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April 21, 2023, 2:45 p.m.
Business Models

A history of BuzzFeed News, Part II: 2017–2023

“We can’t keep losing money.”

We’ve written about the ups and downs of BuzzFeed News since 2011, when BuzzFeed hired Ben Smith to launch what would become a Pulitzer Prize–winning news organization.

BuzzFeed News’s first few years were a time of global expansion and excitement. This is the era when Stratechery’s Ben Thompson called BuzzFeed “the most important news organization in the world.”

But there were warning signs. In 2017, BuzzFeed was receiving more than 50% of its traffic from platforms — setting it up for trouble when the algorithms changed and social traffic to news sites plummeted. And the public always seemed to have a hard time distinguishing the Pulitzer-winning BuzzFeed *News* from cat-video BuzzFeed.

BuzzFeed, like many other digital publishers, went through multiple rounds of layoffs. When the company went public, its stock price began falling almost immediately, and investors pushed for BuzzFeed News to be eliminated entirely.

“Investors can’t force me to cut news, and the union can’t force me to subsidize news,” CEO Jonah Peretti wrote in an internal memo in spring 2022. But, he added, “We can’t keep losing money.”

Just about a year later, he announced that BuzzFeed News would be shut down.

[Part I: 2011 to 2017]

• 2017 •
10
January
BuzzFeed News publishes a PDF of documents alleging that Trump has deep ties to Russia. The article notes that “the allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors,” but “BuzzFeed News is publishing the full document so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the U.S. government.”
• 2017 •
29
March
BuzzFeed plans to go public. Peretti also 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.”

• 2017 •
30
March
BuzzFeed News is expanding into Germany and Mexico.
• 2017 •
10
April
BuzzFeed News’s Chris Hamby is a Pulitzer Prize finalist. “We’re so grateful to BuzzFeed for supporting investigative journalism on this scale,” says BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Mark Schoofs.
• 2017 •
29
August
Amid a flurry of news coverage about Donald Trump’s collusion with Russia during the 2016 election, BuzzFeed News partners with the Latvia-based online outlet Meduza to beef up its Russia coverage. BuzzFeed world editor Miriam Elder: “On our side, there’s an enormous interest in Russia we really haven’t seen since the Cold War.”
• 2017 •
15
September
BuzzFeed gets more than 50% of its traffic from distributed platforms. Here’s Nieman Lab reporting on a presentation by BuzzFeed data infrastructure engineer Walter Menendez:

It uses an internal formula that measures how much traffic every post gets from Facebook, Twitter, and so forth versus from the BuzzFeed homepage, and weights traffic from those other platforms higher than BuzzFeed’s traffic, according to Menendez: “We want to make sure our traffic gets to the farthest reach of people as possible.”

• 2017 •
4
October
BuzzFeed launches AM to DM, a live news show on Twitter. TechCrunch:

I was far from the only one watching after the show premiered last week. AM to DM was trending on Twitter, reaching No. 1 in the U.S. and No. 4 globally. In fact, BuzzFeed says the show averaged about 1 million unique viewers each day, with clips being viewed a total of 10 million times. And it’s a young audience, with 78 percent of daily live viewers under 35.

• 2017 •
16
November
BuzzFeed will miss its 2017 revenue target, The Wall Street Journal reports.

BuzzFeed…had been targeting revenue of around $350 million in 2017 but is expected to fall short of that figure by about 15% to 20%, people familiar with the matter said.

(BuzzFeed isn’t the only digital publisher having trouble: Around this same time, Mashable sells low and Vice also misses its revenue target. At the same time, subscription-supported publications like The New York Times and The Atlantic are seeing a Trump bump.)

