BuzzFeed cuts should mean the death of metric-obsessed media

The latest waves of layoffs at BuzzFeed continue to roll through the media industry, with more than 200 reporters, editors, and other editorial staff scheduled to be cut, including entire teams and huge swaths of international bureaus like the UK and Australia. Media Twitter is an almost unbroken stream of people saying they have been laid off, coworkers and colleagues wishing them well, and analysts parsing the details and wondering whether Facebook is ultimately at fault. But if the giant social network is partly to blame, it is mostly because 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 at a moment’s notice, and that many of its engagement metrics were not to be trusted.

Almost as soon as the first blog post hit the internet back in the late Pleistocene age, publishers started tracking page views, impressions, clicks and other metrics, to see whether anyone out there was actually paying attention — and, eventually, to prove to advertisers those people existed. But digital-first publishers like Gawker and BuzzFeed took this obsession to its logical conclusion. Gawker founder Nick Denton’s irreverent band of writers could see at a glance which posts were getting the most clicks, because Gawker installed huge TV screens in its SoHo office that showed real-time numbers in brilliant color. This innovation was adopted by many other newsrooms, including some run by traditional publishers, to show that they were on top of things when it came to the social web and the overwhelming need to “go viral.”

ICYMI: BuzzFeed management faces harsh criticism from staffers, internal messages reveal

If viral social metrics were differential equations, then BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti was Einstein. His experiments in creating viral content started with an email about custom Nike shoes, progressed to websites like “Black People Love Us,” and ultimately led to the founding of Huffington Post and then the creation of BuzzFeed. Both were attempts to understand how social content worked online, and not long after BuzzFeed launched—powered by what Peretti described as the “bored at work” crowd—it was seen by many as the pinnacle of a specific form of content, driven by algorithmic trends, search keywords, and shareable GIFs. While other publishers such as Upworthy and Mashable catered to Facebook’s desire for clickable content, BuzzFeed excelled at it in a way few others did, as proven by The Dress (more than 35 million views) and The Watermelon (almost a million simultaneous views). Entranced, venture capital investors poured over half a billion dollars into the company.

At about this point, in 2015, Peretti made a fateful decision: to hitch BuzzFeed’s wagon even more firmly to Facebook and other social networks, to “fish for eyeballs in other people’s streams,” as Peter Kafka of Recode described it. And why not? BuzzFeed’s content was perfect for the social network, and it was having great success with Tasty cooking videos and other creations, into which it had poured a huge amount of resources. But it wasn’t long before the wheels started to wobble, and then they came off completely. The company missed its revenue targets for 2017 by as much as 20 percent, and there were layoffs. In 2018, Facebook made a series of changes to its News Feed algorithm that were designed to promote “personal” content, such as photos and posts from friends, over articles from external publishers like BuzzFeed. For some, including Mashable and Mic, these changes meant grievous injury or death, but even BuzzFeed was hit hard: according to one estimate, stories that used to get as many as 200,000 visits were soon getting as little as one-tenth that amount.

Since the downturn began, BuzzFeed has focused on building up other aspects of its business, including a line of kitchen products and a marketing campaign aimed at getting readers to donate to BuzzFeed to subsidize its news arm. It’s not clear how well those efforts are going, but it seems obvious they’re not going well enough to save the 200 jobs on the chopping block. Can a company that became a titan based on its understanding of how to manufacture social virality metrics change its spots, and figure out how to build a sustainable business based on things like donations, events, and e-commerce? At one point, BuzzFeed seemed like the antithesis of traditional media companies who were trying to move from print to digital. But now the former superstar has its own transformation to make, and it appears to be struggling just as much as the ancien regime it was hoping to replace.

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ICYMI: Reuters publishes ethically questionable story

Here’s more on BuzzFeed, layoffs and metrics:

  • What is BuzzFeed? Max Willens at Digiday writes that some BuzzFeed staff fear the latest cuts are removing some of the things that made the company unique. “The mood is: with these people who make the internet weird and interesting gone, what IS BuzzFeed?” one current employee said.
  • An accident? In a long interview with Felix Salmon, Jonah Peretti says his viral Nike email “was the thing that opened my eyes to the kind of stuff I’m doing now, and it really was an accident. It was, ‘I should be writing my master’s thesis. I’m procrastinating.'”
  • Failed experiment? The layoffs at BuzzFeed mean the company’s experimental era is over, says Brian Feldman, writing for New York magazine’s Intelligencer site. It spent a lot of time and money driving value for Facebook and YouTube and got “the corporate equivalent of a free tote bag.”
  • Democratic emergency? New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo wins the prize for most overheated rhetoric with a piece that says the layoffs at BuzzFeed constitute a “democratic emergency.” The cuts are not the ordinary waves of a turbulent digital-media ocean, he says, but “a devastation.”
  • An open thread: CJR has created an open thread on its Galley discussion forum so that journalists laid off in the recent round of cuts at BuzzFeed, HuffPost, Gannett and other outlets can post their details and links to their portfolios, etc. Employers can also contact writers using the service’s private messaging feature.

 

Other notable stories:

  • Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan says the “middle-lane” approach to journalism, in which reporters engage in an artificial attempt to give equal time to both sides of an issue, serves politicians but doesn’t serve readers.
  • The Economist, which just launched its fifth podcast this week, says it gets seven million average listens a month, and the revenue from its podcast advertising grew by more than 50 percent last year. The Ringer says it made more than $15 million on podcast ad sales in 2018, averaging 35 million monthly downloads.
  • Elizabeth Hewitt writes for CJR about how a non-profit publication called National Parks Traveler, run by former Associated Press reporter Kurt Repanshek, has been covering the impact the federal government shutdown has had on America’s national parks.
  • Poynter reports that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel used to do what a lot of media companies do, which is put every single one of the stories it published on some social network to try and get readers interested. But since it stopped doing that, its Facebook following has tripled in size.
  • Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, the man who funded the lawsuit that put Gawker Media out of business, is funding a scholarly science journal called Inference that publishes well-known scientists, but also features pieces questioning the scientific basis for climate change and evolution.
  • Karen Ho, a freelance writer and former CJR fellow, writes for Dame magazine about the crisis facing journalism today. “Now more than ever, we need the media to seek truth, report facts, and hold those in power accountable,” the essay says. “But without a major overhaul, is the press even up to the job?”
  • The government in Romania is trying to use the new European General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR to compel an award-winning investigative media outlets to hand over its sources for a critical story or face a €20 million fine.
  • Axios, the bullet-pointed media entity created by Politico founder Jim VandeHei, says it has finished its second full year of existence with revenues of $25 million, and claims to be profitable. Coming next are subscriptions, the company says.
  • The Committee to Protect Journalists says Sudan has arrested and imprisoned six journalists because they were reporting on widespread anti-government protests in that country, calling on President Omar al-Bashir to resign.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.