I remember very clearly a decade back there were folks at TPM guffawing at “Buzzfeed News” and others, tight and distressed, saying, get real, that’s your competition now. Today Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti announced that Buzzfeed News is being shuttered once and for all. It’s a remarkable and sobering arc over a relatively short span of time.
I’ve seen various wisecracks online about whether they’ll have listicles of the top ten reasons they went under. But you won’t hear that from me. A few dozen current employees are losing their jobs. There was plenty of frothiness in Buzzfeed. But the News division employed a huge number of incredibly talented journalists in the outfit’s heyday. These are not just kind words. There was a time when every news outlet had to contend with the giant sucking sound behind some of their best employees getting pulled away by the fat salaries at Buzzfeed and the very real excitement of the new, new thing and eye-popping growth. And it wasn’t just talented journalists. It wasn’t always the stuff you saw but they actually produced a huge amount of pretty amazing reporting. The subhed of the Times piece, which broke the news, called it an outfit that “won a Pulitzer Prize but never made money.”
That may be the most concise and fitting epitaph.
The demise of this high-flyer certainly isn’t about the quality of the work of the staff who worked at Buzzfeed. Peretti, wisely avoiding an incautious and damaging comment, told staffers it was “clearly a massive failure on my part and I am deeply sorry for it.” That is good of him to say. But this is fundamentally a story about the arc of social media which first provided tech-savvy publishers a distribution bonanza and then slowly starved them of revenue as the same platforms engrossed greater and greater shares of the ad revenue publishers have traditionally relied on. That’s the story and Buzzfeed is just one of endless numbers of publications that rode the same arc. They just flew higher. With Peretti they had a particular handle on working the algorithms. They were all riding the tides of speculative bets made by a handful of venture capital firms — but often, in the case of the people who made up the bulk of the organizations, without knowing it.
These were speculative business ventures in which a good chunk of the journalism world was basically along for the ride. Those of us deep in the nitty gritty of making journalism produce more dollars than it costs could have told you at any point that none of these places were making money — whatever the BS press releases said. There’s a strongly exploitative element of this. People didn’t get quite what they were in for. But we should also recognize that while the getting was good we actually got a lot of really good journalism out of it. The key point is that these were gambles at the intersection of telecommunications, media and technology.
In other ways, the journalism played an even more niche, operational role. Buzzfeed mastered the distribution element of social media very, very fast. But it had listicles and cat photos and other stuff like that. That’s tons of traffic. But it’s not the prestige play that brings you top shelf premium ad dollars. The journalism was really a loss-leader in that calculus. GM or Bacardi isn’t going to sign on to be the exclusive sponsor of your Grumpy Cat slideshow, even if millions see it. But put a Pulitzer in the mix and it’s a very different story. There was always a big mullet aspect to these plays: prestige up front (news reporting), party in the back (listicles and memes).
None of this is meant in any anti-business way. I’ve always been for journalism having thriving business models. I think the bulk of journalism has to be in that space for a free press to be vital. But there are different kinds of businesses and journalistic business models. And here’s where — all self-interest notwithstanding — it’s important that you have a lot of independent journalistic operations in the mix.
TPM is a for profit entity. But as I told someone recently, for six or seven years it’s the worst possible business to be in — if growth and profitability are your goals. At TPM we’re doing this because we want to be in the journalism business. Don’t get me wrong. We want to make money doing that. And we have to have a viable business model otherwise we won’t be able to stay in the journalism business. But fundamentally we’re doing this to be in the journalism business. And yes, I’ll take this moment to say, please become a member! Because our business model is finding people who really see that we’re different, see what we do is important and want to be part of that by becoming a member. Our existence isn’t based on the vicissitudes of the tech or media economy. It’s based on having enough actual news consumers who are really into what we do and want to be part of it; want to read it; want to support it.
But this isn’t just a pitch for TPM. When I pitch TPM there’s a kind of independence I talk about which really is pretty rare today. Definitely become a member to support that. But there’s a broader version of that that applies to outfits that are much, much larger and much more corporate, much more bought into to the shackles of bothsidesism and mainstream media thinking.
Take The Washington Post for example. Very, very different from us but at a basic level that’s an entity that is there to be profitable as a news business, rather than one part of a larger corporate play or one that might simply be zeroed out if other parts of the parent mega-corporation could use the resources more productively in another division. There’s no bright line here. Media companies fail. That’s a story as old as the hills. But there are basic, general differences that help us understand how different kinds of media companies operate, what their true bottom line is, what truly guides their actions.