Facebook Made BuzzFeed, Then Killed It

Illustration of a thumbs down emoji crushing some news headlines

Illustration: Jacqui VanLiew

Apr 24, 2023 7:00 AM

Facebook Made BuzzFeed, Then Killed It

The digital publisher grew fat off the back of Facebook’s fickle algorithm. Battered and bruised, it’s now going back to where it all began.

In his memo announcing the closure of BuzzFeed’s news operations, CEO Jonah Peretti acknowledged a grave mistake: He hadn’t worked out that Facebook wasn’t his friend.

Peretti, of course, put it differently. He had, he admitted, been “slow to accept that big platforms wouldn’t provide the distribution or financial support required to support premium, free journalism purpose-built for social media.” BuzzFeed, which seems to have been built for Facebook’s algorithm, had tried to precariously balance a world-class news organization on top. This week, that plan came crashing down.

The social media that BuzzFeed was built for, namely Facebook, has also started to falter. Just a day before BuzzFeed News died, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, announced it would be laying off 4,000 employees, after a first round of layoffs in late 2022 shed more than 11,000 employees. The internet is changing, fast. Young people are abandoning Meta’s products–particularly Facebook–for TikTok. Meta’s and Google’s stranglehold on the digital advertising space is starting to decline. BuzzFeed hitched its star to the platforms of Web 2.0, and now that star is fading.

BuzzFeed launched in 2006, just two years after Facebook (now Meta). The company hauled in readers through its popular listicles and quizzes, many of which populated Facebook feeds as the platform continued to climb in popularity. In 2011, BuzzFeed hired Ben Smith, then at Politico, to helm the company’s push into news reporting. BuzzFeed was the future, and it was growing fast.

But the unregulated power of digital advertising, caught in a stranglehold by Big Tech, combined with many media organizations making their websites free to access both for platforms and people, created a perfect storm. “A handful of platforms control the digital public sphere,” says Courtney Radsch, a postdoctoral research fellow at UCLA who studies the intersection of technology and media. “News outlets are really held hostage to that.”

Journalism—be it online, print, TV, or radio—has almost always made money through advertising. But Big Tech companies, particularly Google and Meta, with their hoards of user data, quickly took control of that revenue model. By 2017, nine years after BuzzFeed was founded, Meta accounted for 20 percent of all digital advertising revenue, and Facebook alone had 2 billion users.

For publications founded in the digital era, the promise of this huge reach came laced with peril. By expertly tapping into what Facebook’s algorithm, and audience, wanted, BuzzFeed could reach huge numbers of people. At the time, it was a no-brainer. Facebook was everywhere, and in the wake of the Great Recession in 2008, advertising budgets, which until then had focused on more traditional media, had plummeted. When they rebounded starting in 2010, the money shifted away from traditional media and into digital advertising, of which Meta and Google controlled half in the US.

Radsch refers to Google and Meta as “the operating systems of the social web,” thanks in part to their stranglehold on digital advertising and, at times, their ability to make publishers the world over dance to their rhythm. That was the case in 2015, BuzzFeed, along with the The New York Times, began to publish directly to Facebook itself with the Instant Articles feature, which allowed publishers to keep 70 percent of advertising revenue. “Facebook really understood what would be important to us,” BuzzFeed’s then-president Greg Coleman said at the time.

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Also in 2015, Facebook pushed publishers to produce more video content at the expense of written articles, claiming that their data showed people were more likely to engage with it. And more engagement meant more eyeballs, which meant more advertising money. Many media organizations, convinced that the data was right, made the now infamous pivot to video, beefing up their video teams while laying off editors and writers. In September 2016, it was revealed that Meta had inflated those numbers, though the full scope of its deception was only revealed in 2018 through a series of unsealed legal documents.

The success of digital publishers was, by this point, totally entangled with the success of Facebook. By 2016, BuzzFeed was worth an estimated $1.7 billion. Around the same time, Vice, another digital-focused outlet currently seeking a buyer, was valued at $5.7 billion. (Today, BuzzFeed is valued at $100 million, Vice at less than $1 billion). The pivot-to-video debacle was a warning not heeded. Advertisers filed a lawsuit, but many publishers struggled to free themselves from Meta. In a blog post from April 2019, Meta claimed that BuzzFeed had seen a threefold increase in advertising revenue from creating longer videos that would allow for advertisements to play in-stream.

As Meta faced increased scrutiny in the wake of the 2016 US election and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the company decided to deprioritize news content on Facebook, forcing publishers to look to other ways to get their stories in front of their audiences.

But for digital-native publications like BuzzFeed, who had grown fat on Facebook’s news feed and venture funding, the shift in how the social web worked caused chaos. TikTok, which by the end of 2021 had reached a billion users worldwide, is a walled garden, making it near impossible for anyone to lure eyeballs away from it. The new social web increasingly followed this model of trapping eyeballs, pushing both digital-native and traditional publishers to the fringe. In response, many legacy publishers locked themselves behind paywalls. But BuzzFeed—and many other digital publishers reliant on social media platforms—did not.

Now, where TikTok goes, Meta follows. In May 2022, Meta pushed publishers to pivotback to video, this time its short-form Reels feature, a direct competitor to TikTok. At the same time, the company said it would reduce the money it was giving to its partner news organizations whose work appeared in a designated News tab on Facebook.

In 2020, BuzFeed News won a Pulitzer for its reporting on China’s mass detention of Uyghurs. Now the team responsible for that, along with some 180 colleagues across the company, have been laid off. Peretti said he had chosen to “overinvest” in BuzzFeed News because he “loved their work,” but it’s become increasingly clear that the platforms did not. Some staff will be moved to HuffPost, a BuzzFeed-owned site that is less reliant on Facebook and other social media platforms to bring eyeballs to advertisers, according to Peretti’s memo.

“For digital media organizations, there was no choice about whether to tie their whole business model to these platforms,” says Radsch. “The platforms are just where the audience is.” Bruised, BuzzFeed is going back to where it all began by doubling down on making viral content designed for social media. Now, after pivots upon pivots, somehow things are back to where they started.

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Vittoria Elliott is a reporter for WIRED, covering platforms and power. She was previously a reporter at Rest of World, where she covered disinformation and labor in markets outside the US and Western Europe. She has worked with The New Humanitarian, Al Jazeera, and ProPublica. She is a graduate of… Read more
Platforms and power reporter

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