• 2017 •
13
December
“The media is in crisis,” Peretti writes in a memo calling for a diversified revenue model. “Google and Facebook are taking the vast majority of revenue, and paying content creators far too little for the value they deliver to users.” The memo also outlines new possibilities for BuzzFeed News: A book club, “paid events,” “content licensing.”
• 2018 •
25
April
Netflix announces a “short-form Netflix Original Documentary Series” that “will focus on BuzzFeed reporters as they report stories.”
• 2018 •
10
May
BuzzFeed launches a new weekly news podcast “for news that’s smart, not stuffy.” It includes “Jojo the bot” to help listeners follow along.
• 2018 •
18
July
BuzzFeed News gets its own domain, BuzzFeedNews.com. Nieman Lab explains one reason the separation might be needed:

Despite BuzzFeed News’ remarkable journalistic success…the general public seems profoundly unable to distinguish it from its sibling quiz factory. When the Pew Research Center polled Americans about what news organizations they trust or don’t trust, BuzzFeed finished dead last, 36th out of 36. It was the only news organization tested that was more distrusted than trusted across the political spectrum — from strong liberals to strong conservatives. The LOLs have proven a big hurdle for the news brand to overcome.

• 2018 •
20
September
BuzzFeed shuts down its in-house podcast team and says it’s shifting more resources to video.
• 2018 •
19
November
Peretti calls for more digital publishers to merge: “If BuzzFeed and five of the other biggest companies were combined into a bigger digital media company, you would probably be able to get paid more money.”
• 2018 •
19
November
BuzzFeed News launches a $5/month membership program. New York Magazine:

Asking for readers to pay for access to a publication is not a bad idea (just ask us, lol), but it’s a somewhat different proposition for a website backed by venture capitalists hoping to turn a profit in a liquidity event like a sale or public offering.

• 2018 •
10
December
Nieman Lab:

Since branching out as its own, separately branded website this summer, buzzfeednews.com has seen an increase of 30 percent in monthly average unique viewership, BuzzFeed says. That translates to 35 million unique visitors per month and 230 million monthly content views for BuzzFeed News, meaning the total traffic from News posts on the site and videos on Facebook, Twitter, Apple News, YouTube, and Instagram.

• 2019 •
10
January
Twitter renews AM to DM, which reportedly has a daily audience of 400,000 people, down from a reported 1 million at launch.
• 2019 •
23
January
BuzzFeed says it will lay off 15% of its workforce, about 250 jobs. The company “basically hit” its 2018 revenue target “of around $300 million,” but Peretti writes in a memo to staff:

“Unfortunately, revenue growth by itself isn’t enough to be successful in the long run. The restructuring we are undertaking will reduce our costs and improve our operating model so we can thrive and control our own destiny, without ever needing to raise funding again.”

• 2019 •
6
March
In New York City? Grab BuzzFeed’s first (and last) print newspaper.
• 2019 •
8
March
Peretti releases a memo about BuzzFeed’s path forward. BuzzFeed News gets a section:

“We are committed to informing the public and holding the powerful accountable. We published the dossier because we believe the public deserved to know about it. We reported that Donald Trump told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about those negotiations. We exposed the WWF’s funding of paramilitary forces that have been abusing and killing people. We helped exonerate 10 men framed by a crooked cop in Chicago.”

• 2019 •
21
December
BuzzFeed says its international losses quadrupled in 2019.
• 2020 •
28
January
Ben Smith is leaving BuzzFeed to become the media columnist at The New York Times.
• 2020 •
25
March
Hoping to avoid more layoffs during the Covid-19 pandemic, BuzzFeed announces company-wide paycuts and Peretti says he won’t draw a salary until the crisis has passed.
• 2020 •
16
April
BuzzFeed shuts down AM to DM after Twitter stops funding it.
• 2020 •
12
May
BuzzFeed furloughs 68 staffers and stops covering local news in the U.K. and Australia. From The Guardian:

The company said that the cuts would also hit its flagship US operation as it looks to hit savings goals while continuing to produce “kinetic, powerful journalism.” “We [want to] reach the savings we need and produce the high-tempo, explosive journalism our readers rely on,” the company said.

BuzzFeed maintained that it was still “investing heavily” in its news operation, with a projection of investing $10m more this year than the division makes, and $6m in 2021.

