The clickbait platform deserved to go a long time ago
BuzzFeed was internet native! BuzzFeed was viral! There were 15 reasons BuzzFeed understood social media like nobody else, and you won’t believe Number 7. In the end, none of this mattered, and now BuzzFeed News is finally closing down, with the loss of 180 jobs.
For the audience that BuzzFeed now tries to woo, the proposition that it was ever an award-winning news pioneer is a surprise. “The quiz site?”, asked my teens, who are three years younger than BuzzFeed, and who were astonished to discover that it had ever carried any serious news. Yet in its heyday, around a decade ago, media giants beat a path to its door. If they did not wish to emulate the BuzzFeed formula, then they came to learn. BuzzFeed was thought to be in possession of something very like ancient occult knowledge: how to build a digital audience, and apparently, grow revenue online.
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BuzzFeed had been launched by Jonah Peretti in 2006 as a sideline, an amuse-bouche. Peretti had no journalism background, and as the dot com bubble exploded, he was completing a Masters degree at the MIT Media Lab, John Negroponte’s playpen for clever dilletantes, apparently having missed all the fun.
But a new bubble was emerging. The previous year, he had had helped start the Huffington Post with Andrew Breitbart. The New York Times called Peretti a “viral marketing hot dog”. Peretti found that with no journalism baggage, he had an advantage when it came to seducing venture capitalists. He could hop shamelessly from one “business model to another. Some of the tricks endured: listicles, pets, more pets and show business — the relentless repackaging of trivia and sponsored native content. BuzzFeed acquired a Pulitzer, then ran Christopher Steele’s notorious “piss dossier” on Donald Trump, after everyone else passed on it.
New hires, including in the UK editorial staff poached from the Guardian, the Times and the BBC during BuzzFeed’s period of rapid growth, couldn’t believe their luck. For a brief period, top line revenue trebled annually, but it was short-lived. News was always an awkward passenger on this ride, a high-maintenance trophy date, and in 2019 a chastened Peretti confessed that news had been a mistake.
Unlike Ariana Huffington, who sold her eponymous operation to AOL for £350 million in 2011, Peretti never succeeded in selling the operation at or near its peak valuation. He never found a bigger fool, and had to keep hustling investors. So BuzzFeed was trapped in a cycle of over-raising capital, overspending, then cutting back and grasping for the next hustle. It even ended up, this year, publishing AI-generated articles.
BuzzFeed finally floated, thanks to a special purpose acquisition vehicle, in 2021. There was something of the dog returning to its own vomit as Peretti acquired HuffPo in between Covid lockdowns — and HuffPo now carries the news torch for BuzzFeed.
Underlying all of Peretti’s investor pitches was a problem no one to this day has really overcome: the belief that you can create a successful business from online advertising. This has been disproved repeatedly, as one senior industry executive who has devised strategy for global media companies told me: “If you want to have a good business, you want to be able to set the price for what you’re selling. So that the more you sell, the more money you make,” he said. “The online advertising market is controlled by large networks, and has infinite inventory — will not let that happen. So it’s a buyers market”.
The more you spend, the less you make. Realising this, many titles turned to a subscription model instead. But BuzzFeed, with its ephemeral, almost weightless content designed for “blow-through” grazers, was ill-placed to do so: nothing it did encouraged loyalty or returning readers.
Did anyone ever click on BuzzFeed to find out what it was saying about the big story or the big issues of the day? The question is so absurd, it answers itself.