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Why BuzzFeed News leaves a complex legacy
Future News 154: The digital revolution that ran out of steam
The axe has finally fallen on BuzzFeed News. After years of cuts and layoffs, alongside a withdrawal from its international bureaus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning outlet will stop reporting soon.
Launched near the start a new digital era, which saw the rise of Vice, Vox and Gawker, Jonah Peretti poached Ben Smith from Politico in late 2011 and started building what would become one of the world’s most recognisable newsrooms.
Thanks to a mix of solid traditional reporting and an understanding and consideration for the internet which its then peers and rivals lacked, BuzzFeed News forced its way into the mainstream.
The outlet’s timing also helped as it grew with the rise of Facebook, Twitter and launched in earnest during the 2012 US general election campaign between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney (Smith broke the news that the late John McCain would endorse Romney that January).
Miriam Elder came in from The Guardian in the summer of 2013 to lead an international charge, with a London bureau being launched that same year.
The team was then off to the races, publishing scoops right, left and centre and even needling other media outlets in the process. BuzzFeed News revealed – now, somewhat ironically – The New York Times’ dire innovation report in 2013. How times have changed.
There were also notable multiple fundraising rounds along the way: a $15.5m Series C raise in 2012 led by New Enterprise Associates, a $50m in a round led by Andreessen Horowitz in 2014 and $200m from NBCUniversal in 2016.
BuzzFeed’s valuation would eventually reach a heady $1.5bn, well over the price Bob Iger and Disney were reportedly willing to pay ($650m) for the company in 2013.
In a financial communications misstep, BuzzFeed first announced in 2017 that it would IPO in 2018. It didn’t actually join NASDAQ until 2021 via a SPAC merger as the Covid pandemic continued and the business had already lost some of its shine.
Its core Millennial demographic had grown older and BuzzFeed failed to keep up with them, while social media insurgents, including TikTok and Snap, had changed a landscape Facebook once dominated. The outlet even seemed to abandon YouTube in 2020, despite the continued growth of the Alphabet-owned platform.
In other words, the ‘secular forces’ BuzzFeed identified in its IPO document were correct, especially when it pointed out consumers ‘migrate towards digital offerings’. But by 2021 it felt like they were talking about other brands.
“Our next chapter as a public company will help BuzzFeed, Inc. become a hub for even more brands and creators, visionary founders and CEOs, high-quality content for the tech platforms, and so much more,” Peretti said at the time.
A year before, the company had announced its plans to buy HuffPost, the outlet where Peretti was Chief Technology Officer, from Verizon. Despite the optimism from BuzzFeed’s founder and CEO, there were considerable investor redemptions before the company went public. The business could have raised $250m, instead it only secured $16m.
BuzzFeed’s Q4 and Full-Year earnings landed with a bump in March, with the company revealing that it had posted a $106m loss in the three months to 31 December and an annual loss of more than $201m.
The announcement that BuzzFeed would shutter its news division, lay-off an additional 15% of its workforce and the company’s CRO and COO would exit dragged the business’ share price down further. At the time of writing, BuzzFeed is trading around $0.50, giving the company a market capitalisation of $72m.
In many ways BuzzFeed has been a victim of unforeseen events and bad timing (the reversal of what helped the company take-off in the first place). The Covid pandemic, the SPAC market falling out of favour and the ad-market tightening.
However, the company failed to meaningfully diversify and seriously jump on trends – the pivot to podcasts, the rise of YouTube and the embrace of events.
BuzzFeed had a first mover advantage – it had listicles, quizzes and merchandise, but the fast-paced and fickle nature of the Web 2.0 internet, which it had championed and repackaged, rumbled on.
BuzzFeed News and its former staffers can still take great pride in their work and their combined legacy of getting the internet to be taken seriously. As one former BuzzFeed reporter told me, there’s at least two or three former BuzzFeed journalists in each national newsroom.
“Knowing the impact you can have online and not saving it for tomorrow’s paper was refreshing,” they said. “As was reaching different audiences which didn’t typically read a newspaper…it was really a dream job.”
The ex-BuzzFeed staffer also noted the “freedom” and “scope” given to reporters as they interrogated a story. The relatively high salaries and attractive perks at BuzzFeed, including free lunches, helped entice well-known journalists into the company.
But the spending “never felt gratuitous,” the reporter said. Another ex-BuzzFeed journalist was more blunt on the issue of money. “They started the digital revolution, but they didn’t have the cash for it,” they said.
