How I learned to stop worrying and love the Buzzfeed

By Mic Wright on August 31st, 2012

Have you ever met a citizen journalist? They could be the brave individual bringing footage from an oppressive regime or the ones sending in pictures of rain or snow or cute cats doing cute things to BBC Breakfast. They were also the blokes running headlong towards the Buncefield oil refinery fire to get some snaps they then gave away free to reporters wise enough to know that getting caught in a huge explosion can add a fatal full stop to your CV.

The idea that toting a camera phone, a Twitter account and a lack of care for your own safety puts you on a par with a professional appeals to media organisations. Why? Because citizen journalists are at worst cheap and at best free. The fleeting fame of a moment on the news or popping up in a round up of reactions is enough remuneration for most.

When the Guardian bangs on about “open journalism” and bringing the reader into the debate, it presents the argument as a question of bringing more voices into the discussion; of democratising news. The truth is less noble. Journalists are expensive; crowdsourced content isn’t. The Guardian and Observer reported losses of £44.2 million in July this year.

From its Open Weekend – dubbed “bring a reader to work day” – which lost £150,000, despite not paying most of the speakers who appeared, to its new range of courses and “experience” days, the Guardian is becoming a lifestyle brand. Its journalism is trending away from traditional reporting towards a meme-chasing, Left-wing Daily Mail model, scouring the web, Facebook and Twitter for inspiration. In two years, the Guardian will be Buzzfeed with pretensions.

That would be a bad thing if the Guardian were in any way capable of matching the quality of Buzzfeed at its best. The American site is still a mill for remodelling memes but its coverage of American politics, fashion and the technology world is fast becoming compelling. The difference is: Buzzfeed was born a creature of the web and the Guardian isn’t, despite its “digital first” posturing.

Organisations with print products have to drag that legacy behind them like a prolapse – i.e., as an unsightly pain in the arse. There is no easy cure for publications like the Guardian, whose digital operations have huge audiences but no clear method of bringing in revenue and whose print products are declining. Meanwhile, all around them, fleet-footed web outlets and non-traditional sources are making money and producing journalism that leaves them looking hopelessly anachronistic.

It’s easy to look at the decline of the print press and conclude that there is simply no longer an appetite for journalism but that’s far from true. In its Ask Me Anything threads, Reddit has remade the celebrity interview. Traditional music magazines have not suffered simply because of the growth of music blogs and the Hype Machine aggregator but because the ease of browsing recommendations from friends has nudged the expert reviewer out of the way.

Elsewhere, Quora provides an easy way to ask an expert about almost anything while Yahoo! Answers gives you the chance to ask an entertaining idiot. In fashion, niche outlets such as Put This On and The Sartorialist have been joined by shopping scrapbooks like Pinterest and The Fancy which can outpace magazines in surfacing new trends. This Is My Jam creates an ongoing playlist from your friends that can lead you to new music far faster than any magazine or traditional website.

It is not that traditional journalism, fact-finding and story telling, expert opinion and commentary, is dead, but it must now compete for attention with the compelling piecemeal pleasures of the internet. Just as lazy newspapers can grab huge numbers of stories from newswires like Reuters and AP, we can choose to get our links, music, video clips, shopping recommendations and more from the friendwire – an endless river of tweets, Facebook likes, This Is My Jam posts and shared Kindle reads.

Any publication that launches into this new world must be more interesting and compelling than the friendwire. Some are. Penny Arcade evolved from a webcomic into an empire, The Rookie is a teen magazine with a killer advantage – its editor-in-chief is an actual teenager – while The Verge and The Awl are focus on a strong voice and a willingness to produce long-form content rather than being cowed by the perceived need to please the “too long, didn’t read” brigade. Meanwhile, Paul Carr’s NSFW Corp. is producing biting satire for its subscribers and exposing the editorial process with its DeskNotes concept.

The editorial instincts behind Buzzfeed – a combination of traditional journalism and the omnivorous hunger for entertaining distractions that underpins internet culture – was made plain in a recent memo to staff from its founder and chief executive, Jonah Peretti. He outlined seven reasons he believes Buzzfeed, with its 14.25 million unique visitors a month, $15 million funding round in January and reported $7.5 million in revenues for 2011, is “killing it”. The answer is a little more complicated than “Buzzfeed has mastered how to get users to click on branded content”.

In the memo, published with permission by Buzzfeed investor Chris Dixon, Peretti describes the site’s long-term focus. He says: “ When you compare web publishing today with what Hearst and Conde Nast built in the last century, it is clear that online publishing has a long long way to go. As sites like Facebook and Twitter mature, the moment is right to build a defining company for a world where content is distributed through sharing and social media instead of transitional print and broadcast channels.”

He continues: “We can’t take short cuts, we need to always invest in the future, and this is why we spend so much time and money building technology and products that don’t have an immediate impact on the company but will help us down the road. We could juice our traffic and revenue by dropping everything and focusing entirely on the short term. And that is what companies do when they are trying to flip for a fast payday. But when you are building something enduring, you have to care as much about next year as you do about next week.  That is how you build something big and that’s our goal.”

