The 2010s Fallacy That Won't Die
BuzzFeed posts into the abyss
Since I’m a 33-year-old millenial who works in media, BuzzFeed will always matter to me. I am not sure how the younger generation views BuzzFeed—probably with derision, some of it well-earned—but it will remain one of those era-specific signposts, like Gawker was to the younger members of Generation X. For those not paying attention in the early 2010s, it is hard now to convey the hype cycle BuzzFeed enjoyed then; there is no equivalent today, and that’s truthfully for the best. BuzzFeed was it. BuzzFeed was not only going to fix media, but it was going to devour old media. The New York Times? CNN? As BuzzFeed might say: LOL.
There was a period, when I worked for the New York Observer, when I hoped BuzzFeed would poach me. I wanted to be anointed as a millenial who mattered. Ben Smith left his cushy gig at Politico to be their editor-in-chief. They had meme-slingers and scoop-diggers and hefty Twitter followings. Unlike wheezing legacy media, they knew how to have fun! They had the quizzes, so, so many quizzes. The dress! What color is it? Ah, to be twenty-four again, watching Twitter melt down over the colors blue and gold.
BuzzFeed, of course, never overtook the Times. Instead, the Times eventually made Smith their media columnist, and kept printing money while most of their competitors, including BuzzFeed, drowned in the red. To make a long story very short, BuzzFeed lacked, like almost all of digital media, a viable business model. They didn’t charge their readers to use their website. They had no print vehicle to fall back upon. They weren’t a nonprofit. They had digital ads, which was a rapidly diminishing market, and VC cash that demanded returns on investment a young news organization with an entertainment product attached—or an entertainment product with a news division grafted on—could never meet. It wasn’t the fault of the talented journalists who worked there that BuzzFeed just couldn’t become profitable. In many ways, it was designed to fail.
Now comes the latest, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, that BuzzFeed hopes to save itself by posting more. “There are so many things outside of our control—the advertising market, the economy, the recession,” Karolina Waclawiak, BuzzFeed’s editor in chief, told staff. “But what we can control is how many stories we publish each day.”
Waclawiak noted the push to increase volume would come with a much smaller newsroom; BuzzFeed has shed 40 percent of its headcount in the last year. As of now, BuzzFeed stock is trading for less than $1 and the company, remarkably, has lost about 90 percent of its value since going public in December 2021. I don’t envy Waclawiak’s position.
I am certain, though, the 2010s fantasy of creating more “volume” or “content” to generate revenue is doomed.