Let the dystopian future of media begin
Today, Buzzfeed's CEO Jonah Peretti announced plans to take his cat listicle mega-company public.
The fact that he made this announcement at a conference hosted by a tech blog, which was yesterday acquired by a larger media company that may soon be acquired by a telecommunications firm, is no coincidence. The new media landscape is shaking out fast and the losers are getting absorbed while the big winners are getting bigger -- and more compromised by the platforms, investors, and telecoms that may soon own them -- than ever before.
“We’re very focused on building out internationally, we’re very focused on building out across multiple different platforms, we’re very focused on building out our video business,” Peretti said onstage at CODE, a conference run by Kara Swisher's and Walt Mossberg's Re/Code, a site which is now being absorbed by Vox Media. “That will give us a diversification… to allow us to build a big independent company with much more predictability and things that would allow us to be a public company.”
Rival media companies (although Buzzfeed commits random acts of journalism, its loyalties to sponsors make me balk at calling it a "journalistic organization") have feared Buzzfeed for some time, as it's racked up 200 million unique visitors and one billion video views a month. But perhaps the bigger threat Buzzfeed poses is to ad agencies. Buzzfeed's staff produces much of the advertising that lives on its site itself. That's created some monumental journalistic conflicts which in turn have led the site's editor-in-chief to go so far as to remove posts that criticize advertisers. Like in any high-powered business operation where billions are potentially at stake, Buzzfeed can't afford to worry about ethics or ideals.
Peretti set no timetable for a public offering. But as a dystopian thought experiment, let's imagine the media landscape two years from now: Buzzfeed is public and bigger than ever. In addition to its newfound access to public cash, editor-in-chief Ben Smith has made it clear that despite the fact that his site continues to do some great original reporting and analysis, his loyalties -- if push comes to shove -- lie with advertisers. And so it doesn't take a genius to know why smart advertisers will choose Buzzfeed over, say, the New York Times.
And what will Buzzfeed do with all that cash? Buy everyone. I don't mean other media companies -- that's not its style. Instead it will poach as many journalists, old and young, as it can from rivals. Along with snatching veterans, as fast as a young reporter makes her name at a smaller upstart, Buzzfeed will scoop her up. And who can blame these journalists? For youngsters, Buzzfeed offers an Internet-damaged cultural cachet that many Millennials find irresistible; for veterans, Buzzfeed offers stock options and the increasingly rare competitive salary. And while leaving a more principled news outlet for Buzzfeed may not be the most dignified career move, it beats joining a PR firm.
Meanwhile -- as many have smartly predicted -- Comcast will buy Vox, which along with VICE is the closest new media outlet to Buzzfeed in terms of operating its content verticals as efficiently as its advertising offerings. This trend of one company owning "the wires, the content and the criticism" as Dan Raile put it earlier today, will become the new normal. Every news site that -- unlike Buzzfeed, Vox, and VICE -- has failed to build its own powerful ad platforms will have no choice but to publish its content directly to Facebook as part of the network's Instant Articles feature. Meanwhile, Facebook will merge with, I don't know, AT&T maybe?
At this point, the much fretted-over conflicts of news organizations that raised a little venture money will seem quaint. Every piece of content will be designed to sell something through insidiously slick operations run by a couple duopolistic companies that own both the pipes and the portals and maybe even the devices that serve up this content. And with users more willing than ever to give away their personal data to these mega-firms (because hey, the new omniscient versions of Siri and Google Now are just so convenient) these companies and their algorithms will be capable of predicting and even manipulating our emotions so that brands can juxtapose the perfect ad next to the perfect piece of content, compelling users to buy just about anything on command.
It's not just media that's going to consolidate. It's media and platforms and telecommunications. Coke Vs. Pepsi. McDonalds Vs. Burger King. Voxcast vs. Facebuzz.
"So bend your knees and bow your heads Save your babies, here's your future"
[illustration by Hallie Bateman]