Pando

Shockingly, original journalism didn't save Reddit

By Sarah Lacy , written on July 25, 2016

From The Disruption Desk

When the hope is “original journalism” can save you, you know this isn’t going to end well.

And, Alexis Ohanian’s plan to make Reddit into a respectable, highly valued media company is not going well. TechCrunch reported last week on general turmoil and a handful of layoffs at the massively trafficked site, that has an even bigger problem than Twitter in terms of trolls and bullying on many of its sub Reddits. Not a shock, a lot of those departures are women and minorities.

In the TechCrunch piece, one source compared working at Reddit like staying with “an abusive boyfriend.”

What is more surprising is that the investors, returning founder and new management thought a bandaid of content would be the answer to everything that has long kept Reddit from becoming a mainstream media company.

From TechCrunch:

As Ohanian told Inc. during Upvoted’s launch, he saw the expansion into media as an opportunity to turn Reddit into a content goldmine. He noticed news sites cherry-picking content from Reddit and wanted in on the action.

“There are so many media companies that are so good at harvesting that content,” Ohanian told Inc. “What I want to do is allow those stories — and the story behind their story — to be told by the people who are actually responsible for them.” 

Clearly, he means Buzzfeed, a site that was early on criticized for doing little more than copying Reddit.

But while Buzzfeed and Reddit may share some similar inspiring photos that can be put together into a link bait post, both sites also contain way more than just that. Buzzfeed also does stellar original journalism in politics and business and technology; Reddit is meanwhile also home to a lot of dark corners of the Internet.

Let’s pretend for a moment that content is an easy business or has ever been described as a “goldmine” -- the context around that content still matters greatly. It reminds me of how Sam Yagan described Match.com’s various dating sites. You can think of them as competitive. But Yagan’s analogy was that it was like one company owning lots of different bars. They all sell the same product-- alcohol-- but the context is what people are paying for. People who will go in one spot to have a beer, won’t go to another one.  

Even if you assume that Buzzfeed was only about those repackaged Reddit posts that characterized the site in its early days, and even if you assume Buzzfeed added none of its own value to them, there’s still the atmosphere of both sites. And Buzzfeed has always been about positivity. Reddit is a place where its former CEO was abused out of her job. The community took over, forcing her to reverse her own decisions. That’s an untenable culture of users and of a company.

As I wrote then, those behind Reddit would do well to accept that not every large site on the Web is destined to be a large company. From my piece:

I am not a Reddit power user. Or even a moderate Reddit user. What I do know is this: Reddit is a weird beast. A weirder beast than Twitter, and that’s saying something. It should have been left the fuck alone.

Reddit was a crazy comeback story which directly benefited from the implosion of Digg as the latter sought to become a mainstream advertising business. Digg always struggled with the dilemma of whether or not it should cave to a vocal minority or not. I’ve argued in the past that they did it too much, while Mark Zuckerberg early on set a precedent that he wasn’t gonna cave to user criticism of the News feed just because some people found it “creepy.”

Reddit doesn’t have the luxury of making any of those decisions on behalf of users. You can’t change communities midstream because you now want to build a scalable ad business with no hate speech.

The problem is not how you scale community generally. It’s how you scale your community. And some just can’t be “scaled.” Sure, they might scale in how they grow users. But “scaling” in the venture sense of growing revenue and valuation is another matter. 

And if content is going to be your savior… well, take it from someone who has worked for and tried to build content companies all her life, that’s like tying an anchor to your waist and hoping it makes you airborne. It’s not that you can’t build a great content company. But pretty much everything has to go right and you need a decade or more to do it.  

It’s certainly not some easy fix to a deeply broken company.