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The News Went Viral

The media bet its future on Facebook. Did it learn from that mistake?

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

BuzzFeed, the archetypal new media company of the 2010s, announced last week that it was shutting down its news division. In 2012, the small “web buzz” start-up started hiring reporters. The newsroom quickly multiplied in size, broke countless stories, and shaped other publishers’ coverage and business plans; later, its parent company diminished, BuzzFeed News would unionize, win a Pulitzer, then get dragged, with the rest of the company, through a disastrous last-ditch SPAC offering, followed by brutal layoffs.

BuzzFeed News’ closure — alongside a spate of other layoffs at media companies — marks the end of an era so recent that it doesn’t quite feel like history. In his new book Traffic, which was finished before BuzzFeed’s announcement but which publishes next week, Ben Smith, the site’s former editor-in-chief, makes an attempt at a first draft. It’s rich in detail but struggles to suspend a broad narrative about online news, and the internet, between BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti and Gawker’s Nick Denton, and can’t quite report itself out of the simplicity of what actually happened and why. Aside from a decision not to sell to Disney for $650 million, which would have killed BuzzFeed’s news division in its own way, there are notably few examples of paths not taken or strategic mistakes that would have made a difference.

Ben hired me at BuzzFeed in 2012 to help build the company’s tech-news vertical. My time at BuzzFeed was ultimately inconsequential, but my perspective was privileged. BuzzFeed was riding a wave created by the social-media companies I was charged with covering. In part because it made sense to us, but also because it was the prevailing wisdom and mood of the place, we covered Facebook and Twitter (and Instagram and Pinterest and Snapchat) like they were the most important companies in the world.

Ben, who was running a newsroom funded by this belief, was intensely interested in what we were seeing and doing and had us send our posts about small updates to Facebook’s news feed for consideration by Matt Drudge. Jonah was interested, too, and would not-so-subtly suggest that friends at the company (including, occasionally, “Mark”) were providing him with insights about how the internet was going to be, and vice versa. He seemed to regard our coverage as right-headed but wronghearted, fixated on the profound strangeness of the moment rather than the opportunity it presented so clearly for him.

There was, early on at BuzzFeed, a thin but novel ideology at work on top of the usual folk wisdom about traffic and audiences and news and scoops. It was color coded in the stats attached to every post and scored as a metric called viral lift: Social traffic was good traffic, created and validated by readers choosing to share it; the rest of the traffic, from searchers and portals and the “dead” but ever-growing front page of the site, might as well have been fake.

It was a contrarian but intuitive enough view. Today, from an internet where social platforms systematically demote links to outside websites, and where content recommendations are made by machines instead of by friends, it sounds naïve. Even at the time, social traffic was no more legitimate and was in some ways materially less valuable than readers who found you by, say, going to your site directly or being sent there by a search engine. But the latter groups were shrinking, at least in relative terms.

Even back when I worked at Buzzfeed, it was clear enough that one of two things was likely to happen. Scenario one, which Jonah embraced and preached, was a world where “social news” made sense, and running alongside the tech giants was the profitable and righteous way of the future. Publishers’ adjacency to social media wasn’t a temporary and inherently doomed state of affairs — it was bankable, and major investments in pre-profit digital media were rational. Scenario two was less appealing to contemplate. In this world, all ad-supported news — not just BuzzFeed — really was as fucked as it otherwise seemed to be when Google showed up, even before Facebook made its brazen bid to capture and monetize the online commons. From the vantage point of 2023, the history described in Traffic sounds less like a story of entrepreneurial experimentation than an account of a recurring industry delusion. But it’s a delusion worth studying today as it threatens to manifest again. The tech industry will not ever save the media. It will sooner eat it alive.

There are many more books’ worth of material to write about the last ten years in online journalism, but I’d like to take a moment to emphasize the straightforwardness of the overall story. Just over a decade ago, a small group of social-media services became very large. Facebook, which had started as a place to keep up with friends, evolved into a tool for consuming media. This created a massive and sudden demand for fresh content, including, at the margins, news. Publishers old and new rushed to address the need, epitomized by BuzzFeed, which raised huge sums of VC money on the promise it could do so profitably, with maximally sharable and engaging content, some of which was sponsored. The newsroom portion of the proposition was straightforward, if incomplete. The platforms were hungry for stories, and what is a newsroom if not a machine for producing fresh and authoritative links, ready to share, comment on, or get mad about? And so this era, whatever it was, began.

