The Collapse of BuzzFeed News Shows Why For-Profit Journalism is a Disaster

Capitalist owners are not going to fund unprofitable, resource-intensive investigative work. A different model is needed if journalism is going to survive.

Another news outlet has bitten the dust. BuzzFeed News, the award-winning journalism spinoff of content mill BuzzFeed, has been shuttered by its owners. Co-founder and CEO Jonah Peretti, in a statement, said the company had “overinvest[ed]” in journalism and would be focusing on the more profitable HuffPost, in order to build “a more agile and focused business organization with the capacity to bring in more revenue.” 

In a way, the surprise here is not that BuzzFeed is shutting down its hard news division, but that the company ever had one. From the company’s earliest origins, Peretti has been ruthlessly focused on maximizing traffic by any content necessary. In 2001, when Peretti was a student at MIT, he amused himself by trying to order a shoe from Nike customized with the word “sweatshop.” When the company refused to make the shoe (despite not having a policy explicitly prohibiting the term), Peretti’s correspondence with the company became a viral email. Peretti learned an important lesson from this—not about how to shame companies for abusive labor practices, which he apparently had little interest in, but about how to “manufacture virality.” Peretti wondered if it was possible to essentially steal material from the rest of the internet and make money by getting it to go viral. Peretti said that prospective investors were constantly pushing the company to do more aggregating and less original material: 

“It was always, ‘Is there any way you can do this without having any writers or content creators or journalists? Can you make this automatic? Could you detect what was trending and then grab stuff from other places and turn it into an article synthetically where the cost of content creation would be zero?”

BuzzFeed tried to create a money machine for investors, by finding a formula for gobbling up “content” and harvesting clicks from it. To do this, they simply pilfered content from whatever sources they could. When BuzzFeed compiled an article like “33 Animals Who Are Extremely Disappointed In You,” they simply ripped the photos from anywhere they wanted, without assigning credit, with the dubious claim that this was fair use. BuzzFeed was repeatedly forced to fire writers for plagiarism, though its entire business model had incentivized plagiarism. 

BuzzFeed became infamous for producing some of the worst content on the internet (in fact, they’re a big part of the reason why we talk today about “content” rather than articles, blog posts, essays, etc.) There was no idea so stupid that it could not become a BuzzFeed listicle or quiz. Lowlights included:

Nevertheless, it worked. Peretti found his money machine. VICE commented that BuzzFeed “seem to understand the human urge to share and the power of crushing boredom like no one else.” They not only learned how to turn cat memes into gold, but how publishing controversial-for-the-sake-of-it takes can generate clickable content. As a BuzzFeed co-founder explained, “If there’s a way for your product to be polarizing, that’s one sure way to get a lot of exposure—if you can get two groups of people to argue about it.” BuzzFeed’s greatest success in getting people to argue about something came in 2015, when it got seemingly all of America debating what color a dress was.

Given BuzzFeed’s reputation, it surprised more than a few people when its news division started racking up journalism awards. But for a while, BuzzFeed took journalism quite seriously. As the New York Times writes, BuzzFeed News “became a beacon for up-and-coming political and investigative journalists,” and “won plaudits for its investigative work.” The site ultimately won the Pulitzer Prize in 2021, though it was heavily criticized after it published a dossier of information containing a bunch of bogus claims about Donald Trump. Rather than yet another quiz on what kind of sandwich you are, BuzzFeed News was able to publish lists like “17 Explosive BuzzFeed News Investigations That Made Waves in 2019.” Much of their work was indeed important, like this expose on Amazon’s brutal treatment of its delivery drivers. (They also broke some distinctly BuzzFeed-y stories, such as revealing that children’s YouTube star Blippi had once recorded a gross-out video involving defecating on a friend. I am not sure the world needed or wanted to know.) 

