NEW YORK -- The election of Barack Obama was a compelling story, with a little-known, first-term senator emerging in the tough Democratic primary to beat front-runner Hillary Clinton and go on to become the nation's first black president in a decisive general election victory. So far, the Obama re-election campaign hasn't been as riveting.
"I think there are a lot of things conspiring to make what should be a fantastic story a really boring story," says BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Smith said a presidential re-election campaign can be a "grinding, soulless machine" that often isn't enjoyable to work for or cover. And this cycle, he said, the Obama campaign "wants it to be boring," leaving the national media to focus intensely on an increasingly bitter Republican primary.
But Smith hopes that journalist Michael Hastings, who BuzzFeed hired Monday to cover the Obama campaign, will help spice things up. Hastings, who'll remain a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, starts at BuzzFeed in early April.
The Obama administration is already familiar with Hastings' work. It was his award-winning 2010 Rolling Stone profile that led to Gen. Stanley McChrystal's dismissal as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Hastings' second book, which details the McChrystal episode and also includes criticism of war reporting, was published last month.
While Hastings is best known these days for his work covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he's no stranger to the campaign trail. In 2008, he reported for Newsweek, working on the magazine's last deeply reported election post-mortem. But Hastings left Newsweek after Clinton dropped out in June, declining the magazine's offer to jump over to John McCain's campaign. In a GQ piece after the election, Hastings skewered modern political reporting and how journalists need to maintain access with the campaigns.
Hastings wrote that "if you’re traveling with a campaign day in and day out, it’s difficult to get any critical distance on what you’re seeing, and the price you pay as a reporter for writing stuff that doesn’t echo the campaign’s message is excommunication from your sources, which doesn’t sit well with your editors back at the home office."
Despite his criticism of campaign reporting last time around, Hastings said that he's still a political junkie and "so to resist the biggest story of the year is difficult." And this time, he'll likely enjoy focusing on Obama rather than then-Republican hopeful Rudy Giuliani -- someone he described as a "maniac" in aGQ piece. "I would challenge anyone to cover Rudy Giuliani's campaign and not end with wanting to throw himself in a frozen pond," said Hastings, who spent three months following the former New York City mayor.
There's another difference between the last election and this one, Hastings noted. "The kind of story I was reporting in 2008 was based out of a model developed by Teddy White in 1960, in 'The Making of the President,'" Hastings said. "This time around, the model for reporting -- social publishing -- is much fresher. It's brand new. It's very much 2012 and beyond."
Hastings began talking to Smith informally after running into him at the December debate in New Hampshire between former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Smith had recently announced he was leaving Politico to take the reins of BuzzFeed, a site known more for Internet memes and viral videos than political journalism. But Smith quickly hired a few reporters who hit the trail tweeting last month and filing a variety of pieces daily for the site -- from the "significant to the silly," as New York Times columnist David Carr recently put it.
It's unclear exactly what a long-form magazine writer like Hastings will produce for BuzzFeed, a site that still mostly publishes short posts and eye-catching photos throughout the day on the site, while simultaneously inserting itself quickly into the up-to-the-second political conversation on Twitter.
Hastings says his goal is to do "great reporting," whether of the long-form variety or even a "snapshot on an iPhone." Smith said Hastings will write "as frequently as he needs to" -- perhaps once or twice a week to start -- and report much of the time from Chicago, along with on the trail. Smith also pointed out that BuzzFeed has recently published some longer pieces, in the 2,000-word range, along with posts of perhaps 100 to 200 words.
Smith, who has emphasized the importance of scoops and breaking news since coming to BuzzFeed, says that Hastings is the type of reporter who can both tell "people new things" and isn't worried about making people angry in the process of reporting.
"For me, the challenge is to tell interesting stories," Smith said. "That has been the disappointing thing about the Obama administration. It was supposed to be this great story but it hasn’t been one." Smith suggested that Hastings can help remedy that, adding that he "is not someone to write boring things."
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