Can Mashable pull a BuzzFeed?

Mashable is growing up.

Started as a social media blog by a 19-year-old Scot, the news site is now flush with $14 million in venture capital that it’s using to bankroll an ambitious plan to become the CNN for the mobile- and social-addicted generation.

So far, the results have been hard to miss, and in some cases, even jarring. Stories about the crisis in Ukraine and the missing Malaysian plane have been juxtaposed with lists like this one, which imagined celebrities sporting Kim Jong-un haircuts. A new Twitter feed, @Mashwire, offers a serious counterpart to the “fun” promised by Mashable’s main feed that is still a hodgepodge of social media tidbits, tech news and typical Internet heartwarming fare.

Like BuzzFeed, which brought in editor-in-chief Ben Smith in 2011, Mashable has used venture capital backing to beef up with serious journalists. Four months ago, it brought on former New York Times assistant managing editor Jim Roberts as its executive editor and chief content officer. Roberts in turn has hired other serious news vets like Jonathan Ellis, Brian Ries and Andrew Freedman and plans to expand Mashable’s entertainment, science and environmental coverage. The site boasts a newsroom of 70 reporters and editors. With 10.7 million uniques on desktop and mobile in February, per comScore, it is, however, still far outstripped by BuzzFeed (66 million) and The Huffington Post Media Group (110 million).

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Other digital upstarts have expanded their journalistic mission to include serious news, too (see The Huffington Post, Business Insider, in addition to BuzzFeed), thereby improving their sheen in a bid for premium ad dollars. Most of these models are premised on the lighter fare attracting the lion’s share of the audience, as well as informing how to cover serious news in a more accessible, social way. But there are risks, as Roberts discovered in February when he joined others in publishing lightweight Ukraine listicles and photosets like this one that highlights the gruesome violence there, which Politico criticized as disaster porn.

Roberts defended the piece, saying the criticism ignored the “countless” other more in-depth articles that Mashable has done. “I was outraged by that,” he said. “I really felt that the coverage should be viewed in its entirety.”

Mashable has flexed its newfound serious news muscles recently with its wall-to-wall coverage of the Washington mudslide. Over the course of four days, it published 15 articles, showing a range of shoe-leather reporting on the scene as well as social media-inspired pieces like this one.

But can Mashable and its ilk have it both ways? After all, Mashable is the same publication that brought Grumpy Cat to SXSW and also had a Miley Cyrus-inspired wrecking ball for people to swing from. Roberts argues what Mashable is doing isn’t that different from other publications that are dependent on offering a buffet of content, only most of them start on the serious news side rather than with the cats. “The trick for us and the challenge for me is to do it in a way that is useful to our audience and our audience can relate to.” For him, that could mean his list of best Ukraine Twitter accounts to follow or a story about a storm threatening Canada that got 45,700 shares, which Roberts holds up as evidence that serious stories can do just as well as fluff. “That to me is totally in viral territory.”

But context counts. The difference between The New York Times adding style and food sections and Mashable treading into global warfare is that these days people looking for news online often find it through social and search. No one knows this better than Mashable, which, with its homegrown technology that predicts when a story will go viral, has mastered the use of social to get their stories shared more than others.

Sites like BuzzFeed and Mashable “are designed to be consumed out of context and in small chunks,” said Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute. “This is an unsolved problem right now because their audience doesn’t expect serious news, so it doesn’t resonate.”

That’s not to say change is impossible; Deadspin managed to cross over into serious sports stories without losing its tabloid voice. BuzzFeed has started to cover serious topics like sexual assault in a BuzzFeedy-type way without trivializing the subject. The Huffington Post won a Pulitzer (and validation) for its coverage of wounded veterans.

BuzzFeed still suffers from brand confusion, though, while Mashable isn’t well known outside the tech crowd, McBride said. To become solidly known as general, respected news sites will take doing some serious coverage that has an impact, she said. “You’ve got to find those big stories that change the narrative.”