Fluff and Stuff
As BuzzFeed's animal empire is trying to infiltrate hard news and traditional media outlets are still trying to get in on the cat cash cow, where does it all end?
By Dan Solomon, Fri., July 26, 2013
If you use the Internet, you've probably been to BuzzFeed. Maybe you clicked on a link on Facebook that sent you to "Micro Pig Has His Belly Rubbed." Or maybe you saw "Cat Learns How to Twerk" on Twitter and had to click it. The New York-based site – which was founded in 2006 by current CEO and Huffington Post co-founder Jonah Peretti, along with John Johnson – doesn't exclusively run animal stories, but they're certainly a big part of what it does.
In 2013, a site that is still best known for posting lists of animal pictures has the rest of the publishing world watching very closely. At a time when other media companies are shrinking and trying to figure out what the future of for-profit publishing and journalism will look like, BuzzFeed is expanding. In January, the site had a reported value of $200 million, and those same reports claimed that the price could hit a billion if the company's revenue continues to grow at its current pace. (The New York Times, meanwhile, was valued last year at $950 million.) That's not bad for a company that built its brand on pictures of cats, Beyoncé references, and listicles of Nineties nostalgia.
BuzzFeed is also hiring at a steady clip and developing content even more quickly. The company name has become a veritable shorthand – there are BuzzFeed headline generators floating around the Internet, allowing anyone to create posts with titles like "22 Reasons Pit Bulls Are Better Than Louis CK." Storied, established publications like Vanity Fair have taken to running attack posts ("40 Signs You Are a BuzzFeed Writer Running Out of List Ideas") about the company. And, crucially, everyone in publishing is trying to figure out how to do what they do. (Three videos on the front page of CNN.com at the time of this writing: "Dog attempts daring escape," "Bunny the lab can play fetch underwater," and "Who knew panda cam would show THIS?")
One of the outlets whose recent direction has taken a decidedly more BuzzFeed-y turn is local arts, culture, and news website Austinist. The site, a longtime part of the New York-based Gothamist network, for years was run by a local staff of volunteers who wrote long, sometimes rambling posts about their own perspectives on and experiences in the city. But Gothamist's ownership became very hands-on in March, and the site experienced a sudden shift in tone and direction. Out were longtime volunteer editors Adam Schragin and Barbara Strickland – Schragin resigned in April, and Strickland was fired at the end of May – and in was a new focus on what Gothamist CEO Jake Dobkin describes as "2013 full-time-style blogging."
In practice, that looks a lot like the sort of thing that BuzzFeed does: attention-grabbing headlines, a conversational tone, and posts that go up several times an hour.
BuzzFeed isn't the only media company that uses those things, of course – outlets from Gothamist's N.Y.-based flagship to the nine-site Gawker network are set up similarly – but the company is by far the largest. With 5.8 million unique visitors in June, according to web metrics site Compete.com, BuzzFeed has more than double the traffic of both Gothamist and Gawker.com combined. It's also the site whose name comes up the most frequently when media companies, looking for a way to sustain themselves, start citing a model that works.
Still, if you're a journalist and someone tells you that your work reminds her of BuzzFeed, it's probably not exactly a compliment. The site's reputation – whether it's earned, borne out of jealousy, or both – is for fluffy, at times tone-deaf, posts that don't create much value in the world. (A post this month promising "The Story of Egypt's Revolution in 'Jurassic Park' Gifs" was a particularly eye-popping example.)
But while haters gonna hate, BuzzFeed is busy with something else. Traditional, established media outlets around the country are trying desperately to emulate BuzzFeed's viral success, and figure out how many posts full of pictures of kittens, Rihanna, and Nineties pop-culture icons are too many. Meanwhile, BuzzFeed itself is interested in proving that the sort of longform, reported, narrative journalism that outlets like, say, Vanity Fair and The New York Times are known for can, in its hands, be a shareable moneymaker, too.
Summer in the City
In early 2012, Summer Anne Burton was selling tickets at the Alamo Drafthouse. She had a lot of creative aspirations, but she hadn't experienced a commensurate amount of creative success. An illustration project called "Every Hall of Famer," which was featured in the Chronicle in 2011, led ESPN The Magazine to commission a handful of drawings of baseball players from her; her blogs, which evolved on platforms from LiveJournal to Tumblr, had a small core of devoted readers, but those projects had to wait until after she was out of the ticket booth at the Drafthouse.
Burton's blogs tended to feature the things she was excited about: She posted a lot of pictures of sloths and of her cats, and she wrote enthusiastically about her passions – her friends, or music, or baseball. So looked at through a certain lens, her journey over 16 months from the Alamo Drafthouse box office to managing editorial director of BuzzFeed doesn't seem too unlikely.
Burton applied for a part-time, work-from-home, weekend editor position with BuzzFeed in April 2012. Her role with the company quickly expanded; by July of that year, she was full-time, and she was able to leave the Alamo. That September, the company asked her to relocate to New York and work in the office, and when its longtime Editorial Director Scott Lamb left the company last month, BuzzFeed created a new role for her that included many of his responsibilities.
