Sorry for the BuzzKill
A teaser version of this article also appeared as an 'Open Mic' feature in the VCL Newsletter 'The Curve' - subscribe here.
When I heard BuzzFeed was shutting down, I caught myself saying aloud “good riddance…”
When I learned it was just BuzzFeed News, I was sad.
In that sadness is a cautionary tale not just for media companies, but for every brand that publishes content and wants to profitably expand its reach.
Highly influential, for better or worse
I know that many people – especially of a certain age (millennial) and political bent (left-left) who grew up with the brand like, no love!, BuzzFeed. Many, including my colleague, VCL founder Zach Servideo, consider BuzzFeed an important, era-defining (2006 to now) venture. In many ways it was.
There’s no question that BuzzFeed’s signature tricks – listicles, quizzes, interactivity, memes, community content, strong perspective freely imbued, extravagant and sometimes tiring use of cute photos with text superimposed between every paragraph, reliance on social platforms to distribute more than 75% of its content, and above all, relentless obsession with virality – have become staples of online content. And the memes. Many, many memes. I’m far from convinced it’s all for the better, however.
Along with social giants and its own imitators, BuzzFeed bears heavy responsibility for inspiring and unleashing a deadly plague of Web-choking sins: content engineered to value shareability over substance and resulting obsession with SEO, the elevation of eyeballs and shares as the ultimate commercial currency and click-happy bot networks that followed. “Which Harry Potter character are you like?” Facebook tests and other “fun” content that was actually wanton data harvesting in disguise. And most fatally in BuzzFeed News’ own demise and of many others, the misguided belief that content should be free to create and consume and concentrated with advertising on a handful of mega-sites.
And about that content. News aside, BuzzFeed Web offers a never-ending, sticky banquet of pop-culture froth, dished with a big side of PC and life-wasting trivia. Fun like pop rocks candy? Sure. I’ve enjoyed it on occasion. But not as a diet staple. To be fair, I am decidedly not in BuzzFeed's target audience, which seems to be female-ish, aged 15-30 desperately seeking clues about their “true” identity through inane quizlets. That certainly colors my perceptions. But as a career media professional and analyst who likes stupid stuff as much as the next person, I have to say urp.
BuzzFeed News: A Serious Stepchild
As much as I dislike BuzzFeed, the parent site, I liked and came to respect BuzzFeed, the News site. As a longtime mainstream tech journalist and investigative reporter/editor, I appreciated the commitment to real, “serious” journalism, especially a lust for justice and deep pieces about flesh and blood lives. I was eager to see how the international News division might mature and evolve in fascinating new ways. Here’s a good post-mortem of their mission and highlights, including crime. I was pulling for them.
But here too, the legacy is not pristine. BuzzFeed (the whole site) contributions to the list of Things The Internet Would Certainly Be Better Without also includes troubling, documented cases of widespread plagiarism, copyright infringement, bowing to advertiser pressure to kill pieces, and misandry (an editor admitted that story pitches from white males go to the bottom of the pile). The list includes the loathsome practice, shared by HuffPost and others, of expecting contributors and other content creators to work for free or wages low even by publishing’s modest standards. Did others do these? Sure. But BuzzFeed was the biggest and, for a while, the baddest.
I understand that modern ADHD sensibilities demand that news and information be at least somewhat entertaining. The bar has been raised, and there’s a lot of competition for attention out there! And God knows that after COVID we all needed more mindless escape than ever. But it is – and always was – asking too much of a franchise that focuses much of its energy on pop culture minutiae (a cockroach on the Met Gala’s red carpet, for example) and heavy doses of binary, with-us-or-against-us wokeness to expect a long, profitable run as a trusted news organization.
Heck, it didn’t work that great in the short run. Despite the genuine, prize-worthy excellence of many news articles, many people never really took BuzzFeed, including the News operation, seriously. Not just snobby legacy media types, but the wider public and BuzzFeed’s own readers. Across nearly a decade, surveys by the Pew Research Center, AdWeek, Columbia Journalism Review, Variety, The Guardian and others found BuzzFeed News among the least-trusted news outlets. Things didn’t really change even after News was cleaved off from the main site and given its own subsite or the 2016 split of news and entertainment divisions from the rest of the business. Things changed slowly after News won a Pultizer and string of prestigious journalism prizes. But in hindsight, BuzzFeed co-founder and CEO Jonah Peretti realized too late: “Winning Emmys and Pulitzers does not cover your costs.”
