BuzzFeed and the digital media meltdown

In retrospect, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti’s March 2014 memo to staff, titled “Is History Repeating Itself?” reads like an extended challenge to the rule that every headline ending with a question mark can be answered with a “no.” Peretti told his LOLing troops that “we’re at the start of a new golden age of media” and compared their digital outfit to an early-stage Time Inc.

So much can change in five years. “There were times when people would overhype digital media and be irrationally bullish about it,” Peretti tells me, not mentioning that he was one of those people. “And there are times when people are irrationally bearish about it. We’re probably at a moment where people are being more pessimistic than they should be.

The cynics can be forgiven just this once. As tech giants have strip-mined the digital landscape, BuzzFeed’s adolescence has been rocky, with the past 15 months seeing rolling cutbacks and tempered global ambitions that peaked with a mass culling of about 200 staffers—roughly 15 percent of its workforce—in late January. The layoffs came during a frenetic period in which Vice, HuffPost, and major newspaper companies also announced bloodlettings. But the news from Peretti’s shop cut deepest into the digital imagination: even BuzzFeed, with its massive reach, creative entertainment, and world-class journalism, couldn’t overcome the harsh realities of an advertising business controlled by Google, Facebook, and, increasingly, Amazon.

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We’ve arrived at new media’s latest sky-is-falling moment. As national newspapers push ahead with subscriptions, cable news goes all-in on politics, and the video-streaming wars heat up, venture-backed startups like Vice and Vox have tried to rebrand themselves as something other than digital-centric businesses. In the wake of such doomsday proclamations across many corners of the industry, Peretti on Friday published a new memo to staff that was no less grandiose in its billing: “How To Save The Internet.” He’s now evangelizing to a leery crowd.

“You’re going to see some really strong digital media companies that survive all this turbulence and challenges, and they’re gonna be better companies because they made hard decisions,” Peretti tells me. “They made cuts and organized themselves to be able to endure through good times and bad. . . . There was a period when everyone was trying to outrun each other, and now it’s a period of outlasting. Then, on the other side of that, there will be a period of long, sustained growth as a profitable establishment business. That’s the cycle that we’re going through.”

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The survivalist mindset represents a remarkable about-face. Now, BuzzFeed management is promising investors it can hunker down and wait out the Trump-era resurgence of legacy outlets and social platforms’ stranglehold on online advertising. The idea is to maintain the company’s editorial output and continue growing revenue despite a reduced workforce and pared-down budget; to further diversify its business; and to explore potential mergers with other firms should any make sense. To put it another way—and to borrow a phrase used by atrophying publishers for the past decade—the idea is to do more with less.

Even with the recent retrenchment, BuzzFeed sits in an enviable position. Last year, its revenue grew at a rate Peretti puts at “double digits,” to a reported $300 million. But the margin for error as the company seeks sustainable profits may be shrinking, particularly with a staff wary of missives about the promise of digital media from the hoodie-clad executive calling the shots. Interviews with a dozen current and former employees, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their jobs or severance agreements, illustrate a workforce increasingly skeptical of BuzzFeed’s business model, and cognizant that the line between a nimble strategy and unemployment is thin.

Those feelings have grown acute in the news division, staffers say, where a mounting credibility gap, concern for the company’s financial future, and anxiety around potential consolidation culminated with an extraordinary public rebuke of management in an open letter on January 26, signed by 585 employees across the company, demanding it pay out vacation days to laid-off colleagues. News staffers publicized their long-awaited push to unionize weeks later.

The question now is whether the money-making part of BuzzFeed can carry out Peretti’s vision, and keep news going, as he navigates what’s starting to feel less like a golden age and more like quicksand.

 

The drop in newsroom morale dates back to at least September, when a minor strategic pivot, coupled with poor communication from on high, foreshadowed January’s bloodbath. After word leaked to The Wall Street Journal that BuzzFeed was considering cuts to its podcast team, management hastily announced that it would shutter its small, in-house audio unit. Output from this popular and diverse group of staffers ranged from the organization’s news podcasts to shows geared toward underrepresented communities.

In an emotional all-hands meeting afterward, BuzzFeed News Editor Ben Smith and his deputy, Shani Hilton, said the podcasts’ audiences didn’t grow enough to deliver meaningful ad revenues. But they provided few clear answers as to how their bootstrapped operation could have possibly competed with true audio shops or the likes of The Daily, the news-podcast juggernaut at The New York Times. It left staffers questioning what the metrics for success really were—and worried about who could be fired next in the news division. “We think we have the team that we want,” Smith tried to assure them, according to a recording of the meeting first obtained by Splinter. “That said, the world around us keeps changing really fast, and…that’s where I hesitate, particularly when you talk about platforms and things that are happening outside our control, to say that that can’t change.”

