol].
Keenan: Are Emily or Peggy here?
Keenan: OK. Is there anybody from the BuzzFeed Life staff that’s here that I could talk to?
Ben: No, you’re in the wrong building.
Jonah: Wrong building.
Keenan: Um, where are they?
Ben: Like, welcome to—I mean, if any of them want to talk to you, you should send them an email.
Keenan: OK. Can I tell them that you said that you [condone speaking to Gawker.]
Ben: No. No. I don’t want to trick them. I don’t see why—I just gave you a long interview. There’s a question that you asked about that email, let me either, I’ll respond to it or I won’t, I’m not sure.
Jonah (to Ben): I’m kind of offended that he seems more interested in talking to you than me. Anyway, thanks for stopping by.
Ben: Uggghhhhh. It’s hard being on this side of the—
Keenan: Of what?
Ben: Of, you know, being reviewed. But you’re good at it.
Keenan: I heard from, I think it was somebody in sales, that BuzzFeed distributed limitedly a memo to employees telling them not to talk with reporters. Do you know anything about that?
Ben: That BuzzFeed—sorry, that who what?
Keenan: BuzzFeed distributed to certain employees a memo—
Ben: That BuzzFeed distributed? Like a summary, you mean?
Keenan: Uh, no, that they sent a memo to employees.
Ben: Oh, you gotta get the memo! I don’t know.
Keenan: It wasn’t sent to all employees.
Ben: About this?
Keenan: It was just generally, that they should avoid talking to outside reporters.
Ben: I don’t, I’m not sure what you’re talking about.
Keenan: Neither do I, but I was just curious if you knew.
Ben: I have no idea what you’re talking about. But you gotta get the leak. It’s good to see you.
Keenan: It’s good to see you too.
Ben: And, yeah, I actually have some weird ideological belief that this makes us better.
Keenan: What story are you writing about Gawker, and what do you need? [Reporter’s note: Shortly before the interview, Ben Smith said he was planning to write a story about Gawker Media.]
Ben: Oh, Gawker, we never write about Gawker.
Keenan: That’s right.
Ben: Not that interesting.
Keenan: Haha. Ooooooh.
Ben: No, I like Gawker. I actually don’t—
Keenan: You guys got out of the media reporting game.
Ben: Can we talk off-the-record?