If by some bizarre twist of fate you have a life that doesn’t revolve around new-media entities like BuzzFeed and their impact on journalism and advertising and content in general, then this probably won’t interest you. But for anyone who does pay attention to such things, the idea of an interview between Gawker and BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith and founder Jonah Peretti about the site’s deletion of posts involving advertisers is like a candle flame to a moth — in other words, pretty irresistible.
The actual facts being referred to in the interview — that is, the posts that were deleted and BuzzFeed’s justification for why it did this, as well as editor-in-chief Ben Smith’s admission that he made a mistake — has been written about quite a bit (including a post by me). The interview post, however, is so gigantic and disjointed and rambling that I found it hard to follow, so I tried to pull some of the really interesting parts out.
The interview was triggered by the deletion of two posts, both of which were removed by Smith in what he later admitted was a breach of the site’s standards guide. Those deletions and the attention they drew in turn convinced the site to review all of the posts that had been deleted in the past. At the beginning of the interview, Peretti and Smith talk about why some earlier posts were deleted, including the hundreds that Gawker writer Keenan Trotter wrote about last year:
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.
Which is church and which is state?
According to BuzzFeed, the Dove post and the Monopoly post were deleted because they were “hot takes” and the site is trying to cut down on those, not because they involved an advertiser. But Smith admits that there were a couple of posts that were deleted that did cross the boundaries between editorial and advertising in an unpleasant way, both of which involved Pepsi and were written by Samir Mezrahi. And the discussion of this decision-making process is interesting. One post was a humorous take on what might be under Pharrell Williams’ 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—
The second post by Mezrahi was a critical one about accounts you should unfollow on Twitter, and that included Pepsi. What is most fascinating about this whole situation is that — as Smith points out — when Mezrahi posted about the soft-drink company, the Twitter account for Pepsi was actually being operated by his BuzzFeed colleagues across the hall. In other words, staffers from the advertising and marketing part of BuzzFeed, the part that operates like a digital ad agency, were in charge of the account that he was criticizing and/or praising. And this is what Smith and Peretti seemed most concerned about — that this would look bad.
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: 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…
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.
The downside of having an internal ad agency
A lot of critical reaction to the interview has made BuzzFeed out to be some kind of horrible monster for having an internal ad agency that designs or crafts content for brands like Pepsi — and even in some cases runs their Twitter account during certain events — and for having a policy that supposedly prevents BuzzFeed from writing about advertisers. But that’s not really what Smith is saying at all. The policy appears to be not to write either positively or negatively about specific advertisements that either appear on BuzzFeed and/or are created by BuzzFeed’s in-house staff, because it might create the appearance of a conflict of interest:
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: 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.
An important principle, flawed execution
What’s interesting to me about this whole debate is that BuzzFeed and Smith are arguably on the side of the angels in this one — at least in the sense of the journalistic ethics around advertising. Yes, they have an in-house ad agency that creates content, but my sense is that they want to maintain as firm a wall between advertising and editorial as possible, which is theoretically what journalistic ethicists would want them to do. And yet they are being criticized for doing so (and admittedly, the way the deletion of posts was handled was flawed, as Smith has admitted).
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.
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?
There’s no question that having ad agency staff creating content for brands in the same building as the editorial staff writing what’s supposed to be journalism can cause problems. In at least one case, according to Smith, someone moved from creating advertising — where they worked on the Microsoft account — over to the editorial side, where they started writing about the company. The software giant complained, and Smith said at first he rejected their complaint, but then he thought more about it and decided that this shouldn’t occur. And that feels like another case where the site tried extra hard to make the division between editorial and advertising even clearer.
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.
So what’s the bottom line here — is BuzzFeed some kind of evil empire bent on distorting or perverting journalism? I don’t think so. If anything, it seems to have bent over backwards to try and appear as ethical as possible, to maintain a line between editorial and advertising, or church and state as the old metaphor goes. Is it confusing to have a single company both creating ads or doing social marketing for brands and also doing journalism? Sure. And I get the feeling that Smith and Peretti are both trying to figure out how that works exactly. But at least they are being public about it.