Some editorial highlights include leading the reporting on alleged Russian-state linked assassinations in the UK (published before the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripa in Salisbury), the so-called Mueller Memos, and a series of articles focusing on Facebook’s impact on the offline world, to name just a few of BuzzFeed News’ many scoops and agenda-setting stories.
As for how BuzzFeed News lives on, look no further than the ‘Wagatha Christie’ defamation trial between rival footballers’ wives Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney.
The case caught fire on social media, with The Guardian’s Jim Waterson, a former BuzzFeed News staffer, deciding to spend considerable time and digital ink on the story. It was “classic BuzzFeed”, one former BuzzFeeder pointed out.
⚖️ Big Tech Reg
The UK government yesterday launched the Digital Markets, Competition & Consumers Bill. The draft legislation will target technology firms generating at least £25bn in global sales or £1bn in the UK. If passed into law, it could force major technology platforms to negotiate with publishers for payment for their content.
🙏 Calm Please, Elon
After writing about Twitter’s skirmishes with Substack here, I also outlined some further thoughts on Elon Musk’s platform for The Press Gazette last week. In short, I argued that publishers would want “clarity, consistency and a period of digital calm” from Musk.
PBS and NPR have already paused their activity on the platform, but now, most interestingly, YouTube news giant TLDR has taken similar actions.
The network has decided to scale back its use of Twitter and refocus on its video output across YouTube, Nebula and TikTok. Musk had emulated some features of YouTube with the ability to publish 1080p videos if you purchased a Twitter Blue subscription. His other changes, however, seemed to have undermined this effort in TLDR’s case.
📺 Cable News Whiplash
I wrote the below for the day job and before Nate Silver, the FiveThirtyEight founder and ABC News analyst, announced that he expects to be leaving the broadcaster as Bob Iger’s cuts at Disney continue to spread.
I had to do a triple-take when news of Tucker Carlson’s departure from Fox News broke Monday. The announcement meant his last show was aired on Friday after Carlson and the Rupert Murdoch-owned broadcaster ‘parted ways’.
There will be no farewell to the 3.5m fans of ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight’, which took the prime weeknight 8pm slot in 2017 when it replaced the Bill O'Reilly Factor just three months after inheriting Megyn Kelly’s 9pm slot.
Carlson, who co-founded The Daily Caller, is a TV veteran, having worked for PBS, CNN and MSNBC before joining Fox News as an analyst in 2009. It is still not exactly clear why Carlson ‘parted ways’ with Fox News, but the timing is obviously very close to Fox’s $787m settlement with Dominion Voting Systems.
The bigger picture is the continued fall-out from the 2020 Presidential election, when Donald Trump and his supporters claimed to be victims of election fraud, and then thousands of people attacked the US Capitol at the start of 2021.
Those divisions, especially those between traditional Republicans and Trump backers, have also weighed heavily on right-wing US media outlets and are reflected in the mixed reactions to Carlson’s departure.
In the short-term, it looks like Fox will have a revolving cast of hosts to fill its 8pm slot, while an army of talent agents lobby hard for their client(s) to fill the empty chair. Sean Hannity is still scheduled to continue in his 9pm slot, while we will have to wait and see what Carlson does next.
Fellow conservative pundit Ben Shapiro has provided a playbook (as well as former Fox News hosts, including O'Reilly, Kelly and Glenn Beck) – YouTube, a streaming company (The Daily Wire) and book and speaking deals in between.
Carlson may also want to launch a new show with Don Lemon, who’s been let go by CNN. The move came weeks after Lemon apologised for on-air sexist remarks against Republican Presidential candidate Nikki Haley, the former US ambassador to the UN.
Lemon took to Twitter to claim that he had been axed via his agent. But CNN disputed his comments, branding them as “inaccurate”. The broadcaster added: “He was offered an opportunity to meet with management but instead released a statement on Twitter.”
What can we take from all of this? Business still rules and the network is still bigger than the talent. Despite the mass appeal of Lemon and Tucker and their hordes of fans, the modern TV anchor and pundit still has a shelf life.
Long-gone are the days of the monolithic ‘voice of truth’ à la Walter Cronkite, instead consumers can lap up a smorgasbord of ‘takes’ across a plethora of platforms and apps.
For whatever reason, Fox has decided to put its considerable broadcasting firepower behind another (yet-to-be-anointed) star and it was willing to take a potentially short-term share price hit in the process. We are now around 18 months away from the US Presidential election. The clock is ticking.
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