BuzzFeed’s Epic Fail Is Bad News

BuzzFeed’s Epic Fail Is Bad News

The shuttering of the online publication’s news division is yet more evidence of a corporate landscape dangerously hostile to the act of journalism.

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Last week, BuzzFeed CEO and founder Jonah Peretti stunned the Internet by announcing the closing of BuzzFeed News. In a memo to staff, Peretti blamed “a pandemic, a fading SPAC [special purpose acquisition company] market that yielded less capital, a tech recession, a tough economy,” etc., while feebly acknowledging his own responsibility for the disaster (“I could have managed these changes better”). Presumably, though, the decision to take his company public through an ill-fated SPAC sits squarely on Peretti’s shoulders. (SPACs, a risky IPO alternative, give investors the option, but not the obligation, to buy shares in a newly formed public company.) The eventual sale realized only $16.2 million from a $288 million equity offering, and the stock has steadily tanked, losing more than 90 percent of its value since the company went public in December 2021.

Peretti’s dizzying fall follows an equally meteoric rise. The former Huffington Post cofounder created BuzzFeed in 2006 as a side project focused on identifying and sharing viral web content. After the sale of Huffington Post to AOL for $315 million in 2011, Peretti hired high-profile political blogger Ben Smith as editor of the new BuzzFeed News, whereupon the scoops began to flow. In 2012, riding high on some $15.5 million of fresh venture capital, Peretti crowed,

As sites like Facebook and Twitter mature, the moment is right to build a defining company for a world where content is distributed through sharing and social media instead of transitional print and broadcast channels. Why shouldn’t we be one of the companies that builds this future? This big opportunity is why we are focused on building an enduring, independent, and self-sustaining company. Nobody has built a truly great publishing company for the social age and we have a good shot to be the ones who do it.

Grandiose ambitions, but by then BuzzFeed had become a popular destination for casual readers, serious readers, and everyone in between, with comScore stats of 10.8 million unique visitors per month. In a New York Times column, the late media critic David Carr described the site as “a mix of the comical and the consequential”—which, though not wrong, underestimated a monumental shift in public ideas about media, information, and trust.

Throughout the period Peretti called “the social age,” a friendly, inclusive spirit, forged in the volcanic rise of blogging, was taking shape in online journalism. The result was a heady brew of news and lunacy, delivered in a confiding tone and bursting with juice: new aesthetics, new styles of investigation, and plenty of uncontrolled goofing off. In this atmosphere, readers of BuzzFeed got to know the writers who brought them the LOLs and the WTFs, the list of 42 reasons Nicolas Cage is the greatest actor of our generation, the account of a stolen cell phone that led to a world-famous friendship in China, and the unforgettable explanation of why “Being a Dickhead’s Cool.”

A new understanding of mass media can be seen unfolding, day by day, on BuzzFeed.com’s homepage over the years; its whole trajectory is available for examination at the Wayback Machine. Before the launch of BuzzFeed News in 2012, virality was all, and no consideration of taste or public interest prevented the headline “Bristol Palin Lost Virginity While Drunk on Wine Coolers” from topping the charts in 2011, alongside sponcon from KFC and a bald Lady Gaga singing “Hair.” By 2013, though, the homepage stories concerned Russian anti-LGBT law enforcement at the upcoming Olympics, Nevada Senator Harry Reid telling the Senate to “Sit Down and Shut Up,” and “Cleveland Kidnapper Sentenced to 1,000 Years”—all of them right next door to “25 Ways to Up Your Ponytail Game.”

Unpredictably, this interactive and shareable world of listicles, recipes, and quizzes had put serious investigative reporting into an electrifying new context. Readers found that the people behind the bylines, whom they’d come to like and trust, were liable to have more interesting and more relatable perspectives on, say, the wild allegations of the Steele Dossier than anything they might find in the well-mannered pages of The New York Times or The Washington Post. For many younger readers, news itself now means something different, something more elastic, more intimate, and less distantly institutional, because of BuzzFeed. In a riveting piece at The Atlantic last Thursday, Smith described his adoption, back then, of this new approach: “I found that I could drive the political conversation simply by telling my readers what I knew in plain English, when I knew it.”

