Why Does BuzzFeed Invest in Serious Journalism?

Last week Ben Thompson wrote a post entitled why BuzzFeed is the most important news organization in the world. In it, he argues that BuzzFeed is building the thing that will work best in a new world where:

  • There is no limit on the space available for stories

  • The market for “news” is global

  • Individual stories can be accessed without visiting the homepage

In particular, he believes that BuzzFeed’s business model is fundamentally well-aligned with all this. By not relying on banner advertising, but rather embedding advertising as a “native” unit that has to grab people’s interest, they remove the incentive to chase empty page views – those where the user is not satisfied. This, he argues, opens them up to focus on better journalism.

Despite how much I enjoyed the post, however, I felt it raised as many questions as it answered. I’m going to take a crack at answering some of them, and I’d love to hear from any of you that have bright ideas on the others.

Why did old media do the serious stuff?

Ben commented that, due to the natural monopolies arising from capital costs and broad-reach advertising driving financial success:

the editorial side..., freed from the responsibility to directly make money, could instead focus on things like far-flung bureaus, investigative journalism..., and a clear separation between the business and editorial sides of a newspaper

What he didn’t cover was, given that financial success, why old media chose to invest in these things specifically. In particular, I think this question is interesting precisely because it is these investments that are at the very heart of “serious journalism” as we thought of it throughout much of the 20th century in the west.

Photo credits: Jo Bombardo, Flickr

I don’t think it’s an accident that they did these things, I think that these investments can be explained as a combination of:

  1. Part of a strategy to create a high-brow experience and brand – the intangibles that come from everyone knowing that serious grown-ups read your newspaper 

  2. Somewhere between a philanthropic and a power-hungry desire on the part of the owners to create a media empire (note particularly the power that comes from mass-market reporting on politics)

  3. A defensive moat arising from the bundling of all kinds of news into a single publication – each individual reader may be interested in only 10-20%, but each is interested in a different 10-20% (note the similarities with the reasons behind Word and Excel’s feature bloat). The only way to serve a mass-market with a bundle was therefore to cover everything (“all the news that’s fit to print”)

So, Ben didn’t explicitly answer this question for old media, but I think I’ve taken a decent shot at it. Unfortunately, he also didn’t address it for the upstarts, and it’s here that I have a harder time making the argument.

Why is BuzzFeed investing in the serious stuff?

Ben’s post outlines the ways BuzzFeed makes its money in the crazy new media world, but at the moment, pretty much all of that money comes from the lighter-weight sections and topics. He says:

international correspondents, long-running investigations, so on and so forth – flow from the fact that BuzzFeed is building something sustainable

I get how BuzzFeed is making money, but I’m not yet quite clear on why they would necessarily choose to invest it in these things that look like the places old media happened to invest. In particular, some of the reasons old media invested in these areas appear not to apply in the same way:

  1. No one knows what you’re reading online until you share it, so there is less of a broadcast value in reading serious news (or, at least, getting your sports news from a broadsheet which looks like the same thing). When we look at the personal branding elements of the stuff I share, it feels as though it will be a while before my Facebook friends see me share something from BuzzFeed and assume it’s going to be something worthy and highbrow

  2. The power that comes from creating a mass-market media organisation that reports on politics and uncovers scandals with investigative journalism is as great as ever, but

  3. The internet is the great unbundler and there is little evidence that even if some of the same readers who enjoy WTF would enjoy a political expose, they would read it just because it happened to sit on the same domain

Why I’m bullish on BuzzFeed

I think it’s OK that we don’t have all these answers – BuzzFeed is blazing a trail and it’s OK that they don’t know exactly where it leads. The key insight for me was this sentence:

Just as journalists of old didn’t need to worry about making money, just writing stories that they thought important, BuzzFeed’s writers simply need to write stories that people find important enough to share; the learning that results is how they make money

I love the way that learning pervades the whole BuzzFeed organisation. Not only are they taking the lessons from viral listicles and applying them to native advertising, but they are also investing heavily in the technology side to make sure that the CMS keeps evolving to support improved reach for everything they write (the New York Times’ leaked innovation report says: “competitors like Vox and BuzzFeed view innovating with their platforms as a key function”).

So, I’m bullish that BuzzFeed is going to continue to succeed in dramatic fashion at learning and applying those lessons. I’m confident in them blazing a trail in the ways of making money from publishing. Unlike Ben, though, I’m not yet convinced that their investments in serious journalism are anything more than yet another experiment. The most important publisher in the world? Yes – maybe. The most important journalists in the world? Not yet.

I can’t wait to see where the experiment goes, though.

This post forms part of content month on the blog – we think that understanding media trends is a key part of understanding content. Coming up soon is our PPC-whizz Anthony and Outreach Specialist Beverley who’ll be sharing more insights. Sign up to our email list to get these sent straight to your inbox.

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