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April 20, 2023, 2:58 p.m.
Business Models

A history of BuzzFeed News, Part I: 2011–2017

“BuzzFeed is the most important news organization in the world.”

A little over a decade after BuzzFeed News came to life, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti’s willingness to run a prestigious but money-losing news division has run out.

In a memo to staff on Thursday, Peretti announced that BuzzFeed News would be shut down entirely, amid broader layoffs at the company. From now on, “we will have a single news brand in HuffPost, which is profitable,” Peretti wrote. As of Thursday afternoon, BuzzFeed stock was trading below $1 a share.

We’ve chronicled the ups and downs of BuzzFeed News since 2011, when the company hired a blogger named Ben Smith. Here’s part I of its history, from 2011 to 2017. (And here’s Part II.)

• 2011 •
11
December
BuzzFeed’s reported news age begins when the company, “in a move sure to surprise the political and journalistic classes,” announces a new hire: Ben Smith. He will do “reported blogging” and hire and edit reporters — a dozen to start. “The reporters will be scoop generators,” Peretti tells The New York Times’ Brian Stelter, and “by breaking scoops and drawing attention,” they will increase traffic and ad sales. “Great reporting and scoops will speak for themselves,” Smith tells Nieman Lab.
• 2012 •
2
January
Ben Smith: “I think we’re a competitive news organization. We’re going to cover the hell out of politics.”
• 2012 •
4
January
On BuzzFeed, Ben Smith breaks the news that John McCain will endorse Mitt Romney in the 2012 primary.
• 2012 •
9
January
BuzzFeed raises $15.5 million. Peretti tells TechCrunch, “The biggest shift for us is refocusing under Ben [Smith] as an organization that does real reporting and original content.”
• 2012 •
5
February
David Carr in The New York Times:

BuzzFeed is growing some serious news muscles under a silly, frilly skin, and added the header “2012” for election coverage. (More traditional news verticals will be rolled out in the coming months.) It’s gone well so far, with comScore showing 10.8 million unique visitors in December, more than double that of the same month in 2010…

It’s fun to watch them make all these hires,” said Choire Sicha, the founder of The Awl site and a veteran of the New York Web scene. “But it’s important that they don’t overspend. Web ad rates are what they are and that isn’t going to change.”

• 2012 •
26
April
Gawker’s Nick Denton:

Peretti’s craving for the quick viral fix will not be satisfied by the nourishing fare put out by prestige hires like Doree Shafrir and Matt Buchanan. Either before or after acquisition, Buzzfeed will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.

• 2012 •
26
July
BuzzFeed hires Jessica Testa as its breaking news editor. Smith tells Nieman Lab: “I feel in general the 800-1,200 word form of the news article is broken. You don’t see people sharing those kind of stories.”
• 2012 •
21
March
• 2012 •
18
June
BuzzFeed and The New York Times announce that they will collaborate around politics videos. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple:

Does that mean that we may see BuzzFeed’s Zeke Miller alongside, say, the New York Times’s David Leonhardt, chatting about Mitt Romney’s vice presidential selection? Yes, among other enticing combos, says Smith.

• 2013 •
21
October
The New York Times reports:

BuzzFeed, the media Web site focused on viral content, announced on Monday that it was again expanding its reporting staff, this time to introduce an investigative unit. A new team of about half a dozen reporters will be led by Mark Schoofs, who was hired away from the nonprofit investigative service ProPublica…[BuzzFeed] now has a news team of roughly 130 journalists.

• 2013 •
10
June
BuzzFeed hires The Guardian’s Miriam Elder to expand into foreign coverage. Elder: “BuzzFeed is the ideal outlet to deliver foreign news coverage in all its heft, fluidity and, at times, absurdity.” Nieman Lab later reports:

Elder would like to hire more issues-based, global reporters — perhaps one focused on global corruption — but for the rest of 2013, she’s focused on hiring a national security reporter in D.C. and a deputy foreign editor to be based out of BuzzFeed’s new bureau in London. (BuzzFeed also has a bureau in Australia, as well as content made in New York for audiences in Paris and Brazil, all of which functions separately from the foreign desk.) After that, she’d like to dispatch correspondents to Latin America and Asia, especially China.