What came next wasn’t much more complicated. Social media kept growing, ingesting and digesting the web around it, and sending some of its users back as readers in exchange. Its business model was an improvement, in nearly every way, on that of the news sites that were now supplying them with free content: bigger audiences, better targeting, and endless user-generated media. In the early days — let’s say 2011 to 2012 — there was a lot of windfall traffic for media companies. Random stories from years ago would suddenly have hundreds of thousands of readers, having been stripped of their original context and reshared by Facebook users. These new readers arrived in large numbers but didn’t really stick around. Their arrival was interpreted as an invitation. In hindsight, it was a warning.

The numbers, in any case, were insane, and BuzzFeed, which claimed to have a novel business model — basically, sponsored content with the magic of “viral lift” — kept hiring, scaled up its ambitions, turned down acquisitions, and raised astonishing amounts of money for a media company. Facebook honed its recommendations to maximize engagement, and BuzzFeed, which instructed its staff to experiment constantly with form, seemed to stay one step ahead, or at least not too far behind. Its competitors adapted their own content as best they could with limited information, aping BuzzFeed’s headlines, its subjects, its very language, and its methods of distribution. A symbiotic narrative took shape with plenty of help from BuzzFeed: Publishers should meet readers where they are (which is to say, on Facebook); also, the platforms are nothing without our content. This was good marketing, suggesting that what even then was clearly a state of dependence on the platforms was actually a partnership of equals.

BuzzFeed’s sudden ascent had turned Jonah into someone of an industry oracle, and what had been a slippery, evolving pitch to investors and interviewers turned into new conventional wisdom for publishers, many of whom didn’t seem to notice that BuzzFeed’s actual news operation — not its lists or quizzes, or its clever social video experiments, or its other more conspicuous attempts to figure out social media — was a traditional newsroom. My editor and I had nominally been hired to “figure out” technology news in the era of social media. We were bloggers, so we just started a tech blog and made social media part of our beat. The plan for BuzzFeed was sponsored content, platform partnerships, and scale. The plan for its newsroom — this was always a sensitive subject — was never clearly anything but subsidy.

Venture capitalists and legacy media companies invested hundreds of millions of dollars into internet-savvy publishers as a sort of secondary vehicle for getting in on the social-media boom, ultimately subsidizing a surreal, short, but golden era in online news and news-adjacent media production — a generational talent acquisition that’s evident up and down the mastheads of every remaining news organization — in hopes of capturing some of what BuzzFeed seemed to have.

We know a bit better now, as a people, what it means for anyone or anything to get that much attention that quickly and what it usually portends. Facebook was soon contending with an army of also-ran BuzzFeeds, as well as more venerable publishers doing BuzzFeed impressions, and started playing defense against publishers it thought were skimming too much traffic from its news feed. Facebook, through countless unpredictable and inscrutable updates — more personal content! more video! live video! — triggered increasingly desperate pivots at dependent media companies. In 2016, Facebook’s relationship with the media, in general, implicated it in much bigger problems in which it had no interest. Referral traffic to publishers became unreliable, then slowed, then sank back below Google’s. Facebook was moving on from the news. Billions of dollars in speculative media valuations evaporated. A gutted Vice is entertaining a 90 percent discount and shut down its flagship news program this week. FiveThirtyEight is getting the axe. Insider announced its first layoffs ever. Earlier this year, Vox Media, which publishes New York, cut 7 percent of staff, then announced it had raised money at half of its 2015 valuation. BuzzFeed simply showed its entire newsroom the door.

Like every previous generation of online publishers reaching back to the early ’90s, BuzzFeed successfully raised money on the premise that it was an integral part of the next online revolution; it was, like those predecessors, which it cast as old-fashioned, tethered to the giants of its moment. The story should have felt more familiar than it did. Every few years, since the media went digital, money drained into online news and then gradually burned away. Pre-internet monopolist Microsoft took an early interest in journalism on the information superhighway; people built dozens of publications inside proto-platforms like AOL; dot-com web portals like Yahoo and Lycos diverted overflowing webmail users into gutters filled with news and newslike content; much of the blogosphere eventually relocated to the sprawling exurbs around Google, which Peretti knew well from his time running HuffPost. Sometimes these micro-eras left something behind (hello, Slate!). Just as often, they didn’t (good-bye, almost everyone mentioned in this Slate article!). In the meantime, reporters got jobs, and they wrote what stories they could.

News is great at destroying value for people in power. It’s what makes it valuable to the rest of us, and what ultimately dooms plans, like BuzzFeed’s, that, for all their entrepreneurial zeal, depend on their continued cooperation.

