The announcement of the demise of BuzzFeed News last week felt unlike the cavalcade of media closures and layoffs of the past decade. In a sense, it represented the death of an entire era.
BuzzFeed News, launched in 2011, imagined a format which would marry the intense virality and relentless social media focus of digital native publications with the serious reporting of major mastheads. The bet was that the site’s endless fountain of Harry Potter quizzes, viral news stories, celebrity gossip and pop culture gifs could subsidise a serious news operation, which would in turn lend real credibility to BuzzFeed as a whole.
The timing was perfect. Legacy media, already shaky after the financial crisis, was increasingly finding itself at the mercy of Facebook and Google, who had reshaped content distribution and the ad industry in their favour. Digital-only upstarts such as BuzzFeed, Mashable and Business Insider had built themselves to take advantage of those same trends and had secured a dominant share of millennial eyeballs as a result.
Suddenly, BuzzFeed News and a legion of imitators – buoyed by venture capital investment and the seemingly bottomless Facebook audience spigot – were making significant plays into the world of real news reporting; breaking stories left and right and adroitly packaging them for an extremely online audience. In those heady days, you could even imagine I Can Haz Cheeseburger opening a national security desk.
It’s difficult to understate the panic BuzzFeed’s foray into hard news inaugurated among the media old guard. In 2014, The New York Times distributed a “dire” internal report sounding the warning bell about the paper’s struggles to adapt to journalism’s digital revolution, which mentioned BuzzFeed two dozen times. (True to form, the existence of this report was first detailed by BuzzFeed.) Even the most storied news brands found themselves following the BuzzFeed playbook for distribution. Even the NYT was doing listicles!
Over the years, the cracks in BuzzFeed’s model started to show. The grand vision of a serious news organisation precariously balanced on top of a viral content shop was always a challenging one, and the company found it increasingly difficult to build a sustainable business. The venture capital injections weren’t enough, and it didn’t help that BuzzFeed’s advertisers were much happier to see their content run alongside the fun quizzes than, say, the Kevin Spacey exposé.
Another problem was talent. While BuzzFeed served as an incubator for some incandescently skilled young reporters with both a keen eye for the online world and classic reporting chops, it became clear to the old publications that they could simply… poach them. And so they did: the past few years has seen a generation of wunderkinds graduate from the BuzzFeed News universe into the old-school news businesses it once planned to topple.
But the bigger story here is one largely outside BuzzFeed’s control. It, alongside the tranche of other digital media startups of its era, threw in its lot vigorously with Facebook. It heartily embraced the new distribution model which had so frightened old-school publishers, surfing the waves of traffic generated by Facebook and other social apps such as Snapchat – which at one point evinced similar ambitions towards being a news platform.
This worked extremely well right up until it didn’t. While Mark Zuckerberg once saw news content as an excellent way to juice Facebook’s platform credibility and user engagement, escalating scandals eventually turned it into a serious political liability. The axe came down. As the Warren Buffet saying goes: only when the tide goes out do you learn who has been swimming naked. BuzzFeed needed Facebook far more than Facebook needed BuzzFeed.
BuzzFeed News is ultimately a casualty of that lopsided relationship. It never built a subscriptions business to account for the decline in social media traffic, and its model made less and less sense in an industry that was turning away from social media advertising dollars towards paywalls and good-old-fashioned direct monetary relationships with readers.
It’s quite likely we will remember BuzzFeed News and its ilk not as the revolutionary disrupters of the industry they were once thought to be, but as a decade-long intermission to the whim of the famously mercurial tech titans who briefly offered them patronage.
But that’s the nature of the news business. What BuzzFeed News did very successfully was change the way news was reported for the digital age, and it quite successfully bridged the gap between what was happening in real life and what was happening online. It helped train a generation of journalists who innately understood how those two worlds could speak to one another, and the reverberations of that understanding will be felt through the media for some time to come.
That will be BuzzFeed News’ ultimate legacy, even as its business model turns to dust.
James Hennessy is the co-host of the podcast Down Round, and writes The Terminal, a newsletter about tech culture
Adblock test (Why?)