The through line of his remarks was the budgetary tension between the costs of reporting and the costs of turning that reporting into video or audio content. In an interview with CJR, Smith says BuzzFeed News has stepped back from high-end formats unless an outside partner funds it. Take the Twitter-backed morning show AM to DM, the Facebook-funded interview program Profile, or the Netflix series Follow This, which was not renewed after its first season last year.

“When you get into more expensive, higher production kinds of journalism—TV journalism in particular—it’s really important there’s a revenue stream attached to that,” Smith tells me. “We’re doing it if and when we can attach revenue to it.” As for podcasting, “We didn’t find a way to do it.”

The concern among staffers is that cutting production deals with outside distributors will require the company to churn through talent at a rapid clip. Tracy Clayton, co-host of the former BuzzFeed podcast Another Round, inked the sort of deal with Netflix last month that BuzzFeed now craves. AM to DM remains staffed largely by contract employees who could be cut if the show is canceled. It amounts to platforms having more fingerprints on newsrooms’ editorial decisions, creating a feeling of precariousness endemic to digital media.

“It’s this sense that your job security isn’t tied to the quality of your work,” Albert Samaha, a BuzzFeed News investigative reporter and union organizer, tells me. “It’s wider forces outside of your control, and maybe even outside BuzzFeed’s control. When it comes to the financial decisions of why [management] didn’t want to do audio, I don’t think their explanations were unreasonable. It’s a complicated medium and you need a lot of resources to do it well…But it also means that they can make those decisions for any division. You can feel like you’re part of the direction of BuzzFeed one day, and the next day, you’re not.”

That insecurity was compounded when Peretti publicly floated the idea of merging digital media companies to collectively bargain with tech platforms in a November 19 New York Times story. It was one thing to speculate about consolidation over beers, current and former staffers say, but quite another to see such speculation in the Times, complete with analysis that media mergers almost always mean lost jobs.

“It felt a little bit that we were putting a for-sale sign on the company or suggesting that we would buy others,” BuzzFeed News political reporter and union organizer Dominic Holden says. “It raised questions around the brand and what the staff would be, and how potential layoffs would be handled.”

When employees asked Peretti about the wisdom of the interview in an internal “Ask Jonah Anything” Slack channel, he shrugged off the trial balloon. “We don’t need to merge or buy anyone,” he told staff later that day, according to records of the Slack conversation obtained by CJR. “We’d only do it if it made sense. And [regarding] the reporter’s comment about staff cuts, most digital and media companies are already making cuts and managing costs, the long term goal of any merger would be having more negotiating power and building a strong business to create a more sustainable foundation for the industry.”

Six minutes later, an employee responded with the obvious follow-up: “So there will be staff cuts?”

Peretti replied: “That was the reporter’s speculation about a hypothetical deal that might happen in the future!”

 

Two months later, the cuts came, and many BuzzFeed employees once again found out through a leak published by Wall Street Journal reporters on Twitter. The following, vaguely nightmarish Friday morning, dozens in the newsroom, marked for death by Google calendar invites, were ushered into a series of meetings throughout the day to be fired.

All told, 43 BuzzFeed News staffers were let go. “This is on us, not the reporters,” Smith tells me, when asked how he decided where to scale back the newsroom’s ambitions. “What exactly is BuzzFeed News’s competitive advantage? When it comes to the tech industry, or to American politics, or disinformation, or culture writing, it’s very clear that we have a truly unique approach.” The tactical retreat from national affairs, national security, and some overnight breaking news, meanwhile, comes as some of the newsroom’s primary competitors, including The New York Times and Washington Post, staff up.

Smith has put a growing emphasis on BuzzFeed News generating revenue. In November, it launched a paid membership program (complete with tote bag) for $100 a year. Smith would say only that the nascent project has fared “pretty well” in terms of sign-ups, and that BuzzFeed plans to ramp up its marketing efforts. Still, several current and former staffers worry that the new era of scarcity at the company could exacerbate tensions between BuzzFeed News and the company’s sprawling non-news ranks.

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Much of the latter group, from quiz-producing teams to e-commerce and media brands like the cooking-focused Tasty, has been consolidated into a unified content division to cut costs and improve coordination—long a challenge at BuzzFeed, former staffers say. Peretti’s marching orders to these teams are to keep up their pace. “If you look at internet businesses, the size of the team is not always that correlated with the reach or scale,” Peretti tells me. “For us, the key to achieving scale, even with fewer people, is focusing on making content that is more internet-y, for lack of a better word.” That word is cheap, as in the reliance on user-generated content like quizzes.