At Semafor, where Ben Smith is once again an editor-in-chief, Max Tani assessed the current situation in a Smithian Sunday newsletter:

For the last decade, social media websites like Facebook and Twitter were the virtual front pages of the internet, delivering a mix of viral news and whatever articles and videos social algorithms thought you wanted. Digital publications popped up to take advantage of the eyeballs, and money followed, hoping the cat listicle website or the Brooklyn guide for do’s and don’ts could really be this generation’s New York Times or MTV.

But Facebook’s sharp turn away from news and the mercy-killing of “blue check” Twitter, along with BuzzFeed News’s shutdown, cuts at Insider (the first official mass layoffs in the company’s history), and Vice’s increasing desperation for a sale are another indication that the social web that defined the 2010s is over for news consumers.

Tani identifies “homepage traffic, blogging, niche email newsletters” as evidence that it’s “back to the future for a diminished digital news business” and even name-drops Drudge, whose right-wing GeoCities site predated and outlasted BuzzFeed News, and countless other news organizations that sent him links for consideration. This is all true, as far as it goes, but I’d go a bit further. The “social web” — an optimistic, mutually beneficial collaboration between independent websites and a new generation of big social-media platforms — never quite existed. It was a theory, once described by Peretti as “about building a larger society” by combining content production with personal connection, that didn’t come to fruition. The pitch didn’t pan out.

Smith’s editor, as he notes in the conclusion of his book, made a related suggestion. “Perhaps Jonah and I, thinking of ourselves as protagonists, had been passing through someone else’s story,” the editor said, meaning, well, Mark Zuckerberg’s. The platforms rose, took an incidental interest in the news, and ravaged not just online media but the web as a whole. As somewhat of an expert in quietly passing through others’ important-at-the-time media stories — I chased traffic bonuses at Gawker Media before BuzzFeed, and spent the Trump presidency at the subscription-pumped New York Times — I’m inclined to agree

This “back to the future” moment is thoroughly grim — a return of attention, really, to an underlying state of emergency that began in about 2007 — and it’s a disservice to anyone interested in how the news gets made to suggest otherwise. In its grimness, it provides clarity about a few things. In recent years, news publishers have reinvested in search traffic, with decidedly mixed results; meanwhile, Google is rushing to incorporate AI into search, hinting at a future on which outside links are reduced to footnotes for a summary.

The Trump-era pivot to subscriptions was, in much nearer hindsight, an excellent way for news organizations to spend what reputational capital they had left but provided a troubling X-ray of the industry as a whole, revealing a consumer preference to pay for a few big brands, a whole lot of individual personalities, and not much in between. Substack exemplifies the latter model but, as its contributors seemed to anticipate better than its founders, is now suffering under the weight of its own tech-scale ambitions and funding, much of which came from the very same investors who pumped the most cash into BuzzFeed. Creators on YouTube and TikTok and Twitch are meeting people where they are, with no need for a third party like BuzzFeed to get involved.

But this sense of clarity risks being destroyed imminently by disorienting discourse about AI, which Peretti mentioned in his shutdown memo and which Insider’s editor-in-chief promoted the week before layoffs were announced. In AI, we have another undeniable tech megatrend, in the technical sense that billions of dollars are flowing into something new as investors hope to get rich or simply not get left behind.

As with social media, it will be tempting, especially for latecomer VCs and panicked media bosses, to confuse the new AI firms’ superficial areas of overlap with the media industry — ChatGPT can write articles! — as simple opportunities for collaboration.

This time around, the warnings about throwing in with tech’s next big thing are almost comically unsubtle. OpenAI and its ilk — including Google and Meta, once again — are explicitly building labor-saving tools, designed to synthesize text, images, and videos, trained on material scraped directly from unwitting media companies’ archives. Whatever you think of their prospects, their intentions are hard to misread. They’re in the business of automation. Recall, however, that Facebook was also an attempt to automate advertising at scale. It harvested most of its content for free from the same users it was monetizing. It was an attempt to automate the media, in a broad business sense, and was a success. It’s easy enough to imagine a well-funded race between publishers and the tech industry to create “augmented news,” or some better euphemism, using the tech industry’s tools, of course, and on the tech industry’s terms.

The death of BuzzFeed News, the unceremonious pivots to nowhere by the bloated social giants, and the ransacking of Twitter by the world’s richest man, however, once again drive home the absurdity of a marriage between the news media and a speculative tech industry that can only conceptualize it as either a threat or as food. The relationship has been broken for a long time.

The News Went Viral