BuzzFeed’s Experimental Era Is Over

An employee works on a laptop at BuzzFeed headquarters, December 11, 2018 in New York City. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Last week, news leaked that BuzzFeed, the site that largely ushered in the era of “viral media,” was planning a significant number of layoffs. The cuts aim to eliminate 15 percent of the company’s operating budget, amounting to roughly 200 layoffs spread across the site’s many departments, including the news division, the non-journalistic editorial department responsible for lists and quizzes, and the creative department that worked with advertisers.

The layoffs, according to an email sent to staff by company CEO Jonah Peretti, are intended to help the company turn a profit. While BuzzFeed has brought in significant revenue as its star has risen, it still isn’t making money. That’s not unusual for media start-ups, but after more than a decade, investors seem to be getting impatient and want the operation to cut costs and get in the black. The layoffs, to understate it just a little, have not been handled well. Following the leaked news of impending cuts and Peretti’s confirmation, the dismissals have been staggered over a number of days, leaving employees in limbo and anxious to learn their fates. Some found out they had been laid off while on vacation or remote assignment.

The company also initially declined to pay out unused paid time off unless the affected employee lives in California, where the payout is legally required. For many who were laid off, that unused time off could be worth weeks of pay. More than 550 BuzzFeed employees signed a petition calling on the company to pay out the unused time. (BuzzFeed’s workforce is not unionized and Peretti has, in the past, warded off any efforts by telling employees that managers are their best advocates.) BuzzFeed’s livestreamed morning show, AM2DM, used the top of this morning’s show to blast management for its treatment of employees. On Monday evening, BuzzFeed relented and agreed to the payouts.

The vibe is funereal. The era of BuzzFeed as a freewheeling, experimental online playground has ended. Longtime veterans — who helped define the site’s ethos as it grew into a global force and who seemed immune to layoffs — have gotten the ax. Whole sections of the site’s news division have been eliminated (on the day it was eliminated, BuzzFeed’s LGBT section asked “Does LGBT Media Have a Future?“). BuzzFeed is not shutting down, but it has been hollowed out. They join a cohort of other online content farms, like Yahoo and HuffPost, that also employ hundreds of staffers and mix lighter and heavier fare, just without BuzzFeed’s new-kid-in-town aura.

Many of the tributes are exit-interview-like dispatches from dismissed employees and those who remain focused on the site’s legacy and quality of the content — how BuzzFeed defined the voice of the internet since it began aggressively expanding in 2012; how BuzzFeed often took a chance on staffers without an extensive body of work who were nonetheless good at harnessing the power of the internet. Its most obvious legacy in media was demonstrating that good writing alone wasn’t sufficient to draw traffic. To gain and keep an audience, the media industry would also have to understand the distribution channels through which they reached their readers, and adapt their work to fit.

This focus drove BuzzFeed to figure out how best to exploit the next big online distribution channel: social media. And BuzzFeed’s method of being “big on social” was the primary way that they influenced, and even defined, much of the modern internet mainstream. In the same way that Peretti’s previous project, HuffPost, was predicated on aggressive search engine optimization and traffic from Google, BuzzFeed was premised on social referrals, which almost always meant traffic from Facebook. The firehose of Facebook traffic that BuzzFeed was able to draw on sent other publishers scrambling to imitate them, and briefly spawned a cottage industry of viral media publishers specializing in aggressively upbeat videos and curiosity-gap headlines (a headline like “Why BuzzFeed Doesn’t Do Clickbait” forces you to click through to find out). The site tweaked its editorial strategy on the fly to harness the exponential benefits of social media, often before its competitors wised up. Instead of building a cohesive site identity, it aggressively narrowcasted: It targeted sub-subgroups and niche audiences such as obsessive stans, instead of trying to please everyone at once. (Just as important, the site put a big emphasis on giving editorial employees the technical capabilities to do their job well. BuzzFeed’s CMS is the only proprietary one I know of that is spoken of with unanimous praise and that works on mobile.)

It turned emotional intelligence into a type of sabermetrics, tasking writers with creating posts and headlines meant to match the reader’s point of view instead of the author’s and engineered to take advantage of social media’s algorithmic distribution mechanisms. Though BuzzFeed didn’t invent the listicle or the personality quiz, it did relentlessly optimize them. Its influence, good or bad, cannot be overstated.

Even with all of these accomplishments, the Achilles’ heel of the BuzzFeed strategy is its reliance on other, larger platforms sending traffic instead of developing loyal readers. It aggressively built out its presence on social platforms while trying to sell advertisers on expensive sponsored content that lived on BuzzFeed’s own domain. Eventually, BuzzFeed caved and started running banner ads, something that was previously anathema to the company. It launched a handful of podcasts, some of which found enthusiastic audiences, before pulling the plug on the whole program. It led the charge on optimizing content for social platforms but has still fallen into the same trap as everyone else: There isn’t enough advertising money, and readers are used to reading BuzzFeed for free. While there have been plenty of smaller stumbles and walkbacks, this week appears to have been the big one.

It is that approach that may have led to this most recent undoing. Matthew Perpetua, who ran BuzzFeed’s quiz operation, was also laid off this week, acknowledging that BuzzFeed doesn’t really need to employ quiz-makers anymore. “In the recent past,” he wrote, “the second highest traffic driver worldwide has been a community user in Michigan who is a teenager in college who, for some reason, makes dozens of quizzes every week. It’s kinda amazing how much revenue-generating traffic the site gets from unpaid community volunteers. So, in a ruthless capitalist way, it makes sense for the company to pivot to having community users create almost all of the quizzes going forward. I understand math. I get it.”

According to a public Facebook post, BuzzFeed’s top community member last year netted the site 130 million views, and in return received BuzzFeed-branded merch including a tote bag, water bottle, T-shirt, koozie, stickers, socks, a couple of books, and some pens. In effect, BuzzFeed got 130 million page views for the price of a bit of leftover swag — much less than a writer’s annual salary in New York City or Los Angeles.

If this logic seems familiar, it’s because the social-media platforms BuzzFeed sought to harness had the same idea. For years, the largest tech platforms have operated on the premise of users filling their site with content for free. Maybe the most popular users can make a living off of it, but Facebook and Instagram and Twitter mostly seek to monetize users’ leisure time. BuzzFeed spent a lot of time and money creating content that drives up the value of social platforms like Facebook and YouTube, without getting much in return — partnerships fell through, lopsided business terms persisted. All BuzzFeed ever got from Facebook is some high praise and the corporate equivalent of a free tote bag. Now BuzzFeed appears to be taking the same approach, turning to unpaid users to make more of its content — and hundreds of employees are out of work.

BuzzFeed’s Experimental Era Is Over