• 2014 •
4
February
BuzzFeed releases its style guide. It’s been updated over the years, but from the time: “BuzzFeed publishes news and entertainment in the language of the web, and in our work we rely on a style guide to govern everything from hard-hitting journalism to fun quizzes.”
• 2014 •
28
February
Ben Smith gives a talk at the Nieman Foundation:

“Our DNA is as a tech company. There is a fantasy, and now a reality for places like Twitter, that you could create a media company, and hire no editorial staff and just make tons of money, because you wouldn’t have to pay anyone. That’s always the Silicon Valley fantasy, and sometimes reality.”

• 2014 •
15
May
BuzzFeed obtains and publishes a copy of The New York Times innovation report.
• 2014 •
11
June
BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti tells Felix Salmon:

“We see with our longform stories that, in some cases, the sheer length and rigor of a piece will make the piece have a bigger impact. Just the fact that it’s 6,000 words or 12,000 words.”

• 2014 •
31
July
BuzzFeed is building a new news app. Ben Smith tells Nieman Lab:

“There’s also, we think, people who want to have an app that’s primarily about telling them what’s going on in the world and what the big stories are. We felt like it made sense, given that we have this really strong news organization now, to really take advantage of that and build one.”

• 2014 •
11
August
BuzzFeed raises $50 million in new venture funding at a valuation of $850 million. Peretti: “As we grow, how can we maintain a culture that can still be entrepreneurial What if a Hollywood studio or a news organization was run like a startup?”

News also gets its own category on BuzzFeed’s homepage.

In a now-deleted tweet, Gawker founding editor Elizabeth Spiers remarks on “That Awful Moment When You Realize That Despite Sinking Millions Into Your CMS+Comments+Discovery Algos, You’re Still A Media Company.”

• 2014 •
17
October
BuzzFeed hires Stacy-Marie Ishmael away from The Financial Times as the editorial lead for its news app. “Smith says he expects Ishmael will hire somewhere around seven or eight journalists to work on the app, some of whom will be internationally located in order to allow for 24/7 coverage.”
• 2014 •
13
November
BuzzFeed deputy editor-in-chief Shani O. Hilton speaks at the Nieman Foundation:

“I think the thing that we’ve learned is that things conventionally you think you should have, like a sports desk, don’t necessarily make sense. We ended blowing that up a little bit and changing the structure of it, because you realize that, with sports, there’s not a thing that’s called ‘sports.’ There’s baseball, there’s soccer, there’s track, and there’s the Olympics, and all these other things. There’s not someone saying, ‘I want sports content.’ We think there is because that’s what newspapers do, but newspapers also focus in on particular teams.

We transitioned to having people who do what we call ‘buzz’ around teams, for example, instead of just doing this sport thing that happened today, because there’s no way we can cover all of it. Then we have one writer who just focuses on telling really long, winding sports stories, Joel Anderson, who wrote a story about Michael Sam, the first out gay football player who just got cut from the Cowboys. Then we were like, ‘We do actually need somebody to cover big sports events, so let’s just put a person on our breaking news desk.'”

• 2015 •
26
February
• 2015 •
3
March
Stratechery’s Ben Thompson:

“The world needs great journalism, but great journalism needs a great business model. That’s exactly what BuzzFeed seems to have, and it’s for that reason the company is the most important news organization in the world.”

• 2015 •
17
March
Nieman Lab visits BuzzFeed UK.

“The staff for the U.K. site now totals about 50 across all departments. It has an editorial staff of 35, though Lewis said he plans to grow the editorial staff alone to about 50 this year. Throughout 2013, Buzzfeed U.K. focused on what it calls Buzz, the lists and quizzes most identifiable with the site. But last year it began to scale up its reporting teams, including a five-person political staff led by deputy editor Jim Waterson, who interviewed Cameron on Monday. BuzzFeed U.K. also last year hired noted investigative reporter Heidi Blake to lead a three-person investigative team.

