Earlier this week, BuzzFeed launched an internal review of any posts that its editors or writers had deleted from the site since editor-in-chief Ben Smith was hired in January 2012. In an interview on Friday, and a memo sent to staff on Saturday, Smith revealed that the review has already uncovered three instances where complaints from the site’s business and advertising departments led Smith to delete posts.
(The full memo, which Smith provided to Gawker, is reproduced at the bottom of this post.)
The review was prompted by widespread criticism of the site’s deletion, in March and April, of two posts that criticized brands whose parent companies were BuzzFeed advertising partners: One, a post criticizing the board game Monopoly written after Monopoly’s maker Hasbro had signed an advertising deal with BuzzFeed; the other, a post that criticized an ad campaign undertaken by the soap-maker Dove, a property of major BuzzFeed advertiser Unilever.
Smith assured readers—and his writers—that in these two cases the decision to delete was editorial (the posts had expressed personal opinions in violation of Buzzfeed’s editorial standards), and that neither the criticized brands nor Buzzfeed’s advertising department had influenced him. “I field complaints all the time from companies and individuals, including advertisers, and see it as my job to shield you from that pressure,” he wrote in a memo to staff acknowledging the unexplained deletions and announcing that the posts would be re-instated.
But Smith’s admirable desire to preserve the Chinese wall between BuzzFeed’s editorial and advertising departments appears to have fallen short on more than one occasion.
A memo sent today to BuzzFeed’s editorial staff, outlining the preliminary results of Buzzfeed News Deputy Managing Editor Annie-Rose Strasser’s review, details three incidents where BuzzFeed’s business interests influenced the deletion of posts—in one case because a post criticized a brand’s Twitter account at the very moment that Twitter account was being operated by BuzzFeed’s internal marketing department.
The post, titled “These Brands Are Going To Bombard Your Twitter Feed on Super Bowl Sunday,” was written by current BuzzFeed employee Samir Mezrahi and promoted by the site’s official Twitter account:
These Brands Are Going To Bombard Your Twitter Feed On Super Bowl Sunday http://t.co/NbDud9ORRy
— BuzzFeed (@BuzzFeed) January 31, 2014
At least two other BuzzFeed employees linked to the listicle on Twitter as well:
— Charlie Warzel (@cwarzel) January 31, 2014
— Austin Hunt (@AustinHunt) January 31, 2014
Here’s what you’ll find if you click on any of those links:
The post appears to have been deleted within hours of its publication. This means, among other things, that the only copy of the URL preserved by the Wayback Machine is the empty placeholder page that took its place.
A small portion of the original listicle appears on an obscure website called RSSing.com, which pulled at least three screenshots—of the Twitter accounts for Diet Coke, Target, Sprint, AT&T, and Oikos Greek Yogurt—that Mezrahi used to illustrate the post. But it was the post’s criticism of the Twitter account of Pepsi, which had entered a contract with BuzzFeed to publish Pepsi-branded posts during the Super Bowl, that prompted the post’s deletion.
In an interview on Friday, Smith explained that, at the time of the post’s publication, BuzzFeed’s creative team—which helps brands connect with BuzzFeed’s huge audience—was directly operating the @Pepsi Twitter account. In other words, Mezrahi was criticizing the work of his own BuzzFeed colleagues, which Smith saw as a conflict of interest.
(Mezrahi did not respond to a request for comment, but Smith provided an email he sent to him shortly after he deleted his post. The full text of that email is copied at the end of this post.)
Mezrahi’s post was not the only to be deleted over concerns from the advertising department. Another, written by former staffer Mark Duffy, was taken down after the deodorant brand Axe (another Unilever company) complained that he had accused it of advocating “worldwide mass rape.” Duffy wrote about the post on Gawker in 2013:
Ben Smith made me delete a post I did on Axe Body Spray’s ads, titled, “The Objectification Of Women By Axe Continues Unabated in 2013” (it was initially called something to the effect of “Axe Body Spray Continues its Contribution to Rape Culture,” but I quickly softened it). Get this: he made me delete it one month after it was posted, due to apparent pressure from Axe’s owner Unilever. How that’s for editorial integrity? Ben Smith also questioned other posts I did knocking major advertisers’ ads (he kept repeating the phrase “punching down”), including the pathetically pandering, irresponsible Nike “Fat Boy” commercial.