And I care because…?
Now, here’s the pivot to you and us. On the business side, BuzzFeed and BuzzFeed News had a great run. They also clearly got screwed by investors in several ways. But News was never going to be a profitable, long-term concern. Even if it once attracted millions in investments by top VCs, PE firms, titans like NBCUniversal and Facebook, and Disney once offered $650 to buy. Beyond later video offshoots, the main site’s business model, as I understood it, was based pretty much solely on virality and eyeballs. As BuzzFeed News (and many others) have learned, that’s not a sustainable strategy in a race to the digital bottom. The goal of “free journalism purpose-built for social media'' was admirably altruistic, but at best tenuously based in economic reality.
So what do we make of all this? The inevitable parade of articles and books about “Lessons from the Death of BuzzFeed News” has already begun. Besides the The Atlantic article Zach originally flagged, a piece in the New Yorker offers a good account of the business issues. I’m sure I’ll refine these as time goes on. But here are my initial takeaways:
Lesson 1. Don’t expect news or most other content to be directly profitable – especially when it’s free. Investors and the rest of us would be a lot happier if we accepted that inarguable fact of economic life. Whether it’s news or informational content on a B2B or B2C website, quality content that is not just recycled press releases or other web crap, costs money to research, produce and distribute. It’s an investment, one that if done right can deliver indirect and direct ROI in the form of loyalty, leads, renewals across a customer lifetime. For most companies, funding content with more direct revenue-producing business is a smart, more realistic way to go. Most content needs a patron, even if it’s the Marketing budget plumped by, say, software sales. (It’s why I’m increasingly convinced that news reporting desperately needs the radical disruption of foundation, grant, public or other alternative funding.)
Lesson 2. Stick to your lane. Or more exactly, to your audience/markets. BuzzFeed News actually had the right idea: Get underwritten by a deep-pocketed sponsor, as suggested above. The problem there seems to have been the cosmic chasm between the Internet culture and celebrity news that attracted readers and kept the lights on and quality news content. At BuzzFeed, “come for the cotton candy, stay for the broccoli” was never going to work, regardless of how spicy and expertly the latter was prepared. Even if you serve the best dish in the world, diners will look back to the kitchen and see who’s cooking. Know who you are, know what your audience wants. Are you credibly credible? It comes back to brand identity. Stretch to expand, sure. But gas station sushi? Hard pass.
A couple of years ago I worked with a specialized tech media client who used the same model, but they did it right. The strategy: Attract readers with latest news and legit thought leadership, then get them to stay with excellent sponsored content and microsites that contain information that’s useful and relevant to the audience. Those last two words are key. Useful and relevant. The big revenues from sponsored content easily offset the modest costs of news. Today they’re doing better than ever. BuzzFeed employed this model, but it obviously was not enough to save hundreds of jobs and an unnatural, grafted-on brand extension.
Lesson 3. Be better than AI. The BuzzFeed. News story ends with appropriate irony. No, not the fact that BuzzFeed played a major role in creating a junk-fixated, click-crazy world that eventually killed its excellent news operation. Rather, that BuzzFeed started in 2006 by a couple of guys who used an algorithm to identify content likely to go viral. In the worst fears of the ex-News staffer who wrote in the Atlantic, ChatGPT and other generative AI will eventually take over BuzzFeed and all of publishing with cheap, good-enough summary content. Many non-media companies share the concern. The obvious remedy: Create original, research-based content that cannot be mimicked or produced by AI. Content with context, voice, perspective, value, color, humanity, humor, flesh and blood, original thought. Ironically, that’s what BuzzFeed News did, just not in the right place, at the right time. Generative AI is a savvy Web scavenger. Use it as a smart helper, but best it with fresh, tasty meat.
In many ways, BuzzFeed and BuzzFeed News did define an Internet era. It’s being supplanted by its offspring TikTok and myriad other Web trend-makers and wanna-be chasers. Hopefully the site’s talented and dedicated investigative reporters will scatter and re-appear in a more sensible and solid environment in the emerging, post-social-web landscape. To Buzzfeed’s innovators and investors, I say …. Thanks for the good. Next era, please.
Am I wrong? Am I missing something important? Please let me know. - Joe Maglitta