The lack of a legacy business is arguably Buzzfeed’s greatest strength. Being tied to a declining industry can be death for a company. Kodak is an overused but instructive example here. It was at the forefront of developing digital photography – it created the first digital camera in 1975 – but allowed the healthy profits from analogue film, which continued to be highly compelling well into the late 1990s, to fuel its complacency.

The publishing industry doesn’t suffer from that complacent attitude but things are, in some ways, worse for it than Kodak’s predicament as digital cameras took off. At least Kodak understood how it might make money from digital. Newspapers and magazines hamstrung by the rules of the last war aren’t fast enough or light enough on their feet to combat the new entrants.

Peretti’s next boast is that he believes Buzzfeed has more respect for its readers than traditional outlets. While the site specialises in posts like “10 Elephant Accessories At The Republican National Convention” and “28 Photos Of People Who Don’t Give A Damn About The Hurricane”, it ducks many of the most egregious practices of online publishing. Peretti says:

“We don’t publish slideshows. Instead we publish scrollable lists so readers don’t have to click a million times and can easily scroll through a post. The primary reason to publish slideshows, as far as I can tell, is to juice page views and banner ad impressions…we don’t show crappy display ads and we make all our revenue from social advertising that users love and share.”

He continues with a observation that must send chills down the spines of Guardian executives: “We never launched one of those “frictionless sharing” apps on Facebook that automatically shares the stories you click because those apps are super-annoying. We don’t post deceptive, manipulative headlines that trick people into reading a story.”

“Frictionless sharing” is a phrase that belongs with “trustworthy tech recruiter” in the list of contemporary oxymorons. Certainly there is no friction for the publisher, but there’s plenty for the reader, who finds himself forced to disclose what he is reading. It also makes readers feel like nodes advertising the newspaper, rather than valued in their own right.

While frictionless social reading apps were hailed as the future at the start of 2012, by May the indications were that huge numbers of readers were running for the hills, denying sites including the Washington Post and the Guardian the social clicks they crave.

Reading is a private activity and having to account for every story you were intrigued by to all your Facebook friends isn’t much fun. Dude. Why do you click on so many pieces about serial killers?

Peretti makes a big point of discussing how Buzzfeed is built. Rather than constructing the site and its publishing tools from off-the-shelf options, an outwardly desirable move, he notes that Buzzfeed “builds the whole enchilada”. That means it’s able to create a product that’s coherent, far easier to navigate and totally controlled by its owners and editors. Peretti explains:

“We manage our own servers, we built our CMS from scratch, we created our own realtime stats system, we have our own data science team, we invented own ad products and our own post formats, and all these products are brought to life by our own editorial team and our own creative services team. We are what you call a “vertically integrated product” which is rare in web publishing. We take responsibility for the technology, the advertising, and the content and that allows us to make a much better product where everything works together.”

That attitude to building a product translates to Peretti’s philosophy on staffing. Buzzfeed goes against the trend for replacing paid editors and writers which is ironic given Peretti’s own role in the birth of the Huffington Post. While Buzzfeed nakedly cannibalises creativity from all corners of the web, the editing and the reporting on its homegrown blogs is done by paid staff. The memo continues:

“ As one of the few venture backed publishers, we are in a unique position to be one of the leading creators of web content crafted by true professionals. There are lots and lots of things that random, unpaid web users suck at doing.  In particular, the best reporting and the most entertaining media is usually created by people who do it for a living…”

When it comes to the actual stuff – let’s not say “content” – produced by Buzzfeed staff, Peretti’s memo highlights an important quality that the site shares with that other online sensation, the Daily Mail: entertainment isn’t seen as second class fare. Great dollops of information, memes, scoops and salacious gossip are dropped on Buzzfeed to be presented to its audience with equal skill. Peretti says:

“We want our cute animals, humor, and animated gifs to be the best of their kind on the web – they aren’t just a cheap way to generate traffic.  We want our reporters to have the best scoops, the smartest analysis, and the most talked about items – they aren’t just a hood ornament to lend the site prestige. And we want our advertising to be innovative, inspiring, and lead the shift to social – and not just be a necessary evil that pays the bills.

“Some companies only care about journalism and as a result the people focusing on lighter editorial fare or advertising are second class citizens.  Some companies only care about traffic which creates an environment where good journalists can’t take the time to talk to sources or do substantive work.”

It’s easy, of course, to get over-exited about web publishing businesses that grab pots of cash and pull in significant revenue. In his memo, Peretti raises the spectre of Digg which took Kevin Rose to the cover of Newsweek and was valued at $200 million in its heyday but whose name was sold for just $500,000 this year. But the smart money is on Buzzfeed continuing to succeed and having old media brands attempt to mimic its model, however unsuccessfully.

It’s hard not to feel a little depressed when the Guardian runs a piece called about GIFs, coming off worse than the Insane Clown Posse scratching their heads about magnets, but truly revelatory journalism is still out there. Traditional outlets are still a big source of links flowing across the web but where they were once the source of information, now they’re just a source and that’s a very bitter pill for them to swallow.

Don’t be surprised if you see the Guardian in a nostalgic “remember when we read newspapers?” Buzzfeed photo post in 2020.