In December 2011, when Ben Smith, the high-octane reporter and blogger for Politico, jumped ship to become the editor of BuzzFeed, a site then better known for viral slideshows and cat videos, many in the world of political journalism wondered if Smith had lost his mind.
They're not wondering anymore. Smith, 36, quickly established BuzzFeed as a go-to source for political news, hiring a team of smart, hungry, young reporters and bringing the site's signature social media-driven style to coverage of the 2012 campaign.
Now, with the hiring of Miriam Elder, the Moscow correspondent for the Guardian, to be the site's first foreign and national security editor, BuzzFeed is aiming to do the same for world news.
The idea for the expansion, says BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti, took shape after the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings, when the site's 60 million monthly unique visitors were looking for answers -- and old-fashioned facts.
"With the Boston bombings, we saw something new," says Peretti, a 39-year-old former cofounder of the Huffington Post and a new media pioneer. "People started tweeting from the scene, and the front page stats jumped."
"It was a real eye-opening moment," Peretti says. "They don't have a legacy news brand, and they were turning to BuzzFeed, a site they visit every day, to figure out what was happening. ... Our top five stories were all hard news content."
BuzzFeed moved quickly, hiring Lisa Tozzi from the New York Times to be its first news director, and accelerating what were then still formative plans to venture into national security and international coverage (in April, the site made a foray into this territory by collaborating with FP on "11 Buzzfeed Lists That Explain the World").
"We think that there's this new central social conversation -- on Twitter in particular -- around international news and national security, and we think reporting is an important way into that conversation," explains Smith.
So is BuzzFeed going up-market, in a bid to broaden its brand? Not exactly, according to Peretti: "We're not going up-market in the sense that when we hired Ben Smith, a few weeks later we launched an animals vertical."
Nor is there a strict business rationale for going global. "I think there are moments when people care about foreign news more than anything else," notes Peretti. But then, "the week after the Boston bombings, people were sharing really comforting content," such as "21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity."
Peretti likens BuzzFeed's expansion to a TV station or an old-fashioned newspaper diversifying its mix of coverage. "Sometimes people want to be entertained more than they want to be informed, and sometimes it's the other way around. ... The newspaper has the Sunday styles and the crossword sections -- television networks have the sitcoms and the evening news and the late-night variety show."
With Elder, BuzzFeed has hired a journalist who was the first Western reporter to cover Pussy Riot, the punk-rock collective whose members were later prosecuted for their provocative performance art.
"They'd done a shocking performance on Red Square that had piqued my interest," she explains.
"Miriam's a great reporter who both has covered big, complicated stories -- everything from corruption to the failed political revolt against [Russian President Vladimir] Putin," says Smith. "She's also a big voice on Twitter, which is necessary but not sufficient these days."
Elder will be based in New York and will supervise an initial team of half a dozen reporters, including Rosie Gray -- an aggressive 23-year-old former Village Voice writer who has already broken stories on Malaysian influence-peddling in Washington and Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev -- as well as full-time correspondents in places like Cairo, Moscow, and Mexico City.
The site's viral teams will be contributing the odd slideshow, and J. Lester Feder, 32, will be covering the international gay rights movement.
Elder, 34, has been in Moscow since September 2006 and did an earlier stint with AFP from 2002 to 2003. She has a master's degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, with a focus on strategic studies and international economics.
Says Smith, "If you can survive covering Russia and do good work there, that's an impressive thing."
Blake Hounshell contributed reporting.