• 2015 •
23
March
The New York Times reports that Facebook “has been quietly holding talks with at least half a dozen media companies about hosting their content inside Facebook rather than making users tap a link to go to an external site…The initial partners are expected to be The New York Times, BuzzFeed and National Geographic.” At this point, BuzzFeed is getting 75% of its traffic from social.
• 2015 •
8
June
BuzzFeed’s news app launches for iPhone. Nieman Lab:

The focus on providing context has been a major talking point for BuzzFeed as its developed the app. Aside from adding background information in the main stream of the app, it has focused on contextualizing its push notifications as well.

• 2015 •
16
June
BuzzFeed UK hires Janine Gibson, a former senior editor at The Guardian, as its editor-in-chief. The New York Times reports that Gibson will “oversee an expansion of BuzzFeed’s news staff in Britain, adding more than a dozen employees to a newsroom that now has about 45.”
• 2015 •
18
August
BuzzFeed is valued at $1.5 billion, nearly double its valuation the previous year.
• 2015 •
23
September

BuzzFeed UK is “looking for reporters based in the north of England, Scotland and Wales, who have experience working on hard-hitting news stories and features that pop.”

• 2015 •
23
October
Peretti in a memo to employees:

We don’t have an existing model to copy, because we are building something that has never existed before and wasn’t even possible before social networks and smartphones became the primary way people consume news and entertainment around the world…We see a news story like artists reacting to the Syrian crisis originally by a reporter in our London office or a first-person essay about taking in Syrian refugees originally written in German from one of our Berlin reporters viewed over 3 million times because of translations to five languages.

• 2016 •
15
February
Ben Mullin writes about BuzzFeed’s investigative reporting team, which now includes 20 journalists across the U.S. and U.K., and its impact:

Campbell’s first major story for BuzzFeed News, a look at battered women imprisoned for failing to protect their children from their abusive partners, was a finalist for the Kelly Award. Arlena Lindley, who was imprisoned for 45 years for failing to protect her son, was granted parole in January after being featured prominently in Campbell’s article.

Other high-impact stories have followed: After the BBC and BuzzFeed News co-published an investigation into match-fixing in the upper echelons of tennis, the sport’s major associations launched an independent review of its anti-corruption program. An examination of the for-profit foster care company National Mentor Holdings triggered a U.S. Senate investigation. And a story that revealed inequities in the U.S. guest worker program led to a congressional outcry and earned BuzzFeed a National Magazine Award earlier this month.

• 2016 •
16
February
Fast Company declares BuzzFeed the most innovative company of 2016, kicking off a week of coverage. The company says Buzzfeed.com now has 80 million U.S. visitors per month and gets 5 billion monthly views across all the platforms where it publishes content, with half of those coming from video. BuzzFeed now employs 1,200 people worldwide.
• 2016 •
12
April
The Financial Times reports that BuzzFeed missed its revenue targets for 2015 by 32% and has halved its 2016 revenue target. The company denies this but won’t release its own numbers. (Also: “A video stream of two BuzzFeed staff wrapping rubber bands around a watermelon until it exploded was streamed live by 800,000 people last week.”)
• 2016 •
28
June
BuzzFeed Canada closes its two-person Ottawa bureau, “in a move that suggests there are cracks in the social news company’s plan to expand its reporting capabilities outside the United States.”
• 2016 •
23
August
BuzzFeed splits into two divisions: One focused on entertainment, the other on news (and both with plenty of video, natch). Smith will oversee the news division, “which will now include all of [BuzzFeed’s] health reporters, foreign correspondents, its other beat reporters, the breaking news team, and its investigations team” as well as — again — video news. Some wonder if the move foreshadows a plan for BuzzFeed to ultimately spin off its news division entirely.
• 2016 •
21
November
BuzzFeed raises another $200 million from NBCUniversal at a valuation of $1.5 billion.
• 2017 •
29
March
BuzzFeed plans to go public. Peretti talks about breaking news:

“So the Boston bombings happens, and immediately all of the most popular content on the site is hard news. Then there’s a slow news week, and the most popular content is lists or quizzes or entertainment, or fun content. When there’s huge news breaking, it becomes the biggest thing. But most of the time, it’s not the biggest thing.”

Photo of BuzzFeed News in New York City in 2015 by Anthony Quintano used under a Creative Commons license.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (laura_owen@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     April 20, 2023, 2:58 p.m.
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