Once upon a time in the world of online journalism, something extraordinary happened. In 2014, BuzzFeed was the rising star of Silicon Valley, having established itself off the back of listicles and weird news that proved virally popular with under-25s. But just as it got a grip on the most valuable and elusive audience in the online news business, BuzzFeed announced it was going to do something that made no sense whatsoever: it was going to invest heavily in serious reporting.
At the time, mainstream newsrooms were slashing their budgets, especially for anything that carried a whiff of long-form newsgathering or investigation. Not only was BuzzFeed now planning to buck this trend, it was going to prioritise the exact opposite of the kind of content that had seduced its venture capitalist backers.
There was method to the madness. BuzzFeed’s bosses had recognised something intrinsically valuable in rich news content, especially the kind that could form the basis of global news exclusives. They also realised that young people were actually interested in news beyond clickbait, provided it spoke to the issues that mattered to them and was communicated in a language that resonated. The likes of Vox and Vice had already blazed the trail, but BuzzFeed spotted a gap in the market for global news exclusives tailored to a younger audience beyond the reach of mainstream media.
At its heart, this was a brand-building strategy designed to stamp BuzzFeed’s name on some of the biggest headlines capturing eyeballs and driving traffic in a way that could never really be achieved solely with viral trivia. As Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein pointed out: “Sacrificing your brand for more social page views often isn’t a good business play.”
Fast forward seven years and the dream is well and truly over. Following a raft of cutbacks to its own news operations in May 2020, BuzzFeed announced last month that it was slashing The Huffington Post, the online news title it acquired less than six months ago.
It’s tempting to assume these cuts were the inevitable result of shareholders pulling the plug as soon as they realised that serious news was never going to deliver the kind of rapid growth and investment returns they were hoping for. This analysis chimed with a myth long told by the mainstream media commentariat, one repeated in the wake of the BuzzFeed meltdown: that market failure in the news is always about business models and digital disruption, never bad journalism.
But a closer look at BuzzFeed’s evolving editorial agenda since 2015 tells a different story. What began as a hopeful experiment in serious news, quickly became corrupted by the politics of an increasingly polarised news market.
The driver of this polarisation on both sides of the Atlantic was a resurgent progressive left personified by Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. The leftwing news sites that flourished in their wake – including this one – presented Buzzfeed both with a competitive threat and an ideological dilemma. It quickly found itself caught in the middle of a schism between the mainstream media who declared all-out war on the Corbyn/Sanders project, and the left online media who were backing it.
Although initially resisting the propaganda assault on Corbyn, it wasn’t long before BuzzFeed hopped on the bandwagon and ended up becoming complicit in mainstream attacks on the left. This reached its apex in 2018, when BuzzFeed News carried a headline accusing leftwing media site The Canary of provoking the doxxing of a journalist in Nicaragua, leading to his deportation.
Carl David Goette-Luciak was reporting for The Guardian at the time on protests and unrest in the country, but – in an article by investigative reporter Max Blumenthal, written originally for Mint Press and republished by The Canary – Blumenthal accused Goette-Luciak of being closely involved with US-backed political opposition and regime-change initiatives.
Rather than engaging with the ethical questions raised by Blumenthal’s piece – whether the evidence underlying the article’s allegations, or the subsequent revelations that appeared to substantiate them – BuzzFeed echoed mainstream attacks on both him and The Canary.
In response to the ensuing controversy, BuzzFeed merely posted an “update” to its report, acknowledging that “Blumenthal neither doxxed anybody nor threatened violence and [BuzzFeed] did not intend to imply beyond the reported facts that there was any indication that Carl David Goette-Luciak was deported as a result of Blumenthal’s article.”
But it wasn’t just in left-bashing that BuzzFeed lost its journalistic bearings. In 2017, the company decided to publish the unverified and since widely discredited “Steele dossier” containing allegations of former president Trump’s collusion with Vladimir Putin. Unexpectedly, the move attracted significant criticism and even condemnation from the mainstream press. The Washington Post lamented the decision to publish the dossier “without context or clarification”; the Atlantic suggested it set “a risky precedent for the future of reporting”.
Things got worse in 2019, when a homepage exclusive claimed that Trump had instructed his lawyer to lie in testimony to Congress. Other news organisations failed to corroborate the story and it was quickly debunked.
This wasn’t just shoddy journalism – it was client journalism. The dossier alleging Trump-Putin collusion was authored by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele and funded by political opposition, including Hillary Clinton. BuzzFeed defended the publication by arguing that it was giving readers the chance to make up their own minds about the allegations it contained. But they neglected to point out the obvious: this was a document that someone or some people wanted to be published in spite of its paucity of supporting evidence. Questioning the agendas of sources – especially those from the intelligence community – is journalism 101.
One thing seems certain: credibility matters as much to real journalism as it does to the building of news brands. What started out as a faint glimmer of hope for a journalism renaissance ended up being a pale imitation of legacy media. BuzzFeed proved itself eager and willing to treat sources from the mainstream media as well as the military-industrial complex with uncritical deference. No doubt the appeal of its news offer suffered as a result, however much it was wrapped up in global exclusives and headline formats designed to game social algorithms (“X just did Y and the result was Z!”).
The truth is Buzzfeed never really needed to embed itself with either the progressive left or the liberal media camp. It just needed to pursue the kind of probing, fearless reporting that would connect with younger audiences and impact the global news agenda. Unlike most independent news outlets, it had the opportunity and the resources to do just that. But it failed.
The real lesson here is not that serious news doesn’t pay. It’s that serious investment in news doesn’t guarantee real journalism.
Justin Schlosberg is a senior lecturer in journalism and media at Birkbeck College, University of London and Edmund J Safra Network Fellow at Harvard University. He is the co-author of Bad News for Labour and author of The Media Manifesto.