In an interview with the Financial Times, Jonah Peretti, the founder of BuzzFeed, offers a confession: news just isn’t as gosh-darn profitable as he had hoped it would be. Peretti has taken an axe to his respected news division, BuzzFeed News, and promises not to do it again.
“I feel like I learned from that mistake … you need to have more financial discipline in the short term to make sure you’re growing in a sustainable way,” he tells reporter Anna Nicolaou.
But as Josh Marshall, the publisher of Talking Points Memo, noted several months ago, there’s never going to be enough money in journalism if you’re relying on venture capital, as Peretti did, or on going public, as he’s doing now. The solution is a slow expansion, most likely built on reader revenue. That’s never been Peretti’s style.
Unfortunately, what Peretti doesn’t say in his FT interview is that he could use revenue from BuzzFeed, the viral site best known for cat videos and listicles, in order to subsidize a first-class news operation. Because for people like Peretti, it’s all about the bottom line — as he showed in April, when he acquired HuffPost and started gutting it.
Maybe BuzzFeed will save The Huffington Post. Frankly, though, it feels more like the end than a new beginning. Who has given much thought to HuffPost in recent years? Even with a sharp editor, Lydia Polgreen, at the top until recently, the site hasn’t seemed relevant for a long time.
So what happened? Your guess is as good as mine. But I’d argue that HuffPost was built on three pillars, and all of them are gone:
• Unpaid contributions. For a long time, HuffPost was a blogging platform as much as it was a publisher. The site took a lot of heat for not paying its writers, but I always thought that critics were making a category error. If you’re going to blog and not get paid for it, why not do it at a site where you’re more likely to be seen rather than on your own?
Maybe eight or so years ago, when I was between paid column-writing gigs, I wrote a few free pieces for HuffPost just to keep my hand in. There was a huge variety of contributions to HuffPost, some great, some terrible. They gave the site a vibrancy that it has lacked ever since such content was discontinued.
• Abusive aggregation. The Huffington Post originally made its mark with extremely aggressive aggregation — it would, for example, summarize a 5,000-word investigative piece published by another news organization in so much detail that you really didn’t need to click through to the original. As Jeff Bezos lamented shortly after announcing he would buy The Washington Post, HuffPost could rewrite a story “in 17 minutes” that had taken the originating media outlet weeks or months to report and write.
Over time, HuffPost’s approach to aggregation became more conservative even as it added more original reporting. That may have been the ethical thing to do, but I’m sure it cost them a substantial part of their audience.
• Social over search. HuffPost absolutely nailed search back when that mattered above all else. Remember the infamous “What time does the Superbowl start?” headline, which the rest of the internet reacted to with a mixture of rage and awe?
Well, search-engine optimization has long since given way to social-media engagement as the metric that really matters. And BuzzFeed perfected the latter, which is why it’s the senior partner in this particular deal. What the two sites have in common is BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti, who helped HuffPost master SEO before founding BuzzFeed and embracing social.
All of this is why I’m not particularly optimistic about HuffPost staging a comeback. It was hugely influential for about a half-dozen years after Arianna Huffington launched it in 2005. But it was a creature of its time, and that time may have expired.
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It’s easy to imagine how Jill Abramson’s new book might have turned out differently. In “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts,” the veteran journalist follows the fortunes of four media organizations. BuzzFeed and Vice are young, energetic, willing to break rules and try new things. The New York Times and The Washington Post are stodgy, sclerotic giants trying to grope their way toward a digital future. We all know how that’s going to turn out. Right?
Well, something unexpected happened on the way to the old-media boneyard. Within the past couple of years BuzzFeed and Vice, which had made strides toward becoming major players, fell short of revenue projections and had to cut back on their ambitions. This was owing partly to hubris, partly because Google and Facebook were hoovering up every digital advertising dollar in sight.
Meanwhile the Times and the Post — the latter supercharged by its mega-wealthy owner, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — moved toward economic viability by rethinking coverage and convincing a generation of readers brought up on free online content that quality news was worth paying for, particularly in the age of Trump.
Abramson, a former executive editor of the Times who now teaches at Harvard, has written a big, ambitious chronicle of the past decade. Her method involves a series of revolving chapters that examine the ups and downs of each organization in turn, as well as a chapter on Facebook. (Disclosure: In her bibliography Abramson cites two of my books and an academic paper I wrote.)
Some have criticized Abramson for favoring the legacy newspapers over the digital start-ups. There may be something to that. She goes into great detail about BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti’s research-driven pursuit of clicks and viral content and about Vice’s culture of alcohol, drugs, and sexual harassment. Vice founder Shane Smith comes off as a shambling egomaniac, although later in the book he is depicted as trying to clean up his act.
But those sections strike me as warranted and fair. After all, BuzzFeed was built on a foundation of cat videos and listicles, and Vice’s chaotic, testosterone-fueled internal culture is surely relevant. Besides, Abramson is generous in acknowledging the importance of their best journalism, including Craig Silverman’s groundbreaking work for BuzzFeed on fake news and Elle Reeve’s mini-documentary for Vice about the deadly neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville, Va.
