The past few weeks have not been kind to the giants of digital news. On April 20, Insider—which is owned by the German publishing company Axel Springer—said that it was laying off 10 percent of its staff in the US. On April 27, Vice Media initiated a restructuring that was expected to lead to over a hundred job losses and the end of its Vice News Tonight broadcast; on May 1, the New York Times reported that Vice was preparing to file for bankruptcy protection. Since then, there have been reports that a private-equity deal could rescue the company, though it may value it as low as three hundred million dollars—a relatively large amount by everyday standards, but still a far cry from the nearly six billion the company was said to be worth in 2017. Elsewhere, Disney slashed staff at FiveThirtyEight, the data-driven news site that it owns as part of ABC News. Numerous more traditional media outlets have also made cuts this year, from the Washington Post to Gannett.
More than any of these, however, one recent announcement stood out as a sign of something important dying, at least on the digital-media side of the equation: namely, the closing of BuzzFeed News and the loss of its more than sixty staffers. (BuzzFeed will stay in the news business via HuffPost, which it owns.) “This moment is part of the end of a whole era of media,” Ben Smith, the founding editor of BuzzFeed News, told the Times (where he later worked as a media columnist). “It’s the end of the marriage between social media and news.” As is the case with many marriages, the end of this one was hardly a surprise to anyone who had been paying attention. Layoffs at BuzzFeed News had become the norm in recent years, including two hundred job cuts in early 2019. BuzzFeed went public in 2021, which some hoped would bring prosperity, but its stock soon slid. The company was worth a billion dollars shortly after its initial public offering. At time of writing, its share price implied that it was worth less than eighty million dollars.
Back in the halcyon days of 2015, Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed’s CEO, told Recode’s Peter Kafka that he planned to “fish for eyeballs in other people’s streams”—in particular, Facebook’s. The site’s content, consisting of quizzes and short videos in addition to hard-hitting news stories, seemed perfectly suited for that platform, and, for a time, Peretti’s plan seemed to be working well. But by 2017, BuzzFeed’s revenue growth had reportedly started to slow. Then, in 2018, Facebook made a series of changes to its algorithm that were designed to show users more “personal” content, such as photos and posts from friends, ahead of articles from external publishers. For some news outlets, including Mashable and Mic, the changes meant hardship, and even death. BuzzFeed was not hit quite as hard, but it was hit: according to one estimate from a former staffer, stories that once racked up as many as two hundred thousand visits were now getting a tenth of that. As I wrote in 2019, “Editors at BuzzFeed (and many other places) yoked themselves so tightly to Facebook’s wagon, even after the Zuckerberg empire provided ample evidence it would move the goalposts.”
Despite these problems, Peretti told me, in an interview in 2018, that he was still committed to BuzzFeed News, which he called a “strong brand” that wouldn’t be affected to the same extent by Facebook’s algorithmic changes. “We haven’t de-emphasized news at all,” Peretti told me—though he added that “there’s always a question of what is the rate of growth of news vs. entertainment.” That question was answered over the next few years, as the news division continued to be a drain on BuzzFeed’s balance sheet. In a recent memo announcing the division’s closure, Peretti conceded that he had been “slow to accept that the big platforms wouldn’t provide the distribution or financial support required to support premium, free journalism.” For his part, Smith wrote recently—in his somewhat eerily timed new book, Traffic—that he regrets encouraging Peretti to see news as “a worthy enterprise that shouldn’t solely be evaluated as a business.”
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