Finally, Smith identifies a third post deleted over concerns from the advertising department: A post “making fun of a Microsoft product, Internet Explorer” by Tanner Ringerud, a former BuzzFeed creative (i.e., advertising) employee who’d worked on a campaign for Microsoft before moving into editorial. The post apparently led to a complaint from Andy Wiedlin, then BuzzFeed’s Chief Revenue Officer, and an eventual deletion—as well as the introduction of a new policy temporarily preventing BuzzFeed creative employees who’d moved to editorial from writing about brands they’d worked with. (We haven’t been able to find any evidence of this post’s existence or record of its contents; if you can, please email me at email@example.com.)
BuzzFeed’s ethics policy, published to the site with great fanfare earlier this year, states that the company maintains “a strict and traditional separation between advertising and editorial content.” And while editorial staffers are cautioned against writing “about ads that are running on BuzzFeed unless they are genuinely newsworthy,” the policy holds that:
Editorial staffers should never discuss a story about a company with a business-side staffer who works with that company; staffers on the business side who have questions or concerns about editorial content may communicate them only to the editor-in-chief.
Here’s the full memo sent to BuzzFeed staff today:
From: Ben Smith
Date: Saturday, April 18, 2015
Subject: Deletions report
I wanted to share with you the results of our internal review, which as you know Annie-Rose has been working on this week. The goal of this was making sure we know why things were deleted before our standards guide was published this January, including whether or not external pressure played a role in any of the decisions to delete a post. This isn’t intended to suggest writers did anything wrong: back in those days it was common practice to delete posts for a range of reasons. Annie-Rose and her team of seven reporters talked to more than 100 current and former staffers to get to the bottom of as many of those posts as possible.
Here’s her summary of the preliminary findings of her report, which was based a set of deleted posts provided to her by the data team:
Total deleted posts: 1,112
Editorial decisions (100): This category runs the gamut: Pieces that editors felt were sloppily done, pieces that editors or writers later decided were in bad taste, pieces that editors deemed inaccurate or in some other way flawed, pieces where a subject requested content be removed, etc.
Advertiser complaints (3): These stories were pulled after an editor fielded a complaint from a business-side BuzzFeed staff member who worked with a brand mentioned in the piece.
Copyright issues (65): It’s hard to verify since the posts are gone, but these are pieces that editors and reporters said they thought were pulled because the authors didn’t have proper permissions to reprint a photo or video in the post. We are hoping to get a list of these posts to cross-check.
Technical error (263): Posts in this category were either removed by accident, because they were tests never meant to be published, or because they were withdrawals of drafts that were accidentally published too early. Also included in this category are pieces that were published under the wrong byline and pieces that were published on two different urls (in which case one was withdrawn).
Duplicated already published work (122): These were situations where an author wrote a piece without realizing another BuzzFeed editorial staffer was working on the same topic. In most cases, the second piece was pulled, but there are also situations where the earlier post was deleted in favor of a post with more reporting in it.
Community user deletions (140): These are posts that were created by interns, fellows, or staff members when they held community accounts. So, before they were on staff they wrote posts — either as community posts or trials for jobs — and then deleted them. Reporters told us that some of these deletions were manual, while others seem to be the result of onboarding.
On-edit staff deletions and unidentified bylines (377): his is the category that includes any non-editorial post that was deleted — pieces being tested by dev or projects being developed by sales. We did not dive fully into all of those posts. There are also pieces in this category that are from unidentified users who we have not tracked down — people with community bylines who seem to have done some kind of work for us but are not part of edit (as far as we know).
There is a small number of posts — 42 — where we’re still waiting on answers from people who are OOO and the like.
I want to specifically address the three posts that were deleted after complaints from advertisers. I don’t routinely share my conversations with our business side, and don’t plan to make a practice of it, but it’s something you have a right to be concerned about.
1) Mark Duffy, who wrote under the byline copyranter, was a blogger and ad critic at BuzzFeed in 2013. An ad agency complained, via our chief revenue officer at the time, that he was accusing them of advocating “worldwide mass rape” in an ad for Axe body spray, and that the tone of his item was over the top. I agreed that this was way outside even our very loose standards of the time. He complained on Gawker in 2013 that we deleted this post unfairly, and my correspondence with him at the time is in that post as well.
