The 2010s Fallacy That Won't Die
BuzzFeed posts into the abyss
Since I’m a 33-year-old millenial who works in media, BuzzFeed will always matter to me. I am not sure how the younger generation views BuzzFeed—probably with derision, some of it well-earned—but it will remain one of those era-specific signposts, like Gawker was to the younger members of Generation X. For those not paying attention in the early 2010s, it is hard now to convey the hype cycle BuzzFeed enjoyed then; there is no equivalent today, and that’s truthfully for the best. BuzzFeed was it. BuzzFeed was not only going to fix media, but it was going to devour old media. The New York Times? CNN? As BuzzFeed might say: LOL.
There was a period, when I worked for the New York Observer, when I hoped BuzzFeed would poach me. I wanted to be anointed as a millenial who mattered. Ben Smith left his cushy gig at Politico to be their editor-in-chief. They had meme-slingers and scoop-diggers and hefty Twitter followings. Unlike wheezing legacy media, they knew how to have fun! They had the quizzes, so, so many quizzes. The dress! What color is it? Ah, to be twenty-four again, watching Twitter melt down over the colors blue and gold.
BuzzFeed, of course, never overtook the Times. Instead, the Times eventually made Smith their media columnist, and kept printing money while most of their competitors, including BuzzFeed, drowned in the red. To make a long story very short, BuzzFeed lacked, like almost all of digital media, a viable business model. They didn’t charge their readers to use their website. They had no print vehicle to fall back upon. They weren’t a nonprofit. They had digital ads, which was a rapidly diminishing market, and VC cash that demanded returns on investment a young news organization with an entertainment product attached—or an entertainment product with a news division grafted on—could never meet. It wasn’t the fault of the talented journalists who worked there that BuzzFeed just couldn’t become profitable. In many ways, it was designed to fail.
Now comes the latest, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, that BuzzFeed hopes to save itself by posting more. “There are so many things outside of our control—the advertising market, the economy, the recession,” Karolina Waclawiak, BuzzFeed’s editor in chief, told staff. “But what we can control is how many stories we publish each day.”
Waclawiak noted the push to increase volume would come with a much smaller newsroom; BuzzFeed has shed 40 percent of its headcount in the last year. As of now, BuzzFeed stock is trading for less than $1 and the company, remarkably, has lost about 90 percent of its value since going public in December 2021. I don’t envy Waclawiak’s position.
I am certain, though, the 2010s fantasy of creating more “volume” or “content” to generate revenue is doomed.
BuzzFeed’s hope is that stepping up the number of stories published will boost its visibility on platforms like Apple News and NewsBreak, which will bring in more money. It still collects payments from branded quizzes and sponsored content. There’s a BuzzFeed e-commerce business that gets revenue from recommending and selling products online. None of it is enough, and all of it misses the point. It wasn’t lost on me that I was reading about BuzzFeed’s travails in the Wall Street Journal, a traditional print broadsheet that does have a functioning business model. Even if the Murdoch empire lost interest in it tomorrow, there would be a future for the Wall Street Journal because it has a viable brand and knows how to generate cash. Unlike BuzzFeed, it imposes a paywall and charges a premium for people to read. Its reporting has value and, in the public consciousness, an identity. If you are interested in business, you subscribe to the Wall Street Journal. Like the Times, it knows what it does well and keeps doing it.
Part of the problem with BuzzFeed, as I’ve written before, is few readers in its heyday knew it had a serious news operation. The Harry Potter quizzes dominated the popular imagination. The growing number of people who were willing to pay for digital news were never going to hand over their cash to BuzzFeed, not when the Times and Journal were there. It’s not that the Times doesn’t do entertainment—wisely, it has a whole games division, and the Athletic and Wordle are both Times products—but that it will never allow the fun stuff to dilute its news brand. Jonah Peretti, Ben Smith, and rest of BuzzFeed’s proselytizers never quite understood this. BuzzFeed thought the road to quick cash was entertainment. If you are a website dealing in words, it never can be.
Now BuzzFeed wants to post out of the abyss. The stories that often perform best online, however, are those that offer deep engagement. The splashy, long-form feature or the meandering essay can be worth more to a news publication than 10 or 20 quick-hit pieces chasing a news cycle. From personal experience, running this Substack newsletter, I can say that the pieces that draw the most interest are those that are most well thought-out; I write a lot, but I don’t publish here every single day. For anyone trying to make a publication work in this era, reader revenue must be a large part of the equation. Make your readers care enough to pay you for what you do. Facebook and Google own the digital ad market and they will continue to own it for a very long time. Or if Facebook (now Meta) fails, another social media or search engine giant will hoover up what’s left. It is notable BuzzFeed’s editor in chief said little about quality as she called for more quantity. A smaller staff producing more stories will not be producing better stories. BuzzFeed will matter even less than it does now.