The Media Today

The good and bad news of the HuffFeed deal

November 20, 2020

Yesterday, Benjamin Mullin and Keach Hagey, of the Wall Street Journal, broke a huge media-business story: BuzzFeed is buying HuffPost in a stock deal, part of a broader package that will see Verizon Media, HuffPost’s current owner, take a minority stake and make a cash investment in BuzzFeed. The two companies will also collaborate in areas including content sharing and advertising. Online, media-watchers made variations on the same joke: HuffFeed, BuzzPost, HuffingBuzz, BuffPeed. (The tech blogger Jane Manchun Wong coded a script to exhaust all the portmanteau possibilities.) Meanwhile, staff at HuffPost were reportedly finding out about the deal the same way as the rest of us. “Reading a copy-and-pasted version of the story about my media company being acquired because I couldn’t get past the WSJ paywall,” Christopher Mathias, who covers the far right for HuffPost, tweeted. “2020 media babyyyyy.”

As Mathias also noted, news of the acquisition came two years to the day since a New York Times interview with Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed’s CEO (and a founder of both BuzzFeed and HuffPost), made a splash in the media word: Peretti mused about a possible mega-merger involving a bevy of digital publishers who would, in his conception, consolidate to demand better financial terms from Facebook and Google, and namechecked Vice Media, Vox Media, Group Nine Media, and Refinery29 as examples of competitors doing “interesting work.” Since then, all those companies have been involved in acquisitions—Vice Media bought Refinery29, Group Nine bought PopSugar, and Vox Media bought New York Media, which publishes New York magazine. BuzzFeed, meanwhile, has retrenched, implementing sharp cuts both before and since the start of the pandemic. As the Journal has reported, the scale of cuts this year, including layoffs, furloughs and pay reductions, will allow BuzzFeed to break even for the first time since 2014. (Disclosure: I worked for BuzzFeed as an intern in 2017.)

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Peretti says that there will be no further layoffs at BuzzFeed as a result of the HuffPost acquisition, but he hasn’t made a similar commitment on the HuffPost side, saying only that BuzzFeed executives will wait to finalize the deal and review HuffPost’s business before making any big decisions. Media acquisitions typically involve layoffs (often dressed up in the soulless language of “synergies”), and as Alexandra Steigrad recently reported for the New York Post, industry insiders expected that a (then-hypothetical) HuffPost sale would likely involve heavy staff cuts given the outlet’s falling revenue and high operating costs. Yesterday, sources with knowledge of the deal told Edmund Lee and Tiffany Hsu, of the Times, that Verizon is giving BuzzFeed cash, in part, to help pay severance packages. For now, we know that the BuzzFeed and HuffPost newsrooms will continue to operate independently of each other (no portmanteaux here, then), though Mark Schoofs, the editor in chief of BuzzFeed News, told staff in a memo that there will be room for collaboration, and HuffPost’s editor in chief (a position that has been vacant since Lydia Polgreen departed for Gimlet Media earlier this year) will report to Schoofs, albeit in an “oversight” rather than a “management” capacity. We also know that HuffPost’s union has “successor language” in its contract, meaning that the union will survive the takeover.

After news of the deal broke yesterday, media-watchers began to chew over what it might mean in a broader sense, beyond newsroom dynamics. Sara Fischer, of Axios, wrote that BuzzFeed will get “scale for cheap” out of the deal, whereas HuffPost will get “a lifeline”; Bijan Stephen, of The Verge, noted that Verizon Media taking a minority stake in BuzzFeed is a “little funny” given reports that the company has been trying to get out of the digital-media business, not further entangle itself. My CJR colleague Mathew Ingram speculated that the minority stake could eventually help pave an “exit route” for BuzzFeed; Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton tweeted that the acquisition is not good news for AOL and Yahoo, other Verizon Media properties. The deal will likely mean integration around commerce opportunities: Verizon Media has sought to expand in this area, both through affiliate links (which drive sales to third-party retailers) and the production of original content, while BuzzFeed has expanded its affiliate business, too, including in partnership with an adult-entertainment company that, as of last week, makes a BuzzFeed-branded sex toy. (Yesterday, Peter Kafka, of Recode, asked Peretti whether we can soon expect to see a HuffPost-branded sex toy, too. “We don’t own HuffPost yet, so we’ve got to wait to have those important conversations,” Peretti replied.)

Consolidation has become so common in the media industry that the sadness of the trend—good outlets being forced into defensive maneuvers by a terrible business climate—can sometimes feel secondary to its sense of inevitability. “BuzzFeed and HuffPost, for all their issues, represented prototypes of good faith digital news operations,” Emily Bell, the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, tweeted yesterday. “As they consolidate, and possibly shrink a little, consider the political money currently growing bottom-feeding wildly misleading networks of local and national news.”

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Management at BuzzFeed is projecting positivity about the deal: Schoofs characterized it as “hopeful and exciting news” that constitutes a vote of confidence in BuzzFeed’s business model; Peretti told Kafka that, having spoken to staff, “there’s a general feeling of excitement from everyone so far.” Management, of course, would say that. But, within the constraints of the current digital-media landscape, there is a path forward here that would warrant such positivity; if the retention of editorial staff can be prioritized and the deal helps generate revenue that can be reinvested in journalism, then the readers of two outlets that do much great work and employ many talented, straight-shooting reporters stand to benefit. As one such reporter, Mathias, put it on Twitter yesterday, “what if this… is actually good media news and not bad media news?”

Below, more on the media business:

  • The Boston Globe: Linda Henry—who, along with her husband, John W. Henry, owns the parent company of the Boston Globehas taken over as its CEO, having previously served as managing director. (The company also owns and Stat, which covers health and medicine.) Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, writes for WGBH that the appointment signals that the Henrys are committed to the paper for the long term, and also means that there will no longer be a middleman between the Globe and its owners. The paper’s union is currently embroiled in tense, protracted contract talks with management; this week, union members criticized the Henrys for the paper’s use of Jones Day, a law firm that has represented Trump in his election legal fight. (ICYMI, CJR’s Andrew McCormick profiled Jones Day last year.)
  • The Ringer: For the Times, Noam Scheiber reports on tensions at The Ringer, the Spotify-owned sports-media company where a push to bring on celebrity contributors has rankled union members, who fear they are being sidelined by non-unionized contract workers. Management at The Ringer moved to recognize the union but have yet to agree a contract with it, and some staffers have said that Bill Simmons, The Ringer’s founder, unfollowed them on Twitter after they expressed support for the union—a damaging move, the staffers said, since “Simmons’s Twitter account, with its millions of followers, was a significant source of web traffic.”
  • Lenfest: For CJR and the Tow Center’s Journalism Crisis Project newsletter, Lauren Harris reports from a virtual summit convened by the Lenfest Institute, a nonprofit that owns the Philadelphia Inquirer, dedicated to reimagining journalism in Philadelphia. (You can subscribe to Harris’s newsletter here.)
  • CJR: For our new magazine on a transitional moment for journalism, Darryl Holliday, who leads the news lab at City Bureau in Chicago, outlines what journalism can learn from mutual aid. “As I witnessed the collective efforts taking shape around me this summer, I considered, not for the first time, the role that journalists occupy in a community—and our failure to address the fundamental human needs within it,” Holliday writes. “I wondered: What is the mutual aid equivalent for local news?”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.