Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer
The past few weeks have not been kind to the giants of digital news. On April 20, Insider—which is owned by the German publishing company Axel Springer—said that it was laying off ten percent of its staff in the US. On April 27, Vice Media initiated a restructuring that was expected to lead to over a hundred job losses and the end of its Vice News Tonight broadcast; on May 1, the New York Times reported that Vice was preparing to file for bankruptcy protection. Since then, there have been reports that a private equity deal could rescue the company, though it may value it as low as three-hundred million dollars—a relatively large amount by everyday standards, but still a far cry from the near six billion dollars the company was said to be worth in 2017. Elsewhere, Disney slashed staff at FiveThirtyEight, the data-driven news site that it owned as part of ABC News. Numerous more traditional media outlets have also made cuts this year, from the Washington Post to Gannett.
More than any of these, however, one recent announcement stood out as a sign of something important dying, at least on the digital-media side of the equation: namely, the closing of BuzzFeed News and the loss of its more than sixty staffers. (BuzzFeed will stay in the news business via HuffPost, which it owns.) “This moment is part of the end of a whole era of media,” Ben Smith, the founding editor of BuzzFeed News, told the Times (where he later worked as a media columnist). “It’s the end of the marriage between social media and news.” As is the case with many marriages, the end of this one was hardly a surprise to anyone who had been paying attention. Layoffs at BuzzFeed News had become the norm in recent few years, including two hundred job cuts in early 2019. BuzzFeed went public in 2021, which some hoped would bring prosperity, but its stock soon slid. The company was worth a billion dollars shortly after its initial public offering. At time of writing, its share price implied that it was worth less than eighty million dollars.
Back in the halcyon days of 2015, Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed’s CEO, told Recode’s Peter Kafka that he planned to “fish for eyeballs in other people’s streams”—in particular, Facebook’s. The site’s content, consisting of quizzes and short videos in addition to hard-hitting news stories, seemed perfectly suited for that platform, and, for a time, Peretti’s plan seemed to be working well. But by 2017, BuzzFeed’s revenue growth had reportedly started to slow. Then, in 2018, Facebook made a series of changes to its algorithm that were designed to show users more “personal” content, such as photos and posts from friends, ahead of articles from external publishers. For some news outlets, including Mashable and Mic, the changes meant hardship, and even death. BuzzFeed was not hit quite as hard, but it was hit: according to one estimate from a former BuzzFeed staffer, stories that once racked up as many as two hundred thousand visits were now getting a tenth of that amount. As I wrote in 2019, “Editors at BuzzFeed (and many other places) yoked themselves so tightly to Facebook’s wagon, even after the Zuckerberg empire provided ample evidence it would move the goalposts.”
Despite these problems, Peretti told me, in an interview in 2018, that he was still committed to BuzzFeed News, which he called a “strong brand” that wouldn’t be affected to the same extent by Facebook’s algorithmic changes. “We haven’t de-emphasized news at all,” Peretti told me—though he added that “there’s always a question of what is the rate of growth of news vs. entertainment.” That question was answered over the next few years, as the news division continued to be a drain on BuzzFeed’s balance sheet. In a recent memo announcing the division’s closure, Peretti conceded that he had been “slow to accept that the big platforms wouldn’t provide the distribution or financial support required to support premium, free journalism.” For his part, Smith wrote recently, in his somewhat eerily timed new book, Traffic, that he regrets encouraging Peretti to see news as “a worthy enterprise that shouldn’t solely be evaluated as a business.”
Some saw the seeds of BuzzFeed’s future decline—and that of BuzzFeed News, in particular—even when the company was reveling in growth and others were hailing the news division as the future of journalism. Nick Denton, who founded Gawker Media and later watched it bankrupted by Hulk Hogan’s privacy suit, said all the way back in 2012 that “Peretti’s craving for the quick viral fix will not be satisfied by the nourishing fare” from the news division, and that eventually Buzzfeed would “collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.”
