Buzzfeed came under heavy scrutiny last week when it was found that Benny Johnson, their Viral Politics editor, engaged in over 40 instances of plagiarism and was fired. The allegations of plagiarism came from two anonymous Twitter users that began the investigation by pointing out articles with content that Johnson had copied from Yahoo! Answers. The two Twitter activists, with the handles of crushingbort and blippoblappo then continued to outline Johnson’s transgressions on their website, OurBadMedia. Along with Buzzfeed’s new editorial standards, the question needs to be asked: What is the fate of the Listicle?
Listicles, of course, is the internet slang for the lists of the Top Arbitrary Number of Whatever that fill up a Facebook Newsfeed. They are what Buzzfeed was built on, and still generates most of its traffic. These page view numbers are not small. Buzzfeed had over 10 million unique page views today, July 31, 2014. However, Buzzfeed has been working on moving away from the lists, and moving onto real, journalistic content.
This move has had growing pains, though. Recently, Gawker reported that Buzzfeed posts had begun disappearing from the site due to Buzzfeed’s increased editorial standards. Ben Smith, who has been Editor-In-Chief since 2011 after leaving Politico, brought a real news edge to Buzzfeed, making sure that the site was reporting on the big stories in politics and around the world. The site also admittedly had a problem with attribution. The pictures that would make up the majority of content for the lists would often go unattributed, one of the major crimes of those who use ideas to make a living. Under Smith, this problem was cleaned up to a degree, but still isn’t completely fixed.
This leads to Benny Johnson, Buzzfeed’s new editorial standards, and its problem with attribution. From the beginning, Buzzfeed was not a news site. It was a site designed to capitalize on the American’s public use of social media to become a top stop for people on the internet. Buzzfeed was an entertainment entity, not a news one. As the site’s focus shifted under Smith, though, so did the question of whether or not what Buzzfeed was doing was legitimate. As a quick hit for mindless lists of people’s favorite movies from the ’90’s that featured witches, with the number one movie likely Hocus Pocus and number two The Craft, Buzzfeed was incredibly successful. As a news organization, it still has a lot to prove.
Benny Johnson’s foray into plagiarism does Buzzfeed no favors. Sure, Buzzfeed’s new editorial standards led to the deletion of some problematic posts. Some were merely edited. What Johnson has done is beyond a little site house cleaning. Out of 500 articles he wrote, 41 were found to have content lifted from other sources. Johnson’s “sources” included the New York Times, Politico, and the Associated Press among other legitimate, well-respected news sources. Other sites he lifted from include Wikipedia and Yahoo! Answers, which are not exactly bastions of credibility. Johnson’s actions call into question Buzzfeed’s entire editorial process. No one caught this? How could an author successfully use other people’s material in almost 10 percent of his work? And will I still be able to watch the Top Ten Videos Of Cats That Are Dyed Pink Playing With String In Boxes?
Of course. The Listicle is going nowhere. Buzzfeed changed the paradigm when it came to lists and the internet. People love seeing the things they love quantified and ranked. Whole sites, like Top 10 Rate, are designed around Buzzfeed’s list model. It remains to be seen, though, as to whether or not Buzzfeed will become a news provider like Huffington Post or Gawker or even The New York Times. What is not questionable, though, is whether or not Buzzfeed needs to crack down on its editorial staff. They have 41 reasons showing that they do.
Opinion by Bryan Levy