The problem was, of course, that ultimately BuzzFeed is a for-profit company, and if deep dives into important issues don’t make as much money as “Pick Some Food We’ll Tell You Who You Are From ‘High School Musical,’” it’s going to be hard to justify continuing to publish things that actually matter. If more people click on dumb quizzes than reports on Amazon’s labor violations, and if a quiz costs virtually nothing to produce and a well-reported story costs thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, then it was always going to be a matter of time before BuzzFeed ditched the respectable part of its operation. Indeed, Peretti essentially acknowledged in his statement that this was precisely the dynamic at play: he says he “overinvested” in news because he cared about it, but ultimately he needed to focus on profit. Indeed, because a for-profit corporation isn’t structured to serve the public interest, it’s structured to help investors turn their money into more money. How could they possibly justify doing award-winning news stories? 

Journalism is in a sorry state, precisely because so much of it has been entrusted to for-profit entities that realize it’s much easier to make money pumping garbage into people’s heads than telling them things they ought to know. (The same logic is at work in the food industry, where hooking people on junk food is better for investors than helping them eat well.) The New York Times has done well for itself in recent years, in part because they are happy to take dirty money from the fossil fuel industry, and because they’ve hit on extremely lucrative side-ventures like Wordle and Wirecutter. But around the country, newspapers have been shuttered or hit with massive layoffs. The reason is quite simple: they are owned by, and operated in the interests of, filthy rich people who want to make more money. Often, the story told is that journalism outlets are being hurt by economic factors beyond their control. (When Insider announced layoffs, it claimed to have encountered “broader economic headwinds.”)But blaming the economy misses the real problem, which is the funding structure of journalism. If journalism is publicly funded, or operated out of universities and nonprofit organizations, it is not nearly as vulnerable to “headwinds” in the economy. Journalism simply shouldn’t be done by private for-profit companies. Their incentives don’t line up with their duties. We need independent media institutions that are not dependent on advertisers or investors. Otherwise, we’re just not going to have journalism. Even the local papers that do still exist are full of scammy native advertising that fools people into thinking sponsored content is legitimate news. For instance, I just went on the site of my own leading local paper, whose layout means you have to play a game of “Find The News” in order to figure out what’s propaganda and what’s actual reporting”:

there are 10 news stories and 10 sponsored propaganda items in these images. Here’s an even worse example from the same site.

In a democracy, good journalism is not optional, because the people as a whole are called upon to make important decisions about governance. They need high-quality information in order to make those decisions. Alas, in many cases, the truth is paywalled but the lies are free

The need for public journalism is one reason I was disappointed at how NPR reacted recently when Elon Musk decided to label them state-affiliated media on Twitter. Musk changed his mind and labeled NPR “government-funded” instead, but NPR still objected and chose to leave Twitter rather than accept the label, which they said made it seem like they weren’t “independent.” This struck me as strange. There are plenty of problems with NPR, and it’s true that they are far too inclined to agree with the foreign policy line of the U.S. State Department. But being government-funded is a good thing, and I wish NPR had reacted instead by saying “You’re damn right we’re government-funded. That’s because billionaires can’t be relied upon to bring quality journalism to the public. Public media is a good thing!” Instead, they pointed out how little government money they get, implying that being publicly funded would somehow be shady. That only makes sense if you share the neoliberal view that government is inherently suspicious and everything associated with it is corrupt and incompetent.

We need to strongly defend and expand public media. (The best discussion of how to do so is found in Victor Pickard’s Democracy Without Journalism?, which I interviewed him about). People with money to spare, who care about the future of democracy, need to support independent media outlets trying to do the work that corporate publications won’t. Good journalism isn’t impossible. David Sirota’s independent outlet The Lever, despite not having existed for very long and having only nine staff, has already scooped the New York Times and other mainstream outlets. Kelsey McKinney of the independent Defector says that “it is not that fucking hard” to make a quality media outlet survive, “economic headwinds” or not, but the problem is “with these rich dudes in charge,” many of whom see journalism as a vanity project, get tired of funding it, and move on. Having billionaire owners in charge means that journalists are dependent on maintaining the plutocrats’ good will. That’s a problem both because the plutocrats are fickle and because it creates a terrible conflict of interest, where those who are supposed to report on the powerful have to “bite the hand that feeds them.” 

Journalism doesn’t need to die. But whether it lives depends on whether there are enough people willing to work to build (and financially support) public and independent media. We need you. 

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