BUZZFEED GOES JOURNALISTIC: Can videos of dancing cats and investigative stories on the conflict in Ukraine coexist on the same Web site? That was one of many questions BuzzFeed founder and chief executive officer Jonah Peretti deigned to tackle at a Q&A session Monday night at the Hearst Tower in New York.
This story first appeared in the March 5, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Moderated by Hearst’s own digital guru, Troy Young, the talk zeroed in on BuzzFeed’s continued evolution from class buffoon to quirky intellectual. An opinionated, digital disrupter in his own right — at least by Hearst’s standards — Young asked Peretti if he found “jarring” BuzzFeed’s positioning of hard news next to humorous lists and quizzes with titles like “Which Baldwin Are You?”
Slouching in his chair, the rumpled 40-year-old Peretti, who also cofounded the Huffington Post, shrugged it off, explaining that it’s nothing he hasn’t heard before. “I had a BBC reporter ask me a similar question. He said, ‘How can I take you seriously when you have this list and this quiz?’ And, like, I’m thinking, you have ‘Monty Python,’ ‘The Office’ and ‘Dr. Who’ on the BBC. That doesn’t mean that the BBC isn’t a good news organization.”
Peretti offered that newspapers have comics and entertainment sections sitting next to news items. The “bundle” of news and entertainment has always been important to media companies, and today, the hodgepodge story feeds from Twitter, Facebook and BuzzFeed are in some respects modern iterations of that, he argued.
At the same time, Peretti did admit that the “bundle” is ever evolving, and yes, it is indeed “sometimes jarring.”
Young then turned to BuzzFeed’s growing business and expansion into international markets. According to Peretti, who said that Hearst is an investor in his company, a fair amount of growth comes from video. What’s different for BuzzFeed is that it owns its video production studio. As a result, the company is able to create, sell and syndicate its video. For instance, the site is working with Facebook to add video natively, and it creates videos and other content for brands such as General Electric.
“The way we think about it is, it goes back to the best of advertising in magazines, where you pick up a women’s fashion magazine, and you take all the ads out, it would be a worse experience for the consumer,” Peretti said. “The advertising is high-quality fashion photography and so are the editorial spreads, and that’s something to aspire to for the Web.”
That focus on advertising doesn’t extend to other potential money-making endeavors such as e-commerce or pay walls, however. Peretti underscored the importance of controlling production and not using third parties, which can prove problematic in e-commerce. In regards to charging the reader, that notion seemed at odds with Peretti’s sensibility of the free dissemination of “important content.” Whatever one questions about the site, its quick growth as a media entity is undeniable. With more than 100 million unique visitors each month, and more than half of that traffic coming from mobile, BuzzFeed not only has the audience, but it also has the cash to invest in reporters here and abroad. In the last few years, many news organizations have downsized or shuttered foreign bureaus, but BuzzFeed is staffing up in Europe and Asia.
“We are a global media company for the social age,” Peretti said. “We don’t want to make content for Twitter or Facebook. We want to make content for the people on Twitter or Facebook.”
Young wrapped up the interview asking Peretti if journalistic institutions like The New York Times should be “concerned” about BuzzFeed’s success.
“They’re not concerned about our success?” said Peretti. “Jill Abramson is a very impressive editor. I don’t think they need to suffer in order for us to succeed.”