by Armin Rosen
Saturday, 26
March 2022
HerdWatch
11:30

Buzzfeed was never as brilliant as it thought it was

So long and thanks for all the listicles
by Armin Rosen
BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti in better times (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

BuzzFeed used to be seen not just as the future but as the only future. As the anonymous writer of one viral 2015 letter, entitled ‘I hate myself because I don’t work at BuzzFeed’ wrote, it was “a cultural institution… so powerful they can make the president use a selfie stick.”

The letter-writer was broadly correct: working there or not working there was a binary rubric of personal relevance and worth. I know this from hard experience. I was a finalist for a reporting job at BuzzFeed in the winter of 2013, a period of three months in which I frantically checked my email once every 10 to 15 minutes, waiting for a life-changing acceptance letter that never came.

BuzzFeed’s rise was one of the early 2010s several misplaced bursts of optimism about the internet. This was a period when people believed enough pluck and brainpower could domesticate this wretched digital beast. But one of the real takeaways of the BuzzFeed saga is that optimism and coolness isn’t enough. 

Those heady days are over now. As of this week, Buzzfeed has announced another round of lay-offs, triggering an exodus of newsroom leadership. Where did Buzzfeed go wrong? A certain type of partisan might answer that the outlet revealed its fundamental unseriousness and failed every basic test of journalistic integrity when it became the first media organisation to publish the Steele Dossier, a kind of larger-scale sequel to its ruination of the life of the anonymous Justine Sacco in late 2013. But this theory assumes that readers of an article entitled “18 Cats Who Don’t Look Like Hitler” cared about any of that crap, and also assumes “journalistic integrity” still exists as an operative concept. 

The reason for Buzzfeed’s decline is, sadly, far more mundane. Yes, BuzzFeed was oriented towards an in-retrospect unworkable model — then mistaken as being as far-sighted and hip ― in which viral clickbait content would fund and drive the actual journalism beneath it. 

Alas, BuzzFeed fumbled the cash-out. The mid-2010s saw a wave of absurd digital media valuations, boosted through blue-chip corporate investment: NBC-Universal pumped close to $400 million into BuzzFeed from 2015 to 2016, driving the site’s valuation up to $1.5 billion. With that kind of money, the industry expected, or maybe just hoped, that Big #Content would conquer everything once it was comfortably slotted into multinational conglomerates — Disney would own Vice, a property that had a movie studio and a TV network, the same way it owned theme parks and cruise lines and retail stores.

But the optimists were wrong. Disney took a $353 million bath on Vice, another media trailblazer which has survived long enough to finally become irrelevant. NBC’s investment in Buzzfeed went so poorly that the website switched tactics, going public in late 2021 amid a flurry of ownership controversy. That clearly didn’t work either.

In contrast, Business Insider emerged as the unlikely winner of the mid-2010s #content wars because it found the right corporate buyer, one that didn’t want to strip it for parts, one that wasn’t plagued with activist shareholders or expectations of an immediate return. Berlin-based Axel Springer is, first and foremost, a news company, owner of the largest tabloid in the most populous country in Europe. Meanwhile, the BuzzFeed layoffs are reportedly a compromise after investors demanded that CEO Jonah Paretti shutter the content giant’s once-vaunted and legitimately influential newsroom, something a media-oriented owner like Axel Springer would never demand. 

Buzzfeed’s arc over the past decade shows that the new media world isn’t terribly different from the old one. The true beneficiaries of BuzzFeed’s rise are the industry incumbents like the New York Times and Conde Nast that hoovered up the publication’s actual talent, up to and including its editor-in-chief. Seemingly everyone else in media turns out to have bought into the understandable delusion that all of our problems could be solved, that novelty could still exist, and that the creativity and brilliance of young people who grew up on the internet were enough to reverse a stodgy industry’s sharp decline. But, as is almost always the case in this industry, we were never as creative or brilliant as we thought we were.

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Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
3 months ago

The problems with news coverage are:

  1. There are too many events to report.
  2. There are too many journalists reporting.
  3. It is too immediate.
  4. News reports are frozen in time and quickly forgotten.
  5. Even a well read person will find it difficult, if not impossible, to know the full context for important news items.
  6. Few journalists have the time or inclination to learn and write about that context.
  7. The context for a news item is generally not examined, debated, improved and on record for the future.
  8. When the context is examined it is often a polarised debate about the implications rather than a factual analysis from which reliable conclusions can be drawn.

The consequences have been disastrous in politics where even if someone did try to think a policy through they do not have the information to do so.
UnHerd tries with better researched articles with some interesting comments but they are not organised over time to provide a useful, evolving and corrected context for reference.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 months ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

I have a higher opinion than you do of UnHerd’s ability and track record in the provision of contextualised news and opinion.
That said, have an upvote, because I appreciate the soundness & completeness of your enumeration of the problems with news coverage..

