Perhaps the most remarkable thing that BuzzFeed has constructed over the last three years is less a model for generating enormous amounts of traffic than a company culture that is thoroughly upbeat, in both ethos and practice, an optimism that can, at times, feel rigorously enforced. (“No haters!”)
But it’s easier to have a uniform culture with a hundred employees shoved into the same office, or at least the same building, than it is with eight hundred employees spread across multiple bureaus around the world. The monolith breaks down, and people might occasionally act on their own behalf, rather than the company, because who knows what the company is anymore. Employees might, for instance, express a modicum of (perfectly reasonable!) doubt about the content boom to a Wall Street Journal reporter, like, “I don’t think anyone should fool themselves into thinking that we have this completely figured out yet. It may not be so easy to dial things up a lot further.”
Or, they might actually leak something newsworthy, like why Buzzfeed, which has formed a fairly large group to produce content that will never exist on its website, but exclusively on other companies’ platforms, isn’t a part of Snapchat Discover — one of the most naked (and anticipated!) attempts by a social network to host editorial content, rather than merely point to it. And there is some genuine newsworthiness in the fact that negotiations between BuzzFeed and Snapchat “fell through at the eleventh hour” because of “creative differences.”
Rather than get angry — because anger leads to hate, hate to leads snark — BuzzFeed has responded to these tiny breaches with what could only be characterized as parent-shaming. It is not mad at these individuals. It will not punish them. (After all, those remarks could’ve made to Wall Street Journal reporters at a dinner that the BuzzFeed employees mistakenly thought was off the record, in which case it would obviously be nobody’s fault, because those kinds of mistakes happen all the the time.) But it is very, very, very disappointed.
Anonymously tipping a reporter to something a colleague says in a meeting isn’t a violation of business or journalistic ethics. It’s an issue of personal ethics. It makes it harder for us to trust one another.
And next time, bad things might happen:
But breaching confidences is something we take seriously, and the sort of thing you can get fired for.
This an outsized reaction! Consider, for one, that it’s extremely difficult to call the comments made in the first Journal story a “leak” with anything approaching a straight face. Let’s be honest: It might not be so easy to dial things up a lot further. And that’s okay! You can just change the metrics for the dials. Secondly, the more genuine leak in the Snapchat story — the artboards — came from within Snapchat, not BuzzFeed. (Not to mention that there is immense political value for BuzzFeed in the Snapchat leak, since BuzzFeed looks like the upstanding party who would not cave to the giant social company because of editorial integrity or whatever.)
Most importantly though, who cares? BuzzFeed has won. Every day is a victory lap. Don’t be so defensive! Enjoy it! It will go away one day, but not because of leaks. So let them flow! Everything will be okay.
Disclosures: The current editors of The Awl, after being bred together in a small petri dish in the back of the refrigerator that holds the cold brew at BuzzFeed, resided there for a time, producing a technology vertical from underneath a stack of seltzer cans.