What The New York Times Utterly Misses About BuzzFeed
The New York Times’ profile of Ben Smith, the Editor in Chief of Buzzfeed, depicts him as a brand new phenomenon in journalism.
It’s not the article’s only error— the author, Douglas Quenqua, labors on the misapprehensions that Smith invented blogging (he was just the first to apply the form to the specialized beat of New York politics) and that Meghan McCain is some kind of sex symbol—but it’s a whopper. While Quenqua certainly has a point at the most basic level–after all, Poor Richard’s Almanac contained no cat GIFs nor did Horace Greeley ever publish the phrase “OMG”–he misses the simple truth in journalism as in scripture, “there is nothing new under the sun.”
Smith, a veteran of New York tabloid journalism, is merely applying traditional principles of the yellow press to the Internet. While Quenqua stuffily compares to Smith to “other print reporters…waiting for deadlines to share the news,” that attitude is only a relatively recent one. In the glory days of newspapers, there were constantly new editions rolling off the presses with updated news. After all, there was no television; this was the fastest way for word to get out. There was not simply one edition of the newspaper, set almost in stone, that was published at a certain hour so that vans could trundle off on circulation routes. Copies were rushed out to newsstands as soon as the ink was dry.
Newspapers also weren’t simply mediums for journalism and hard news. They published gossip and freak show stories and did everything they could to attract eyeballs. People didn’t just buy them for text. They were the original home entertainment system, packed with comics, crossword puzzles and games. This is the tradition that BuzzFeed lives off of. It rushes out every scoop it can, sometimes noteworthy, somewhat not, so that it can shout “Extra Extra” to the entire World Wide Web.
Journalistic culture in the United States is far more highbrow than it is elsewhere. It’s based almost entirely on The New York Times and those papers seeking to emulate it. The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times have all defined themselves in many ways by their competition with the Times. And the Gray Lady’s identity comes from the desire to be the exact opposite of everything embodied by its turn-of-the-century competitors, the New York World and the New York Herald. These were the original practitioners of yellow journalism and the Times tried to be the high-minded alternative with “all the news fit to print.” When the newspaper business went into decline, so did these tabloids. High minded Times readers continued to read the paper, but tabloid readers, they watched television.
This is the tradition from which Ben Smith and BuzzFeed have emerged. It’s not something new, it’s simply a updated return to the past. After all, the cat GIFs may be new but the Katzenjammer Kids just don’t cut it in the 21st century.
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