2) Tanner Ringerud led BuzzFeed’s Creative department in its early days; he moved over to editorial on January 25, 2013. On March 5, he published a post making fun of a Microsoft product, Internet Explorer. He had worked on a Microsoft ad campaign, and BuzzFeed’s chief revenue officer complained about the post to me. We agreed that it was inappropriate for Tanner to write about brands whose ad campaigns he’d worked on. We set up a “cooling off period” in which he wasn’t allowed to write about any brands he’d worked with for six months. We’ve made that a policy in the two other cases in which a staffer moved from the business side to editorial — one BuzzFeed News writer and one BuzzTeam illustrator.
3) On January 27, 2014, the head of BuzzFeed’s creative division complained that Samir Mezrahi had taken a gif from a Pepsi advertisement created by BuzzFeed’s creative team and turned it into a Vine without indicating where it had come from. I asked Samir not to use advertising our business side had created in an editorial context. Four days later, he published a post titled “These Brands Are Going To Bombard Your Twitter Feed On Super Bowl Sunday,” which was a mix of criticism and praise for a long list of brands on Twitter. I again heard a complaint from our business side about Pepsi, which was the first item in the list, and whose Twitter feed they were making content for during the Super Bowl.
We’d never previously considered the case of an editor would be writing about an ad that was produced by our creative team, but we decided it was inappropriate and deleted the post. I wrote Samir that night that “here just has to be a pretty high bar around writing about advertising that is going on in the building. It creates an appearance of a conflict I’m really uncomfortable with.”
Senior editors discussed this at the time, and this specific instance informed this passage in the standards guide we published in January:
We don’t write about ads that are running on BuzzFeed unless they are genuinely newsworthy. Appreciation buzz posts celebrating a fun or cool ad are fine, as are posts critical of ads — but that content should not be about ads BuzzFeed’s business side has created.
Jonah and I sat down yesterday with our hardworking volunteer ombudsman, Keenan Trotter of Gawker, and we shared some of this with him. But it’s jarring to read about our internal affairs on other sites, so I wanted to share Annie-Rose’s findings with you now.
I’m so grateful to Annie-Rose and the team (Talal Ansari, Tamerra Griffin, Maggie Schultz, Matt Ford, Anita Badejo, Brendan Klinkenberg, and Susie Armitage) who really cranked on this report without making their colleagues — who hadn’t broken any rules — feel like there was some kind of witch hunt underway. We can’t wait to turn that team loose on some big breaking news.
I’m also frankly relieved that the review didn’t turn up any external pressures or advertiser contacts that I didn’t know about.
And amid all this conversation about church and state, I do want to make one thing clear: We expect you to write and make decisions independently of our advertisers and our sales side. If you ever believe that pressure is being brought to bear, please tell me or your editor.
We’ve asked to be be held in public, and by all of you, to the highest standards. It makes us better as a editorial operation and ultimately strengthens our culture. We are fortunate that so many smart people hold us to high expectations journalistically, culturally, and ethically. We won’t always perfectly meet these expectations, we (and I) will undoubtedly make mistakes again, but I know we will keep getting better. I can’t wait to see the amazing work all of you will do in the coming days and years, and to feel the huge impact it will have.
And here is the email Ben sent to Samir Mezrahi about his deleted post about brands on Twitter:
From: Ben Smith
Date: Fri, Jan 31, 2014 at 6:30 PM
Subject: writing about buzzfeed ad campaigns on buzzfeed
To: Samir Mezrahi, Lisa Tozzi
So I just killed your post on the twitter feeds — and I realized that what I’m really uncomfortable with is your engaging marketing campaigns that are on BuzzFeed.
Last weekend, you took that image from a pepsi campaign on buzzfeed, and credit was part of the issue — but part of it was also that any reasonable reader would think pepsi was paying you to do that.
And today’s post was a love letter to Taco Bell’s social ads, which are on BuzzFeed, and a kind of “attack” — which could easily have been taken as a kind of viral stunt — on Pepsi’s, which you know from last week are coming out of this office.
I don’t think advertising and marketing are particularly interesting topics in general, but there just has to be a pretty high bar around writing about advertising that is going on in the building. It creates an appearance of a conflict I’m really uncomfortable with. It also just wasn’t news, or interesting, or a story — it felt like a kind of stunt.
Anyway — you know I love you, and love how deep down the rabbit hole you are on social, and how hard you think about all these things, but this is a thing we need to be careful about.
Email or gchat the author: firstname.lastname@example.org / Image credit: Tara Jacoby