"The company's a really natural fit for me," Burton says of the transition. "What I'm doing is basically what I've always done for fun, but for work."
Stories like Burton's – and there are more than a few members of BuzzFeed's editorial staff who've left low-level day jobs for media gigs rather suddenly – are fun, and they speak to a democratization of a media model that's increasingly important online. But it's not just Drafthouse employees and dog-groomers running the show at the site: BuzzFeed made a splash by hiring Ben Smith away from Politico to be its editor-in-chief in late 2011. More recently, it hired former Chronicle staffer Lisa Tozzi from The New York Times to be its news director and brought in former Spin Editor-in-Chief Steve Kandell to be its longform features editor.
If that seems like an unlikely combination of personalities, that's because the company, having all but conquered the world of cat videos, is trying to figure out the next step of online journalism. "The thing we were saying was, 'Let's crack the code of making longform shareable,'" Burton says of the decision to hire an editor like Kandell.
It's not as far-fetched as it seems. "There was a long time where the model was to figure out how to get your blog posts to the top of Google search results," Burton says. "Now it makes a lot more sense to think in terms of what people are sharing with their friends, since so many people get their news through Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and all those platforms."
That's important, because what people share is different from what they'll search for. That's something Burton learned firsthand after a 4,500-word tribute she wrote for the site about Esme Barrera, a friend of hers murdered in Austin in 2012, received as much attention from readers as posts compiling animal pictures: Regardless of topic, people respond more to content recommended by their friends than content spat out by Google. "It feels very authentic to me," Burton says. "The question we ask ourselves all the time is, 'What do people like?' It's not SEO [search engine optimization] keywords. It's 'What would you or your mom or your sister or your friends share on Facebook?'"
That there are more than just cat pictures on BuzzFeed isn't exactly news if you've been paying attention to the site, but it's important to note the site is not so much evolving as it is expanding. Burton describes the process as experimentation, and while she admits that some of those trials don't always work (she says the Jurassic Park/Egypt post "may not have been the most successful experiment we've ever done"), it's clear that she thinks casting a wide net in terms of the type of content on the site is both possible and even important – and she's not really interested in the use of the company's name as an epithet: "It's personally offensive to me as a person who considers myself a smart, reading, literate human being who also really likes cute pictures of cats."
There are plenty of smart, literate people who like pictures of cats in Austin, too. The question is, what will Austin-based media outlets take away from the BuzzFeed example?
Keep Austin Wordy?
Austin isn't short on publications, both online-only and those with a print component, that are trying to figure out what their future model will look like. Whether it's a comparatively young site like the founded-in-2005 Austinist, which now updates seven or eight times a day (often by a single author) or a longtime powerhouse of influence like Texas Monthly, which publishes Web-only features just about every day, most outlets are in some state of flux surrounding how they're reaching readers – and making money – online.
The Chronicle is no exception: The blogs section of the website has been dramatically beefed up in recent months, and Web analytics are now a part of the staff's daily routine. (And, despite the paper's extensive reporting covering all aspects of South by Southwest, a brief write-up about the appearance of viral photo star Grumpy Cat in March holds the record for the most popular post from the festival – and, indeed, remains among the most read and shared stories this year.)
Outlets like the Austin American-Statesman/Austin 360, Austin Business Journal, CultureMap, The Daily Dot, Eater Austin, and others are all among the Austin media companies – large and small – seeking to fill niches and attract both readers and advertising dollars with a model that is increasingly threatening to be Web-only.
But the financial side of things doesn't mean much to readers, as long as the outlets they read continue publishing. The more important question is what these new models will actually mean for the content they see. If conversations among editorial staff at these outlets frequently include the word "BuzzFeed," and BuzzFeed itself is constantly experimenting, what can readers expect to find at these sites?
There's no solid answer to that question just yet. Readers at established outlets tend to get frustrated when the sites they look to for news are overwhelmed by pictures of adorable corgis with scrunched-up little faces, but they're also voting with their "likes" every time they share those links with their friends. Even if Burton's question at BuzzFeed is "What do people like?," it's not clear that anyone – even the readers who lament the decline of journalism on the Internet – actually knows what the answer is. But there's something telling about the fact that, as established outlets look to BuzzFeed for their future model, BuzzFeed is looking to things that we associate with print magazine journalism – extended features, in-depth profiles, and longform personal essays – for its next move.
At the moment, the things that BuzzFeed does that garner the most attention aren't those features, though – it's still the llamas, nostalgia, and drawings of Nicolas Cage as Disney princesses. And Jake Dobkin doesn't even bring up the site when he talks about the future of Austinist – he keeps the model he has in mind for the site closer to home. "The best model for what I'd like to see in the future is Gothamist," he says. "Which has a mix of short and long content, and original and aggregated content."
That's the goal of pretty much everyone – but the reality of online journalism in 2013 is that what that mix looks like for a lot of outlets, in Austin and elsewhere, will be determined by how successful BuzzFeed is at building a model to follow.
Dan Solomon is a freelance writer who has worked, works, and will work with many of the outlets named in this story.