Meanwhile, entries in the “Oral History of BuzzFeed News,” which staffers at the site published just prior to its closure last week, make it obvious that many people who worked there also knew that the good times could not last. Albert Samaha, a culture reporter, recalls “free lunch and tons of happy-looking people hopping around,” and remembers thinking: “Damn, either we’re saved or we’re doomed.” Karolina Waclawiak, a former editor-in-chief at BuzzFeed News, said that when she first started working on its culture desk she asked about her budget for articles and was told, “Don’t ask or you might get one.” When Waclawiak saw what editors were paying for stories on other desks, “I was in absolute shock,” she recalls. “I knew it couldn’t last.” Doree Shafrir, a former executive editor, describes a company that seemed to shift focus on a whim. “There was so much organizational-slash-strategy whiplash,” she said.
Some observers seem willing to forgive Peretti and Smith for their lack of foresight. Hillary Frey, the editor-in-chief of Slate, wrote recently that Peretti funded a news organization with “a great bunch of journalists who were rewriting the rules and figuring out how to swim alongside the currents of the internet [and] when it wasn’t going great, he subsidized that news division with money from his other properties.” Others, however, have been less forgiving. The commentator Andrew Sullivan wrote in his newsletter that BuzzFeed embodied the worst elements of traffic-focused media. Smith’s book, he added, is about “the money-grubbing, nothing-matters, viral assholes who violated every ethic in the business, and, in the end, failed.”
Indeed, Sullivan and others see the end of BuzzFeed News not only as the failure of an individual newsroom, but as a broader indictment of socially-driven media. Leah Finnegan, a former editor of Gawker, writes in The Baffler that the decline of BuzzFeed News and other outlets shows that “journalism is incompatible with traffic [and] pursuing both at once is a fool’s errand.” Max Read, another former editor at Gawker Media (which Smith, in his book, portrays as the yin to BuzzFeed’s yang) said the race to go viral now seems “pathetic—at best, a brief, wacky interregnum between periods of sustained dominance by big national news publishers, at worst a pointless waste of journalistic creativity and resources spent pursuing a doomed business strategy.” In an article about Smith’s book, Nathan Heller, at The New Yorker, argues that “to live in traffic is to live under the rules of the platforms that run traffic, and though this revelation seems to have come astonishingly late to Smith… it’s the biggest moral of the tale that he tells.”
John Herrman, a former BuzzFeed News staffer, writes in New York, meanwhile, that from the vantage point of 2023, the history of digital media laid out in Smith’s book “sounds less like a story of entrepreneurial experimentation than an account of a recurring industry delusion.” The death of BuzzFeed News, Herrman adds, “drives home the absurdity of a marriage between the news media and a speculative tech industry that can only conceptualize it as either a threat or as food.” In his newsletter, Read argues that the conditions that favored BuzzFeed for so long came to an end as a result of other trends converging. One was that legacy publications, such as the Times, “got their act together and realized it was trivially easy” to compete with and hire from the new digital startups. Another was that Facebook realized that it didn’t really want to be in the news business after all.
Does the death of BuzzFeed News really mean the end of socially-powered journalism as a whole? It unquestionably suggests that roping a newsroom’s fortunes to a massive platform—one that has made it clear that it fundamentally doesn’t care about journalism—was, and remains, a mistake. And, as Finnegan points out, it is also an indictment of the “anything for clicks” mentality that BuzzFeed sometimes epitomized. That doesn’t mean that news and journalism shouldn’t be shared on social media. But it does mean that shareability shouldn’t be the entirety, or even the centerpiece, of one’s business strategy for news.
This conclusion invites a second question: if the era of social news is behind us, what comes next? The answer, perhaps, looks more fragmented—and not a little like the past. Denton recently told Kafka that commentators including Sullivan and Matt Yglesias have “thrived since leaving media organizations. They’re basically living the old blogging dream.” Frey argues that there is a reason why outlets like the Times and Slate are still around: “Loyalty like that was built through homepages and curation, not distribution on Facebook or Twitter.” The 2010s, she says, were “a detour.” Ben Thompson, a media analyst who once called BuzzFeed News “the most important news entity in the world,” acknowledged in 2019 that he was wrong. The only way to build a business in a space dominated by a platform like Facebook, he wrote at the time, is to “go around them.” Good advice, perhaps. But a little late for BuzzFeed, Vice, and many others.