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BuzzFeed News is closing, its founder Jonah Peretti announced this week. “We are reducing our workforce by approximately 15% today across our Business, Content, Tech and Admin teams,” he wrote to staff, “and beginning the process of closing BuzzFeed News.”
BuzzFeed News began life back in 2011, five years after its parent site, BuzzFeed, was launched. BuzzFeed made its name via what detractors would call clickbait, but investors would call highly shareable, consumer focused content delivery. In the early days, the meme was that BuzzFeed was a business model based off cat videos and listicles — but, back in 2006, that was basically all you needed.
When BuzzFeed News was launched, it was clear that the site was attempting a move into the arena of credible news organisations. You need only compare the logos of the two organisations: BuzzFeed is rendered in an irritating sans serif red font, while BuzzFeed News is spelt out in a black, serif typeface that would be more at home in the New York Times. They hired Ben Smith from Politico as editor-in-chief (Smith later moved to the Times and then on to co-found Semafor) and Mark Schoofs, from ProPublica, joined as head of investigations. Janine Gibson — instrumental in the Pulitzer winning reporting on the Snowden leaks — headed up the London office, joining from the Guardian. It was an expensive, credible project — a far cry from cat videos.
And the output was often first class. Readers of this newsletter will likely remember big breaking stories like the Steele dossier (an allegation of misconduct towards the Trump campaign) and the FinCEN Files (a leak of financial crimes reports). Big scoops were matched by equally forensic reporting: during its just over a decade of existence, BuzzFeed News won the George Polk Award, the National Magazine Award, the National Press Foundation award, The Sidney Award (whatever that is) and a Pulitzer. As an experiment in building a newsroom, it worked.
They also managed to amalgamate the allure of BuzzFeed with this new, serious tone. The experience with BuzzFeed had given the site’s owners a deep insight into how the UX of digital journalism needed to operate, and these lessons were just applied to 10 Hollywood Stars Who Hated Their Parents but to international investigations and other reporting. At a time in news journalism when papers were struggling to justify their existence, and grappling with the difficulties of migrating their paying audiences to a digital product, it briefly looked like BuzzFeed News would win.
But problems emerged. 2019 saw significant lay-offs in the organisation, and Smith departed in 2020. By 2022 cuts were frenzied and there was no way back for the organisation. Soon it will exist no more. So, what went wrong?
I don’t need to remind readers of this blog how brutal the past few years (over a decade now, basically the entirety of BuzzFeed’s existence) has been for digital advertising. And BuzzFeed was always committed to that model. There was never really the option to retrofit a subscription into the website because it had gained its traction, and raison d’etre, out of its ubiquity. And that ubiquity was predicated on publishing a vast quantity of highly seductive content. It was, in many ways, a classic of the VC era: a salt-the-earth model attempting to be all things to all people.
As digital advertising collapsed, BuzzFeed became cheaper and BuzzFeed News became more expensive. They were moving in different directions. The central brand became a site that essentially regurgitated Reddit posts and utilised its community posters for free labour. Meanwhile the News brand was still making the headlines, winning prizes, and paying its staffers six-figure salaries. A lot is made of the wastefulness of the BuzzFeed project in its early years, when the venture capital money seemed unending, but it’s clear that even in 2011, when lessons had (to some extent) been learnt, the News brand was being built wildly outside its means.
The issue was that BuzzFeed was competing with legacy brands with long-term, quantifiable revenue streams. (You can find an interesting insight into this in Jill Abramson’s Merchants of Truth which looks at the origins of BuzzFeed, alongside Vice, another news organisation that’s disappeared down the privy). BuzzFeed News saw as its competitors the New York Times, CNN and NPR, not Instapundit, Worldchanging and Wonkette. It aspired to be a canonical source of international news, but it had no way of funding that other than spending. And I don’t mean to be cruel but any idiot can spend $100m hiring the best journalists and getting them to write long features. The long history of journalism has proven that that’s not the hard part.
All the same, BuzzFeed News never failed, editorially. It never sank to the lows that its parent site frequently delved. Throughout the uncertainty of the past year, they’ve continued to output good stuff. “I made the decision to overinvest in BuzzFeed News because I love their work and mission so much,” Peretti wrote, as he shitcanned the site. “This made me slow to accept that the big platforms wouldn’t provide the distribution or financial support required to support premium, free journalism purpose-built for social media.”
BuzzFeed’s unholy alliance with social media — a marriage where they pump Instagram feeds full of juxtaposed photographs of celebrities, and populate Facebook with tantalising questions to which the answer is, almost always, “no” — was its downfall (according to Peretti). What this really means is that not enough people were reading BuzzFeed News, and therefore it became a very expensive vanity project for a brand that no longer had the cut-through. As the idea of BuzzFeed faded from public consciousness (replaced, in part, by a new ecosystem that rewarded writers directly, via platforms like Medium and Substack) it felt increasingly like a relic of a moment when it seemed like digital content might conquer the world.
BuzzFeed, and BuzzFeed News, has changed journalism enormously. Not entirely for the better, I’ll concede, but in ways that were probably inevitable. And yet it still failed.
The lesson of BuzzFeed is chastening. Aspirant new media entrepreneurs might learn simple lessons like “don’t buy your entire workforce pizza ever Friday” or “there’s no need to have air hockey in every break room” but there are more complex lessons too. Complex lessons about having the path to profitability coded into your model from the off, or the chastening realisation that people, especially young people, really don’t want to pay for news.
We are entering, I fear, a world where the demographic that are willing to pay for news, and therefore subsidise its production, are a slim group of older, more conservative, professionals. Right-wing news will always exist because it has an audience who can afford to pay for it and have proven themselves willing to do so. And left-wing news will always exist because of a desire for collective action, even if that’s everyone chipping in $5 a year and the sub-editors working for peanuts. But what of no-wing news? What of news news?
Here in the UK, we have the BBC guaranteeing a perpetual and immortal source of news. And then we have the newspapers who are used to selling their products but are basically ideologically driven (The Times, Telegraph, Mail, Sun etc, on the right, and the Guardian and Mirror on the left). And then, where start-up news sources emerge, at least in recent years, they are faced with a stark choice: pin your ideological colours to a mast, or die. And so we get places like Novara (left) and Unherd (right) which are scarcely news websites in any meaningful sense, and activist sources like Bellingcat (left) and Guido Fawkes (right). But in the middle? In the reported news space? It’s hard to see a successful business there.
The demise of BuzzFeed News marks the end of an era, that period in the 2010s when it seemed like the future of news journalism was online. Nope, the markets have said. So, what is the future? Audio? Social? Video? Smart? Interactive? Meta? Or is the future, in fact, the past? Are we doomed, always, to find the only profitable news sources on terrestrial TV and, shredded, lining hamster cages throughout the land?
What’s clear is that the most important, most influential news website of the modern era has failed — and if they can’t make it, it’s hard to imagine anyone else trying, let alone failing.