11:45 am Feb. 14, 2012
In all the conversation about BuzzFeed, two questions and answers get repeated over and over again. But I don't think the answers have been quite right—for a mixture of reasons, probably.
Founder Jonah Peretti and editor Ben Smith, as any reporter who has worked with or interviewed them will tell you, are smart, and great interviews. One has the sense in their answers of trying very hard to answer fully while observing the constraints that ethics and their own business' health lay down on the sidelines.
For one thing, I believe them when they tell interviewers that they are experimenting, and that in part they don't know their entire strategy. For another, Smith (a former colleague of mine) has told interviewers himself that it's not strategic to reveal everything about their plan, when there are rich competitors who could be taught the very concept BuzzFeed hopes to test on the web.
So all of that is fair enough. What I've put together here is a speculative post about the Two Questions for BuzzFeed that, I think, still haven't been answered to most regular people's satisfaction. I've added, a little bit obnoxiously, what I think the "real" answer is, though these are, of course, my answers and not theirs, and also my characterizations of the oft-repeated questions and answers we've already read.
Frequently asked question:
Why do you think these apparently disanalogous types of content—cat pictures and election news—belong on the same site?
Because increasingly breaking news is becoming part of what people like to share on the web, in addition to cat pictures. In fact, many of the same individuals' shares on Facebook and Twitter reflect precisely these two categories.
1. Because they're not finished yet: The election is time-sensitive and had to come first; Ben Smith is the best editor for the whole site and it's the specialty he could get off the ground quickly. Since he came on board and launched the site's 2012 election coverage, the hires have made clear that they are "defragging" the content mix: The excellent Doree Shafrir, who has worked at Gawker, The New York Observer and Rolling Stone (and is another former colleague of mine), is coming in as "culture news editor," for example.
2. Because ultimately news websites not fundamentally oriented to being shared as the main goal of their business models will become less and less capable of dominating the denominator on Facebook. (That is not to say that they must shift their main goal: The Times is likely fine the way it is. It just means that there is an opportunity for someone: the chance of becoming the source of, say, 50 percent of 25 percent of Facebook users' shared links, without having to be a big legacy media brand.)
The position of "Feeder of Record" for a large denominator of Facebook feeds is still wide open. It will converge somewhere—but where?
Frequently asked question:
Are you competing with The Huffington Post?
No, our business models are different. They hope to gain as much traffic as possible from search; we are oriented toward social networks. Plus it'd be awkward. Ken Lerer and Jonah Peretti were both in the founding team of The Huffington Post.
Yes. There is a competitive space opening up right now, and it's one The Huffington Post and a few of the other "big guys" are used to dominating. There are two factors contributing to it:
1. Reputation matters to Arianna Huffington. At The Huffington Post, the charge that they were a lowbrow aggregator, home to homey hometown-style columnists who couldn't write and page-view sluts, overtook the simple fact of the massive amount of traffic the site was getting. Huffington could hope for more traffic but that's reaching the point of diminishing returns, for her purposes; the site was not making her a quality-media mogul. It was time to use some of the profits to create a front window full of "important" original reporting, and in the short term to show she was on a level with people like (now former) New York Times executive editor Bill Keller by successfully hiring people away from him.
But this will ultimately drag on the business model. Neither AOL nor The Huffington Post was built to accommodate loss-leaders. In terms of quantity the vast majority of The Huffington Post's page views are still generated by the same old stuff. The fact that the site is becoming a fairly competent player in the real news cycle would be good news if The Huffington Post could monetize it at the same level that they monetize their much cheaper content.
BuzzFeed is, yes, also bringing original reporting to its site. But it is not attempting to compete with anybody. Smith has said that the news part of the site will focus on scoops—things only they have. But by "scoops" I don't think he really means precisely what the traditional journalism world has meant. It's a scoop in a lot of ways to create a graph that maps President Barack Obama's popularity against the ups and downs of the economy, and overlay it on the same statistics from this point in presidency of Ronald Reagan.
In a lot of ways by "scoops" what we really mean is "fast enterprise." In traditional journalism, enterprise was always discretionary stuff: news you made, either by investigating it yourself or by synthetically putting together reporting or research with an idea or take that had a chance of redirecting the reporting and conversation in the future. But traditional newspapers also had to be one-stop shops: Publish only enterprise stuff and you become marginalized, because you're not talking about the same things your readers are talking about; you're not meeting them in the middle. The social web reduces the need to make that compromise—but only so much.
Make no mistake: BuzzFeed will get to its next level by focusing on "scoops," especially ones in trending topics and presented in imminently shareable forms (photos, slideshows, graphs, compilation posts, short genuine news-breaks like the early one about McCain endorsing Romney, etc.). But past the horizon of the current business model there surely lies the promise of a more all-encompassing vision.
One look at their hires compared to those of The Huffington Post show that they are bringing in aggressive web types with their eye on the ball in terms of traffic—people more analogous to the strategic-level (really, "street-level") editors that ran The Huffington Post before it began its "quality drive" than the kinds of journalists Huffington has been hiring over the last year. These reporters are not meant to be loss-leaders compared to the editors who were already using internal software to find and redistribute viral content (cat pictures) before the "news drive" at BuzzFeed began.
2. The Huffington Post is geared to search; that's fine, but it's not the growth area for the web right now that social is. More importantly, The Huffington Post wants direct traffic: People who use the site as a portal to find all their news. But as we know, the portal model is also in decline, as more and more people have made their Facebook news feed their homepage anyway.
The goal of Buzzfeed is not to make people "bookmark" them in their browser. In some ways, having one's own website, in the Perettian way of looking, is only important at the level of monetization: The models aren't quite there yet for monetizing a 100 percent distributed brand. So in the meantime we have a "website." But the main goal is to rule Facebook, not to rule with its own homepage.
It's about market share. On one end of the wedge, there is an individual's news feed, and their level of attention to it; that's a small place, and there isn't room for a lot of different media organizations to speak to people there. On the other end, the number of people who rely on those feeds to tell them what to view on the web—to use it as not just their main but really their only portal to the wide web—is constantly increasing. Right now is the time to kick everyone else out of there. That, I believe, is what BuzzFeed is being built to do.