News & Politics

Why John Stanton Joined BuzzFeed

John Stanton has given up his reporting gig at Roll Call to become Washington bureau chief at BuzzFeed, the popular site that’s more about cute animals than about Congress.

John Stanton. Photograph by Andrew Propp.

John Stanton was in his element, meeting for a burger at Capitol Hill’s Tune Inn, one of DC’s last best dive bars. A bottle of Bud was lost in his huge left hand. The cell phone in his right flashed with a call from a congressman. He rose to his full six-foot-six, stepped to the bar, jotted down some notes, and returned. “I’ll take a Natty Boh,” he said, ordering the down-market beer from Charm City.

The piece he’d write on the congressional baseball game would be one of his last for Roll Call. In July, he became the first DC bureau chief for BuzzFeed, a website better known for cute pictures of animals than exposés of senators. Its Washington political coverage has been slight at best. Good career move?

Stanton, 38, is an antidote to the upscale, yuppie journalist. He’s a street-tough scribe who gave up gigs as a bouncer only a few years ago. “Great way to see people,” he says. “But my wife is not a fan.” Smokes Parliament Lights. Wears silver skull rings. Tattoos run up his arms.

Stanton has ink in his blood as well. His grandfather was managing editor of the Chicago Daily News in the ’50s and ’60s. He took John to the Press Club of Chicago when he was a kid. “He was a crazy, hilarious smart-ass,” Stanton recalls. His father, Tom, did some reporting, then came east to get a law degree at Georgetown. John and his sister grew up on Alexandria’s Quaker Lane. He got into “a few fights” in junior high, so his mother sent him to Bishop Ireton, a Catholic high school. After trying a few colleges, among them UC Berkeley, he moved home with his then-wife. “Get a job or I’ll call the repo man,” his father told him.

He had no interest in being a journalist but signed on with the newsletter publisher Inside Washington at his dad’s suggestion. At 24, when he broke a story about a company that got a rule changed just to help its bottom line, he realized, “This is what I was supposed to be doing.”

By 2002, Stanton was doing it for CongressDaily. He had moved to Sixth and S, deep in DC’s Shaw, long before gentrification: “Five blocks in either direction, my name was White Boy. But it was said with affection.” He got his start as a bouncer at the Kingpin, a bar then at Ninth and U. Since then, he has reported during the day and worked as a bouncer at night.

Now Shaw is hot, and so is Stanton. He’s well sourced on the Republican side. Rachel Maddow invites him to explain Congress to her MSNBC audience. Ben Smith, who quit Politico in December to become editor of BuzzFeed, called him out of the blue in the spring.

Why BuzzFeed? “It’s a tabloid, like my grandfather’s paper,” Stanton says. “News is not its bread and butter, but it’s a way to get news out to people who wouldn’t see it.”

Most of its millions of readers now come to BuzzFeed for quick hits of lists and photos.

“I am a third-generation newspaperman,” Stanton says. “The idea that there would be no more hard copy with ink is insane! But if nobody’s reading it, what’s the point?”

The point is still to break news, which is what Stanton will have to do to make a dent with BuzzFeed.

This article appears in the August 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.