Over the past year or so, as it’s grown from an offshoot into the acknowledged future of the company, BuzzFeed’s sprawling video operation, based in Los Angeles, has maintained a somewhat tense relationship with the editorial operation in New York, both for reasons of quality (some controversial BuzzFeed videos, such as “27 Questions Black People Have for Black People,” have been disavowed by its editorial team) and of business (the editorial department maintains a traditional separation between itself and the business side, whereas the video half has a more porous boundary).
This tension appears to have resolved itself in a reorganization, announced today in a memo to employees from BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti. Going forward, BuzzFeed will exist as two main departments, news and entertainment. News will cover everyone involved in news, defined broadly, while entertainment covers pretty much everything else — videos, listicles, GIFs, food videos, and experiments where people dress differently than normal.
While that might seem like a simple division meant to highlight the distinction between the company’s journalism and its entertainment, it’s really more of a merger, designed to make news think in terms of video, a form that generates more revenue than static text and images. Video, Peretti wrote to employees, “will be something we expand and embed across the organization. As digital video becomes ubiquitous, every major initiative at BuzzFeed around the world will find an expression as video, just like everything we do works on mobile and social platforms.” Eventually, more reporters will be writing (and probably starring in) videos. (And those who can’t make the transition will be left behind.) This is a smart business decision — video gets more attention, specifically on Facebook, and it’s easier to monetize.
Entertainment will be led by Ze Frank, who has been heading up the site’s massive expansion into web video under the BuzzFeed Motion Pictures moniker, while Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s widely respected editor-in-chief, will (continue to) head up news. Frank’s ascendancy is a not-so-subtle admission that video has won the battle over the article. For the last couple of years, BFMP has been siloed from the rest of the company, producing its own videos in isolation. One former employee described to me a rare instance of collaborating with the editorial department as feeling like they were breaking the rules. Editorial employees I’ve spoken to have repeatedly admitted to being frustrated or uncomfortable with the, let’s say, simplistic portrayals of gender and sexuality in BuzzFeed videos. A frequent refrain among editorial staff members when video produces a bad video was to clarify that the departments were entirely separate.
The same thing will happen on the news side, with reporters now in no uncertain terms supporting a video operation. The current attempt at video news at BuzzFeed, led by Henry Goldman from the video department, is the latest in a handful of attempts to crack the format. “Reporters and writers are the ones who call people to interview them, who get scoops. So having really great reporters is something that’s valuable to our video news operation,” Peretti told Vanity Fair.
Vanity Fair also writes that “Peretti noted that this new structure positions BuzzFeed to become something like the Paramount of the 21st century — an entertainment conglomerate built to be consumed quickly and everywhere.” BuzzFeed, depending on the time of day and whichever way the wind is blowing, is a news operation, a tech start-up, or a Hollywood studio. Today, it’s making moves to become the latter. A critical difference is that BuzzFeed employees don’t have the same protection that film-industry unions like the Writers Guild do. They might want to change that.