Buzzfeed has grown from a churning listicle machine into a full-fledged news organization. Perhaps sensitive to its past(-ish) reputation as a garbage producer, the company has become quite self-conscious about making a public show of proving that it operates like a real, respectable mainstream news producer. Last week, it published an "Editorial Standards and Ethics Guide," laying out in detail the decidedly old-school rules by which its editorial staffers are expected to operate, including—in a throwback to the behavior of the stuffiest and most misguided J-school priests—a ban on public political speech by reporters. Buzzfeed is set on proving to the old media establishment that it is ready to be as popular, rich, and boring as they have been for the past half century.
In yesterday's memo about leaks, Buzzfeed "Chief of Staff" (grand!) Ashley McCollum goes to great lengths to assure staffers that the company is a model of transparency: "We don't worry about leaks primarily as a PR matter. One reason this hasn't really been an issue for us is because we don't have a ton of company secrets. It's important to us that we say the same things internally and externally." Then she qualifies that by adding, "(The major exception to our view on transparency is when we are working with a partner or company who has asked us not to share information outside a small internal group.)"
The only thing they absolutely prohibit leaking is anything worth leaking.
Much—probably most—news published by news organizations originates as a leak. Someone who knows something that is not public tells it to a reporter, who publishes it, thereby making it public. This is the basic news process in action. Information that a company itself makes public often has little news value. Information that a company does not want you to know often has great news value. "News is something somebody doesn't want printed," goes the apocryphal quote. "All else is advertising."
Many people actually employed as journalists see nothing wrong with a journalism company firing those who leak internal company information. That is a routine policy at many companies, they say; therefore it must be accepted as routine, standard, normal. They conflate what is normal with what is right, and so find this unremarkable.
This debate goes to the heart of what a journalist's conception of their media organization is. Is your media organization just a company—a company that happens to be in the journalism business, but which is first and foremost a business, and which exists in competition with other businesses, and which must protect its financial interest before everything else? Or are companies engaged in journalism obligated to believe in the mission of journalism, which is to make information public by publishing news? In the past week, Buzzfeed has placed itself squarely in the former camp: it is a business, and news is just one of its many business silos, which will be pursued only to the extent that it satisfies the business needs of Buzzfeed and its many advertisers and investors. To Buzzfeed, the value of news is instrumental, not inherent. News is fine, as long as it doesn't upset the business machine. To declare that a journalist working at a media company can be fired for leaking news to another news outlet is to declare that news is seen primarily as a business and that the greatest crime a journalist can commit is not to, say, fail to do the work of journalism, but instead to upset a company's competitive business advantage.
This is simply the nature of some news organizations' souls. This is not a sanctimony contest. We all have advertisers. We all, one way or another, have rich owners. We all must make money in order to pay salaries and expenses, or else we will fold. We are all, in some sense, businesses. But some news businesses believe first and foremost in news, and some believe first and foremost in business. Those that believe in the inherent value of news will make business sacrifices in service of news, and those that believe in the inherent value of business will make news sacrifices in service of the business.
Perhaps eighty or ninety percent of the time, there's no big difference in how these two types of media organizations will publish the news. But the time in which there is a difference is the time when the news is hard to publish—because it poses some challenge to or requires some sacrifice from the business side of the operation. It is when the news does not serve to maximize revenue. It is when it pisses someone off. It is when it's a pain in the ass. It is when it's unpopular, a burden, an obligation rather than a thrill. It is when it requires a news organization to stand up and do something that is the right thing to do on principle even though the executives might hate the fact that they have to do it. Like, for example, gritting their teeth and admitting that firing your own employees for leaking while running a news organization that operates by publishing the leaks of employees of other businesses is simply too hypocritical to be tolerated.
Buzzfeed's memo to potential leakers closes with this: "And by the way, if you're reading this blog post and work at a company with lots of secrets, do go ahead and send them to firstname.lastname@example.org at your convenience." Like Buzzfeed's understanding of news, it's a cute joke.