BuzzFeed and the Empty Hunt for Scoops
An era ends
Relatively few people noticed that BuzzFeed News was put to death last week. For those paying attention, there was little surprise in the announcement, though it did come several weeks after the website’s editor-in-chief declared that reporters would have to pump out stories at a far greater volume to save the business. The business was not saved because BuzzFeed never had a viable business model. Readers here know I’ve made this point many times already. If you’re going to survive without a print product—and BuzzFeed, of course, never had one—you’ll need paid subscribers, generous donations, the support of a foundation or benefactor, or investor cash that never runs out. BuzzFeed’s operation was predicated on a VC model that was always doomed, but frightened rivals for some time in the early 2010s. I am sad to see BuzzFeed News go because reporters are losing their jobs and the website, at its best, did very good work. I am gratified, though, this particular era of journalism is finished.
That era was my youth. Multiple generations can lay claim now to entering journalism at a time of great precarity—the industry has been in various stages of contraction since the mid-2000s—and my particular entry point, at the start of the 2010s, was rather rough. The economic crash was only a few years in the rearview mirror, and had served as the great accelerant of a nationwide newspaper collapse. In college, I didn’t major in journalism because I considered it foolhardy to even try. I was going to be an English teacher and write my novels on the side. It seemed like a good life. I didn’t want to be poor. In 2009, 2010, and 2011, there were endless stories of newspaper layoffs and closures, and the digital start-ups didn’t inspire any great amount of confidence.
The exception was BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed, for a time, was everything. When I was 22, I landed a job at the Queens Tribune, a local newspaper in an outer borough of New York City, and I felt very fortunate. I was a full-time journalist, writing and reporting for a living. Excitement, though, could mingle with anxiety—would I ever really rise in the field? The ladder upwards seem to disappear every other month. The dailies, especially the Daily News, were shrinking. My connections in the industry were mostly nonexistent. I had gone to a state school and failed to intern at any news organization as a undergraduate. There was no way to get on BuzzFeed’s radar.
Oh, to be chosen! BuzzFeed had plucked Ben Smith, then 35, from Politico to helm their news startup. They were filled with bright young reporters my age or slightly older—Ruby Cramer, Rosie Gray, Zeke Miller, McKay Coppins—and they were, with Smith, going to devour the news dinosaurs. Smith himself tried to hire away A.G. Sulzberger, the future publisher of the Times. What BuzzFeed seemed to value, and what I clearly lacked, was a certain digital metabolism. You had to move quickly. You had to rack up pageviews. Smith, an original news blogger, loved Twitter, and he loved scoops even more. Getting the scoop was everything. Scoops meant virality. The old-world print tabloids loved scoops too, but they were not operating on the timescale of a BuzzFeed. The News and New York Post functioned on news cycles that lasted 24 hours. In the Twitter age, hours were seconds, and getting it first mattered only a bit less than getting it right—and certainly more than getting it well.
What I learned, as I aged in the industry, is that I really did not care about securing a morsel of news before another journalist. It made little difference to me, especially if the news was going to be public anyway. Could I cultivate a congressional staffer, political operative, or government official well enough to secure that special announcement? To impress my colleagues and editors? Usually, no. I didn’t want it enough. I didn’t like fast twitch news. I didn’t care about pageviews. I wanted to take my time. I wanted to think through issues, analyze them, turn them over. I enjoyed the long-form feature. Horse-race journalism, of which I did plenty, eventually alienated me. Smith, a master practitioner, would go on to concede that his love of the horse-race was not great for journalism itself. I also grew disillusioned with the horse-race’s cousin, access journalism.
All of the BuzzFeed journalists mentioned above went on to be successful at legacy news outlets. Ultimately, the talent of BuzzFeed went on to feed the Washington Post, the Atlantic, the Associated Press, and the Times, where Smith became a columnist before going on to found Semafor. BuzzFeed didn’t have first-mover advantage and underrated the durability of the news organizations they were trying to compete with. Both Smith and Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed’s co-founder, never quite understood the importance of a news brand and how diluting it, over time, was bad for business. BuzzFeed News was drowned out by BuzzFeed itself, which remains a repository for inane memes, repetitive listicles, and dated jokes. Millenials aged out of BuzzFeed and Gen Z never cared much about trying to figure out which Harry Potter house they really belonged to; TikTok, inevitably, was more addictive.
Many times in the 2010s, I would surprise people by telling them BuzzFeed performed conventional journalism. They couldn’t quite believe it. Where? When? It was there, on the page. You just had to wade through the dross. The gamble of BuzzFeed was that the dross could somehow fund the news. It couldn’t. In time, BuzzFeed might disappear altogether. TikTok has made it mostly redundant. There are easier ways to hunt out celebrity news and gossip. The legacy media organizations, meanwhile, churn on. They have their own financial challenges, but it’s inevitable that the New York Times and Washington Post will exist in 2033. They may very well last the entirety of this century. The same can’t be said of the online insurgents. They were never built to last.
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