The chapters on the Times and the Post cover ground that will be familiar to many media observers. Abramson traces the Post’s decline during the last few years of Graham family stewardship and its revival under Bezos. The Times’s journey was more harrowing — bailed out by the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, forced to sell its gleaming new headquarters, and casting off its non-Times properties, including The Boston Globe. Abramson criticizes both newspapers for smudging the line that had traditionally separated news from business operations, a line that she observes doesn’t even exist at BuzzFeed or Vice. Mostly, though, she praises the Times’s and the Post’s reinvention efforts.
In the most awkward section of the book, Abramson deals with her 2014 firing as executive editor of the Times. She uses the occasion to do some score-settling against the then-publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., and her successor, Dean Baquet. But her account strikes me as fundamentally honest and reflective, as she blames her demise on a combination of sexism and her own shortcomings as a manager.
“Merchants of Truth’’ spawned controversy even before the book was published.
First, Howard Kurtz of Fox News reported that Abramson had criticized the Times for liberal bias. And yes, Abramson writes, “Given its mostly liberal audience, there was an implicit financial reward for the Times in running lots of Trump stories, almost all of them negative.” But it’s not quite that simple. For instance, she lauds both the Times’s and the Post’s tough coverage of the Trump administration, reserving especially fulsome praise for her former employer: “The depth and intensity of the coverage was masterful. On most days it outshone the Post’s. The news report as a whole had never been stronger.” By leaving out that context, Kurtz created a misleading impression.
More problematic were revelations of errors in the uncorrected galleys. Vice reporter Arielle Duhaime-Ross complained that Abramson had made multiple mistakes about her, including her gender identity. Danny Gold of the “PBS NewsHour” tweeted that Abramson’s description of his past reporting for Vice about Ebola in Liberia included “a straight up lie.” Errors in galleys are common, but they generally involve typos and spelling mistakes. And not all of the problems were addressed in the final version of the book.
Inaccuracies notwithstanding, “Merchants of Truth” is a valuable and insightful survey. It ends on an optimistic note, with one caveat: Abramson acknowledges that the relative good fortune of the four media organizations she profiles stands in contrast to the implosion of journalism at the local level. The media scene Abramson describes remains in turmoil. Witness the deep cuts at BuzzFeed that took place late last month. Whether journalism will outlive the wobbling vessels in which it is carried remains a fundamental question for the future of democracy.
Last night on “Beat the Press” (above) we took on the BuzzFeed News blockbuster and talked about how much credence the media should give to a story that they hadn’t independently verified. Among other things, I said that BuzzFeed News has a good reputation and that it has owned the Trump Tower story. I’ll stand by that.
Then, a few hours later, the office of special counsel Robert Mueller denied the story, which claimed that President Trump had personally directed his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress under oath about plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. The Washington Post’s account is brutal:
Inside the Justice Department, the statement was viewed as a huge step, and one that would have been taken only if the special counsel’s office viewed the story as almost entirely incorrect. The special counsel’s office seemed to be disputing every aspect of the story that addressed comments or evidence given to its investigators.
BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith said that he stands behind the story.
In response to the statement tonight from the Special Counsel's spokesman: We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he's disputing.
First, this reminds me of James Comey, shortly after he’d been fired as FBI director, testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee and claiming that The New York Times had gotten an important Trump-Russia story wrong. Comey offered no specifics, and we still don’t know what he was referring to. Likewise, Mueller’s spokesman did not say what BuzzFeed News had gotten wrong — other than “every aspect,” as the Post suggests.
Second, there’s been some well-informed speculation by Josh Marshall (sub. req.) and others that BuzzFeed’s sources are in the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, not the special counsel’s office. National security blogger Marcy Wheeler believes that BuzzFeed “unnecessarily overhyped the uniqueness of Trump’s role in these lies,” and that Mueller issued his statement in order to take the temperature down and keep his investigation on track.
Third, BuzzFeed News does, in fact, have a good reputation. Smith is a fine editor. As you may have heard, one of the two reporters on the story, Jason Leopold, was caught in several ethical lapses earlier in his career, and it’s not unfair to take that into account. But there have been no reported problems since 2006, and in 2018 he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. The other reporter, Anthony Cormier, won a Pulitzer in 2016 when he was at the Tampa Bay Times.
Smith, Leopold and Cormier knew what the stakes were before this story was published. I would imagine that even BuzzFeed chief executive Jonah Peretti was involved in the decision to hit “publish.” There may turn out to be some significant problems with the story. But unless we see evidence to the contrary, I think it’s likely that everyone involved satisfied themselves that they had the goods. Did they? I hope we’ll find out.
Rudolph Giuliani tells @CNNSotu that Trump may indeed have spoken to Michael Cohen about his congressional testimony beforehand. "And so what if he talked to him about it?" Denies Trump told Cohen to lie.