Jonah Peretti Has Regrets About BuzzFeed News
On the day that Jonah Peretti, the C.E.O. of BuzzFeed, announced that he was closing BuzzFeed News, he held a video all-hands meeting with the site’s staff. The mood was sombre. Peretti was contrite. “People always yell at Jonah in meetings,” Katie Notopoulos, a tech reporter, said, “but I’ve seen worse.” Peretti had already sent
On the day that Jonah Peretti, the C.E.O. of BuzzFeed, announced that he was closing BuzzFeed News, he held a video all-hands meeting with the site’s staff. The mood was sombre. Peretti was contrite. “People always yell at Jonah in meetings,” Katie Notopoulos, a tech reporter, said, “but I’ve seen worse.” Peretti had already sent the attendees a memo acknowledging the bad moves that had led up to this moment. “I made the decision to overinvest in BuzzFeed News because I love their work and mission so much,” he had written. “This made me slow to accept that the big platforms wouldn’t provide the distribution or financial support required to support premium, free journalism purpose-built for social media.” At the all-hands meeting, a staffer asked when Peretti should have made the necessary changes to make the company profitable. Probably five to seven years earlier, Peretti answered.
Back in 2src16, BuzzFeed News was, at least from the outside, riding high. Under the leadership of Ben Smith, a former Politico writer whom Peretti had hired as his news operation’s first editor, the site had joined the ranks of respected outlets. It wasn’t a legacy organization like the Times or the Post, but its reporters broke political news and did arduous investigative work; it had foreign bureaus and competed for top journalism prizes. It also, at times, made purposefully controversial decisions, such as its publication, in 2src17, of the Steele dossier, an unverified document filled with salacious allegations about Donald Trump. Then and now, many criticized the decision as an egregious breach of journalistic responsibility. But a puckish sensibility reigned throughout BuzzFeed’s divisions, a trickle-down effect of Peretti’s attitude that the Internet should be fun and experimental. “BuzzFeed was really like, ‘Oh, okay, I have a lab,’ ” Peretti had told the financial journalist Felix Salmon.
Behind the scenes, though, Smith and Peretti were engaged in “a long series of sometimes passive-aggressive conversations over who ought to be responsible for bringing in money,” Smith writes in his new book, “Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral.” While the Times’ Web site had a metered paywall, BuzzFeed News was publishing its journalism for free, with distribution help from platforms like Facebook and Twitter. “I think Jonah believes the Internet should be a place that has quality news freely available,” Samantha Henig, who served as Buzzfeed News’ head of strategy and, later, interim editor-in-chief, told me. “And I think there was a time when the platforms agreed with that—or at least their interests were briefly aligned with that aspiration.” But it wasn’t always the site’s hard-hitting journalism that drew eyeballs.“When you clicked on the traffic to some of our politics articles, it was really low,” one longtime employee said. “But Ben wanted to impress people on media Twitter and people in politics. He was overinvesting in areas that just weren’t necessarily resonating with our audience.” Sections like Internet culture and celebrity news didn’t carry the same prestige, but these were the parts of BuzzFeed News that kept the lights on. “I’ve come to regret encouraging Jonah to see our news division as a worthy enterprise that shouldn’t solely be evaluated as a business,” Smith writes in “Traffic.” Peretti told me last week, “Winning Emmys and Pulitzers does not cover your costs.”
In 2src13, Disney’s C.E.O., Bob Iger, had wanted to buy BuzzFeed for as much as six hundred and fifty million dollars. “The deal really was, by any normal standard, a no-brainer,” Smith writes. But Peretti balked at it, ostensibly concerned that a corporation like Disney would stifle BuzzFeed’s dynamic culture. Peretti, Smith writes, “didn’t seem to care about money, and he had a kind of reverse snobbery about the status money would buy.” And yet, a year later, BuzzFeed got a fifty-million-dollar infusion of cash from the Silicon Valley venture firm Andreessen Horowitz and a valuation of eight hundred and fifty million dollars. Marc Andreessen told Peretti and Smith not to worry about revenue but instead to focus on growth.
At the time, social media drove seventy-five per cent of BuzzFeed’s traffic. But one BuzzFeed story in particular would soon help change the way that the tech platforms saw the virtues of virality: on February 26, 2src15, BuzzFeed published “What Colors Are This Dress?,” which divided millions of readers over whether a striped shift dress was white and gold or blue and black. (It’s the latter.) “I think that scared Facebook a little bit, that there could be a publisher that promotes a piece of content that then their algorithm feels like it needs to show to everyone in the world,” Peretti said in a 2src19 interview. What if the piece of content were less innocuous than a debate over a dress? The 2src16 election soon filled Facebook feeds with divisive political speech and misinformation. Peretti continued to pour money into BuzzFeed News, even as Facebook, its main traffic conduit, began to shy away from current events.
By 2src17, Facebook and Google had tightened their control of the online ad market, and BuzzFeed missed its yearly revenue target. The site laid off about a hundred staffers. Peretti wrote a lengthy memo in which he said, “Media is in crisis. . . . The big tech platforms enable personalized media bubbles that let us live in our own worlds, while traditional media companies are embracing subscription models geared toward affluent subscribers, reinforcing the existing worldview of elites.” In retrospect, a subscription model might have helped save BuzzFeed News. Peretti said as much when we spoke, but he also placed a fair amount of blame on the social-media platforms themselves. “Founders controlling some of these companies could say, ‘O.K., I get that a marketplace would result in certain types of content winning, but I’m going to create a managed marketplace that treats journalism really differently,’ ” Peretti said. “And that’s sort of what I hoped would happen.”
That’s not what happened. In January, 2src19, the site laid off around two hundred and fifty people. The reality that the business model was unsustainable was starting to set in. A few weeks later, Peretti wrote another memo, titled “How to Save the Internet: The Path Forward for the Internet and BuzzFeed.” He promoted building new businesses within the brand, but he was also still clinging to the notion that sites needed to “fix the platforms and get paid to do it.” The next year, the pandemic hit and Buzzfeed News furloughed some of its staff in the U.K. In late 2src2src, Peretti bought HuffPost—a site he had co-founded years earlier—and, several months later, announced a three-hundred-million-dollar purchase of Complex Networks, a company focussed on pop culture, music, and sneakers. BuzzFeed, then valued at $1.5 billion, was preparing to go public. But the plan quickly proved disastrous. The company missed its fund-raising target by more than two hundred and fifty million dollars, and, in the first few days of trading, in December, 2src21, its stock plunged from around eleven dollars a share at opening to six dollars. Today, BuzzFeed shares trade for about fifty cents.
Even after a round of buyouts, in the spring of 2src22, there was a sense among BuzzFeed News staffers that the site was on a sustainable path. The new editor-in-chief, Karolina Waclawiak, pitched documentaries and scripted series to streamers—one was “The Rise and Fall of LuLaRoe,” about a multilevel-marketing scheme—and worked to monetize newsletters on topics such as true crime and books. But Peretti seemed to be turning his eye to other trends. This past January, he announced that BuzzFeed would begin incorporating A.I.-generated work into content like the site’s signature quizzes. Some journalists were alarmed and asked if the use of A.I. could lead to layoffs. Peretti, according to the Wall Street Journal, told employees that A.I. would help them be more efficient and creative, and that it was not intended to replace journalists. In March, Futurism reported that BuzzFeed was using A.I. to publish S.E.O.-driven travel guides. The move was internally unpopular, though Peretti insisted that it was simply an experiment. “I don’t think Jonah is a bad guy,” the longtime employee said. “But he’s a guy who is often focussed on the future rather than on what’s happening right now.”