Jonah Peretti: "Both Time and BuzzFeed grew by creating irresistible lists"

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on March 6, 2014

From The News Desk

This week BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti published an internal company memo on his Medium account.

It's a 2,224 word diatribe on the future of the company, one that analogizes BuzzFeed to Time Magazine of the 1920s.

Time began as a clipping service in a small office. A group of writers subscribed to a dozen newspapers and summarized the most important stories, rewriting the news in a more digestible format.

BuzzFeed also started as a clipping service in a small office seven years ago. Instead of subscribing to newspapers, we surfed the web (and used technology) to find the most interesting stories and summarized them into a more digestible format. (You can ask Peggy or Scott how it worked in those early days!) Peretti wrote the post because he's "convinced we’re at the start of a new golden age of media" and wanted to tell his underlings "why BuzzFeed will have a big role to play."

It's easy to snort and dismiss such comments as rubbish. It's harder to ignore the irrefutable evidence that BuzzFeed's web traffic proves its dominance over its competitors. With large numbers of netizen eyeballs comes great valuations and advertising dollars.

Furthermore, for the past two years the company has taken its money and power and funneled resources into actual reporting.

Peretti goes on to argue his case rather persuasively.

Of course, both Time magazine and BuzzFeed evolved from our respective early days to become much more ambitious. As Time and BuzzFeed emerged from our respective youths, we both expanded into original reporting, commissioned longform features, and built teams of foreign correspondents. In our case, it only took a few years to go from summarizing web trends in our little Chinatown office to reporting from Syria and the Ukraine with local security, body armor, helmets, and satellite phones. And both Time and BuzzFeed grew by creating irresistible lists such as Time’s “100 Most Influential People” and BuzzFeed’s “42 People You Won’t Believe Actually Exist.”
BuzzFeed has taken big steps to inject actual journalism among the viral quizzes and meme generation. It hired popular Politico reporter Ben Smith as its editor-in-chief, built an investigative wing, hired a long-form editor, and brought on foreign correspondents in Syria, Kiev, and Nairobi.

Peretti made it clear in his internal memo that these efforts are core to BuzzFeed's purpose, and they'll be crucial for the company's success in the long term. He explained that the most established publications were the ones that valued editorial and advertising equally, innovating for new monetization strategies without sacrificing comprehensive news coverage.

Again, he turned to a prestigious landmark publication for an analogy. He compared the fight between The New York Times and the Herald Tribune for dominance in the U.S. market around the start of WWII. The Times won out because it published garment merchant listings on the front page, winning over advertisers. At the same time, when newsprint was rationed during the war the paper cut ads and kept more stories. It struck the perfect balance between editorial values and business sense.

"After the war, the Times emerged as the unparalleled paper with more subscribers, more advertising revenue, and became, by many measures, the leading newspaper in the world," Peretti tells his staff in the memo. "The obvious lesson from this story is that we need to build a great business while remaining true to our readers and editorial mission."

For those of you at home scratching your heads in befuddlement, yes, BuzzFeed has an editorial mission. And it's not "Promote the adoption of many rescue cats." According to a Fast Company interview with BuzzFeed's CTO, the mission is "to make content that people love enough to share."

In theory, shoe-leather reporting could fit that mission statement. Do investigative work and break stories that people love enough to share. But that doesn't mean theory translates to actuality.

As David Holmes reported, the most shared BuzzFeed articles of 2012 were a far cry from the most well-reported ones.  The 45 Most Powerful Images of 2011, their most trafficked story of 2012 (a listicle) got 11,830,049 hits. In contrast, their most trafficked reported story of 2012, Horror Hospital, only got 727,795 hits.

It's not that serious or investigative stories aren't inherently shareable. But BuzzFeed isn't the brand associated with such reporting. It's not where people turn to get their news.

Because BuzzFeed has gotten its fame, traffic, and brand from its funny, viral content, it will be fighting an uphill battle for the public's respect. Peretti and his disciples refuse to admit this battle exists. Whenever they're questioned on it, they respond with some variation of "The BBC has ‘Monty Python,’ ‘The Office’ and ‘Dr. Who,’ but that doesn’t mean it's not a good news organization.” In other words, just because BuzzFeed has listicles doesn't mean people won't turn to it for their breaking news on Syria.

But there's a big difference. When you go to the BBC's website, the homepage is all journalism and you have to click through to find the TV show section. When you go to The New York Times website, news takes precedent and you don't reach the lifestyle features until you hit the bottom. In comparison, when you go to BuzzFeed's homepage the listicles and viral memes overwhelm the page, and the real news authored by BuzzFeed reporters is delegated to a single column.

It also doesn't help the journalism brand factor when BuzzFeed's listicles dabble in real-world reporting and get it wrong.

In October Peretti told Wired, "For us, the truth matters! News needs to be accurate. Cute kittens need to be cute. People get in trouble when they sloppily mix the two. You got to take both seriously!"

But one month later a BuzzFeed author covered the plane feud between two cranky passengers that unfolded over Twitter. It wound up being a hoax, putting BuzzFeed in the spotlight regarding its reporting standards. This wasn't the first time that has happened.

BuzzFeed may be devoting resources to real reporting but that doesn't mean real reporting is core to the company's long-term success. It also doesn't mean the public sees it as a credible news organization. Both those factors may change over time, of course. But at this point it's just wishful thinking on Peretti's part that BuzzFeed is the next Time Magazine.

We'll give Mark Schoofs, head of BuzzFeed’s investigative unit, the last word. In his interview with Digiday discussing BuzzFeed's recent hire of a WSJ data scientist, Schoofs said, “Since [BuzzFeed's] been around for seven years and doing journalism for two, people’s perceptions lag behind reality. There are still people not aware of the full depth of our journalistic enterprise. But their numbers are dwindling every day.”

[image adapted from thinkstock]