• 2020 •
19
November
BuzzFeed announces that it will acquire HuffPost from Verizon Media. Peretti: “We want HuffPost to be more HuffPosty, and BuzzFeed to be more BuzzFeedy — there’s not much audience overlap.”
• 2021 •
11
June
BuzzFeed News wins its first Pulitzer Prize for its investigation into how China’s government detained hundreds of thousands of Muslims.
• 2021 •
24
June
BuzzFeed announces that it will go public through a SPAC merger. Its valuation is $1.5 billion.
• 2021 •
2
December
The BuzzFeed News Union goes on strike. The walkout is timed to coincide with a shareholder vote on whether BuzzFeed will go public.
• 2021 •
6
December
BuzzFeed goes public (BZFD on the Nasdaq). Peretti tells Recode’s Peter Kafka:

“I’m still comfortable [with BuzzFeed News losing money]. To a point. But it’s not the same point it was in the past. And so I think that people have this expectation that, what we’ve done in the past in terms of massive subsidies of news, is something that we will continue to do at that same level. And we can do it to a point. But we have to make sure that we build a sustainable, profitable, growing business so that we can do this journalism for years to come and have this great important impact.”

• 2021 •
15
December
BuzzFeed’s stock has fallen by about 40% since it started trading on December 6.
• 2022 •
4
January
Ben Smith is leaving The New York Times to launch a “new global news organization.”
• 2022 •
22
March
BuzzFeed News’s three top editors — editor-in-chief Mark Schoofs, deputy editor-in-chief Tom Namako, and executive editor Ariel Kaminer — are leaving the company. At this point, BuzzFeed News has around 100 employees and is reportedly losing $10 million a year. CNBC:

Several large shareholders have urged BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti to shut down the entire news operation…One shareholder told CNBC shutting down the newsroom could add up to $300 million of market capitalization to the struggling stock.

“This is not your fault,” Schoofs writes in his resignation email. “You have done everything we asked, producing incandescent journalism that changed the world.” BuzzFeed News will now focus on “the nexus between the internet and IRL,” according to Schoofs, and will offer buyouts to staffers on the investigations, politics, inequality, and science beats.

• 2022 •
21
April
Peretti in an email to employees, shared with Nieman Lab:

“Investors can’t force me to cut news, and the union can’t force me to subsidize news. I am committed to news in general and [BuzzFeed News] in particular. I’ve made the decision that I want News to be break-even and eventually profitable. We won’t put profits ahead of quality journalism and I’ll never expect [BuzzFeed News] to be as profitable as our entertainment divisions. But we can’t keep losing money…

For many years, News received more support than any other content division and over the years was allowed to spend 9-figures more than it generated in revenue. I still support News and value News, and I don’t want to have to cut back in News when we make new investments in other divisions. That’s why I want to transform News into a sustainable business, while continuing to do impactful, important journalism. I know this is a big shift and will require us to operate differently. We will set News up for success so News can become a stronger financial contributor to the overall BuzzFeed, Inc. business.”

• 2022 •
1
April
BuzzFeed News shuts down its app.
• 2022 •
16
November
BuzzFeed’s valuation is at $237 million, down from $1.7 billion in 2016. The Verge notes how much its Facebook traffic has fallen, according to NewsWhip data:

In 2016, BuzzFeed stories posted on the platform had 329 million engagements; by 2018, that number had fallen to less than half. Last year, BuzzFeed posts received 29 million engagements, and this year is shaping up to be even worse.

• 2023 •
26
January
BuzzFeed says it will start using AI to write quizzes and other content. However, “BuzzFeed remains focused on human-generated journalism in its newsroom, a spokeswoman said.”
• 2023 •
15
March
BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Karolina Waclawiak says the newsroom will need to increase the number of stories it publishes, even though it is “much smaller than it used to be.”
• 2023 •
20
April
BuzzFeed lays off 15% of its staff and shutters BuzzFeed News, which is down to 60 employees from 100 in 2022. Peretti writes in a memo:

“I made the decision to overinvest in BuzzFeed News because I love their work and mission so much. This made me slow to accept that the big platforms wouldn’t provide the distribution or financial support required to support premium, free journalism purpose-built for social media…

We will concentrate our news efforts in HuffPost, a brand that is profitable with a highly engaged, loyal audience that is less dependent on social platforms.”

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 21, 2023, 2:45 p.m.
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