Last edited 3 months ago by Drahcir Nevarc
A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 months ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

I think you’re onto something.
Whilst articles have links to similar pieces, they do not refer back to similar articles and pieces on the same subjects (unless the author explicitly or deliberately refers back)
On more general and wider repeat topics – perhaps articles should have an editorial refresher section – ‘What we have said; what we got right, what we didn’t’ almost. Perhaps not that crude but you get the point.
It would tie the story back to the main theme

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
3 months ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Oh I’d really value that part about referencing what we got right, especially at the present time when Putin has turned out to be such an idiot.
Prior to the Ukraine war writers and and commenters would praise him endlessly, with just a few brave souls calling out his emperor’s nakedness – it would be lovely to see such poor assessments highlighted.

Chris Eaton
Chris Eaton
3 months ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

Does anyone remember journalists? I do. There are no longer many left.

DA Johnson
DA Johnson
3 months ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

What a good analysis! So few articles even mention the broader context of events, opting to hit the most immediate (or most click-baitable) high points. Perhaps journalists are necessarily catering to readers’ short attention spans, but it would help in understanding events if their contexts could at least be summarized in news articles.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
3 months ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

The two linked developments…once content became digitised in the late 1990s, was the unstoppable rise of the move to video, and overwhelming importance of citizen journalists..ie not really journalists, just people with smartphones who happen to be the on the spot.
The 9/11 events were the last hurrah of mainly professional journalists filming an event in real time, the plane crash into the Hudson River the first real social media news event. By the time of the Bataclan the news organisations were following social media not leading it.
The trends are continuing today.
This isn’t to say there isn’t a place for professional journalists, just that it is not the central place at the heart of events.
The real winners in this, so far, haven’t been any legacy media organisations but, I would say, are the Apples, Samsungs , Googles and Microsofts, and all the various iterations of content aggregation platforms..especially for video.
I remember, as an interested party, then running a news and photo agency, having to try and construct a commercial survival strategy as the owner founder of a company whose entire addressable market was shrinking faster than a polythene bag on a bonfire.
At one point I noted the market cap of Google exceeded the entire market cap of the entire quoted media sector of the UK..Papers, magazines, TV, Radio…everything.
Pretty soon after it exceeded the combined market cap of the sector in the UK and the USA.
Buzzfeed to me was, like the Huffington Post, a content stealer and free rider paying £00 for content , and like many of the previous first wave of Internet cash bonfires was, as the article acknowledges, a product of too many bigger fools with too much venture capital that worked… until one day it just didn’t any more.
But it had moments of fun, and some nice long-form, thinky-piece, cuttings jobs..while it lasted.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
3 months ago

My hunch: under 40s don’t do in depth news. The Guardian, which now only tries to appeal to the multicultural urban young, will collapse as its older readers die off and there’s a decline in readers with an attention span longer than a gnat. Some would find it hard to deal with the penultimate multi-clause sentence in this comment.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 months ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

You’re not by any means wrong.
There. That’s my late afternoon litotes done and dusted.

Greg Simoncini
Greg Simoncini
3 months ago

Ben Smith who was hoovered up to the NYT was the talent, of course, who published the Steele Dossier — one of the most egregious breaches of journalistic standards in recent memory. And given the breathtaking pace of such breaches, that is saying a lot.

J Bryant
J Bryant
3 months ago

I still can’t figure out if anyone knows how to run a profitable news site on the internet without pandering to the Left or the Right. Is there a significant market for an objective, high-quality on-line news and commentary site? And by “significant market” I mean a substantial number of people willing to buy subscriptions.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
3 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

It is a little soon to tell, but it looks like the thing to do is ‘fund the reporter, not a magazine/paper’ where the reporters now have blogs, youtube channels and substacks. This implies that the rot in contemporary journalism has more to do with the editorial stance(s) and not that the art of investigative reporting has been completely lost.

Last edited 3 months ago by Laura Creighton
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
3 months ago

I still believe that news is changing… witness the rise of YouTube (and other) channels and the lacklustre performance of many corporate media outlets. I am over 60 and consume very little corporate media.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
3 months ago

True but baby and bathwater- quis custodiet ipsos custodies?

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
3 months ago

I’m sorry, but I find much of YouTube “news” to be appallingly one-sided and shallow, additionally most of these “journalists” do not have the resources to do any in-depth research, and are probably not concerned about it anyway as it’s mostly polemical. Jon Hawksley (above) sets out beautifully the pitfalls of most news outlets, and it is at its worst on-line.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 months ago

Yes, I was impressed with J.Hawksley’s accuracy and thoroughness.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 months ago

I’m in my late 50’s and still read the Telegraph. Sometimes I hold my nose and squint at the Guardian, or one of the pathetic woke papers in the USA. I also speak French, and occasionally have a read of Le Monde or Le Figaro.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
3 months ago

How could a generation as self-referential and badly educated at this one even know what creativity or brilliance are?

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 months ago

I don’t actually know what Buzzfeed is, and have never heard of any of the people or organisations mentioned in this article except Disney and Axel Springer, obviously, and also Vice.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
3 months ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Yeah me neither. Maybe it was our combined disinterest that brought it down!

Don De Grazia
Don De Grazia
3 months ago

Great article. Also, doy.