So who brings you the news—who should bring it your way, and how? Alongside Gawker and its contemporaries, like Deadspin, The Awl, Splitsider, The Hairpin, and The Toast, BuzzFeed News perfected that now-familiar style of Internet storytelling, based in connection between journalists and their public. But media magnates have never been at ease with developing assets they cannot fully control. When a publication’s real allegiance is to its readers—when journalism is a matter of public trust first, and a product second—commercial interests are liable to find reasons why it’s not sustainable, not profitable, no longer worth risking millions in capital, and put the kibosh on it.

The ups and downs of this demented roller coaster have accelerated over the years, as new media businesses were deluged in gold, embarked on insane expansion plans, leased wildly expensive real estate, and then almost as suddenly crashed, yanking the Aeron chairs right out from under another few hundreds or thousands of hapless media professionals.

There’s been no shortage of can’t-stop-won’t-stop tech triumphalists, from Peretti to Jeff Bezos to Elon Musk to Marc Andreessen, and each will have his own reckoning, in time. The larger issue raised by the closing of BuzzFeed News is what readers stand, increasingly, to lose. For all of BuzzFeed’s idiosyncrasies, or even its faults, one of the things its news division represented was a corralling of resources to get the facts and bring them to the public. As former BuzzFeed tech editor Charlie Warzel wrote last week, “The business of news gathering—not content creation—is expensive, and it does not scale.” With rare exceptions, like the magazine you’re now reading, honest, clear and transparent journalism that is built for readers, rather than corporate shareholders, is in short supply. The method of funding it needs to change, and drastically.

Public and private companies are very different animals, subject to different pressures and imperatives. Once a company goes public, it must show growth and hit its marks, or face a declining stock price that will render it vulnerable to a takeover. So we hear, again and again, the same story of how shareholder demands for profits led directly to a media company’s being stripped for parts, as told by the firms that still chose to drink from the poisoned chalice of capital. Who cares if BuzzFeed News won a Pulitzer for its coverage of China’s mass detention of Muslims, a National Press Foundation award for its investigation of private psychiatric hospitals, an Ellie for revealing abuses in the US guest worker program, or a Polk Award for its exposé of a Chicago police detective who framed at least 51 people for murder? Shareholder pressure to shutter BuzzFeed’s news division was reported more than a year ago, prompting layoffs and departures that included newsroom leader Mark Schoofs, who’d been at the helm for less than two years.

The seeds of Buzzfeed’s decline should have been apparent even on its way up. By the end of 2016, the company had raised north of $265 million in investment cash, a figure that Crunchbase now puts at nearly $700 million. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the venture capital money that built BuzzFeed was chasing a mirage all along, fatally hitching its wagon to a baseless faith in the miraculous traffic-generating engines of Facebook and Google. This dangerous dependency on third parties would bite hard when the algorithms that drove that traffic changed at the end of the decade, as we now see. In 2013, a BuzzFeed News report cheered, “Facebook Drives Massive New Surge Of Traffic To Publishers: Can Mark Zuckerberg save the publishing industry?” Three short years later, Vox would lament, “Facebook’s latest algorithm change is bad news for publishers,” followed by Vanity Fair’s report three years after that, quoting Peretti in the wake of 220 layoffs at BuzzFeed: “The big question with Facebook is most of Facebook’s revenue is in News Feed, and that’s where they’ve not shared revenue.”

The future of press freedom still lies to some degree in the hands of rich men like Peretti, Bezos, Zuckerberg, Musk, and Andreessen, and that leaves readers at the mercy of their willingness to let journalists do their jobs—which history has already shown us they likely won’t. As the demise of BuzzFeed News reminds us once again, it’s very easy to imagine such men asking themselves why they should be funding journalistic outlets that barely break even and are staffed with the kind of renegades who are principled enough to bite the hand that feeds them. They might ask themselves, who needs this? The answer is, we all do.

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