The content assembly line might be necessary in a world where Facebook sends diminishing traffic to BuzzFeed.com and digital advertising remains unforgiving. About half of BuzzFeed’s revenue in 2019 is projected to come from advertising it sells directly, Peretti says, down from two-thirds in 2018 and three-quarters the year before. Such diversification—into e-commerce, studio deals, brand-licensing, revenue-sharing with tech platforms—helped BuzzFeed hoover up $84 million in revenue from Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Netflix, according to Peretti’s memo Friday.

“We’ve seen Facebook become a lot more comparable to YouTube in terms of the revenue that it generates for us for video that we’re making,” Peretti adds. “I wish it didn’t take that long. To have an explosion of video views in 2017 and then seeing the revenue in the end of 2018, beginning of 2019, is not ideal.”

 

The weeks since the layoffs across media have been consumed by fear for the future of digital journalism and loathing for the venture capital that propelled companies like BuzzFeed and Vice to stratospheric valuations and unattainable revenue projections. The current attempt to reach sustainable profitability marks the end of that era. “We definitely benefited from being able to try lots of things when there was less clarity in the market,” Peretti tells me. “We discovered a business that’s a good business that can be sustainable, but not something that is, you know, a phenomenal, rocket-ship business.”

Immediately after the cutbacks, Recode reported potential merger talks between BuzzFeed and Group Nine Media, publisher of lifestyle site Thrillist, video outlet NowThis, and animal-focused brand The Dodo. There would be significant opportunities for synergy between the two companies. But Peretti is mum on the prospect.

“You can assume that all of the people in this space are talking to each other, trying to figure out the right path forward, both for their industry and for their companies individually,” he says, opaquely. “A lot of times people do mergers for the wrong reasons, so you need to have cultural alignment and business alignment. But I think the big thing is having more reach and more scale and more brands and the ability to have a bigger seat at the table with distributors, whether that’s Google or Facebook or Snap or television networks or Netflix.”

That makes BuzzFeed, $500 million in outside investment and all, an odd contrarian bet in a media industry where smart money has shifted toward niche or direct-to-consumer businesses. “I’m puzzled by some of these CEOs arguing that the alternative is to merge with one or more other struggling digital media companies,” says Raju Narisetti, a Columbia Journalism School professor and former executive at Gizmodo Media Group and News Corp. “There still seems to be an unwillingness to acknowledge that scale as a competitive advantage is dead.”

He adds ominously: “If the [advertising] assumptions fall apart as they have in 2018 for most of these companies, there are limited options beyond going after the largest cost center, which is the newsroom.”

Whether or not such predictions bear out, it’s unclear, given the company’s current structure, how else to survive until the platform bubble bursts, or the storm passes—whichever dystopian metaphor you prefer. Peretti tells me that he and BuzzFeed’s board remain committed to news, which had largely been sheltered from mass layoffs until this latest reorganization.

It is also true that the startup’s fixation on growth has provided more value than some of the current critiques of venture capital and Facebook allow. For all the internal and external hand-wringing over the future of BuzzFeed News, it stands to reason that the company’s scale has allowed it to do more aggressive journalism—journalism that can withstand legal challenges from governments. Smith’s publication of an unverified dossier of Donald Trump’s alleged ties to Russia, and an anonymously sourced report that Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, comprise two of the most controversial decisions of Trump-era media. Both have borne out in crucial ways amid subsequent reporting, legal disclosures, and Congressional testimony. And a more recent exposé of human rights abuses by the World Wildlife Fund reminded the media world that BuzzFeed News still packs a punch.

“[Peretti] and [Smith] have made a lot of really savvy decisions around digital media and news over the last several years,” Holden, the political reporter and union organizer, says. “But [Peretti] has not instilled confidence that he is able to transition from one mode to the next without innocent workers taking the hit.”

Peretti stands by his good-for-thee-but-not-for-me take on a union at BuzzFeed News. “My views on it haven’t really changed much from earlier statements I’ve made about it,” he says. But he adds that he’s largely deferring the decision to Smith, who has signaled his inclination to voluntarily recognize the union but declines to comment further.

As for the journalists and other staffers recently let go, they’re now finding their way in an industry that has pivoted to search, pivoted to social, pivoted to video, and is now pivoting to instability. At a post-layoff get-together, one former reporter says, “All of us were commiserating that we were getting freelance offers [from other outlets]. But we want jobs and some fucking health insurance….It’d be nice to have a billionaire throw money at us and leave us alone.”

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David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.