I consume a lot of news. I subscribe to both Time and The Atlantic. I keep a list of 20 news sites and blogs to check every night. Last year, I was in the top five percent of Pocket users thanks to my obsessive curation of longform articles.
As a news junkie and a Journalism major, I used to hate BuzzFeed. I saw it as bite-sized “news” that reduced everything to its most basic elements, a current events soft-serve with no intellectual value, presented alongside “13 Problems Only Almond Lovers Will Understand.”
I insisted that quizzes and lists were not the future of journalism, and that they were in fact destroying the efforts of publications like The New Yorker and Slate, who were producing thoughtful and valuable content.
But BuzzFeed’s traffic kept growing, and they now tout over 175 million unique visitors every month, half of which are 18-34 years old, according to their data. This traffic is staggeringly impressive for any website, let alone a media content producer (to contrast, Politico only receives around 745,000 uniques per month, CNN around 10 million, and The Verge around 1 million, according to Quantcast). In addition, BuzzFeed surpasses $100 million in revenue earlier in 2014, according to an article from Capital.
These numbers were enough to convince me, despite my personal misgivings, that there had to be something of value here. So I started doing some research, reading up on BuzzFeed’s philosophy and practices, and even browsing their site as part of my daily media ritual.
Now, I’m cautiously starting to change my stance. I’m still not fully convinced of BuzzFeed’s news value (more on that later). But looking at the site from a more structural, behind-the-scenes view, I’m beginning to see some immense value in BuzzFeed’s model and potential for other digital media organizations. Here are the big ones.
There’s so much content.
Like, an unfathomable amount. I know that when I check The New Yorker website’s front page at a nightly rate, there will always be new stories. But I can do the same thing at BuzzFeed every five minutes. And this is so smart.
We are inherently attracted to novelty, especially on the Internet. According to an AOP study cited in a 2014 Guardian article, an average UK Internet user visited 2,518 web pages in November 2011. That’s almost 84 web pages every day (3.5 per hour), and one could logically assume that that number has only gone up in the years since. At the same time, new content is being added to the Internet at a lightning-fast pace. As such, people don’t have time to waste online with old content. If I go to the same website twice in a given period of time and the content on its homepage hasn’t changed in that time, my desire to return is going to drop dramatically. BuzzFeed precludes that problem by never running out of content. People looking for something new, regardless of quality, will know that they can always find it on BuzzFeed, and that’s extremely valuable online.
This site is run by CMS gurus.
Of course, someone has to manage this glut of content, and the staff at BuzzFeed know what they’re doing, especially when it comes to back-end technology and content management. BuzzFeed’s content management and creation system is a beautiful model of vertical integration that allows them to work at a breakneck pace on a very large scope.
To give some background, a content management system (CMS) is an application that allows people to work effectively with whatever content populates their website (blog posts, listings, articles, etc.) in a streamlined way. It allows an author to write her piece and an editor to make any necessary changes, applies consistent formatting, and then pipes the content to where it should be, all without the need for any actual programming.
The more content a site has, and the more channels the content is going to, the more difficult this process becomes. If you’re running a news site that posts 10 times a day to five different sections, how do you make sure everything looks right, goes where it should, and goes up at the right time?
As such, content management should be a nightmare for BuzzFeed. The site has 30 distinct sections – managed as their own vertical channels – a homepage, lists of trending posts, sponsored content, an app and multitudes of social media channels, all receiving content at a nearly constant rate (new posts come out multiple times an hour).
But it’s not. BuzzFeed, much like Apple, works in a contained system; they develop and own the technology behind their content as well as the content itself. This allows them to tailor their CMS system completely to their needs, as well as fix any problems that might crop up on the fly. They then send their content – from one, unified system – to its corresponding vertical channel, which they also own.
I can’t stress enough how amazing it is that an organization with this kind of scope has been able to create a smooth, fully-integrated system of content distribution that works from the initial point of creation all the way down to every channel. This is an incredibly powerful system that paves the way for BuzzFeed to scale even more than it already has, and other news organizations should take note.
This, I think, is the strongest point in BuzzFeed’s favor. Journalistic purists and intellectuals can scoff at the site’s content all they want, but BuzzFeed is providing real, paying jobs for writers and editors, in many cases, more than established media companies. Currently, BuzzFeed has 44 editorial openings listed on its job page. In comparison, CNN lists 27, Vox Media lists 12, and the New York Times only lists 9.
BuzzFeed may not be a sacrosanct literary publication or leading journalistic endeavor, but if they’re paying people to write, they don’t need to be. They’re allowing journalists to make a living with their craft in a space where they might otherwise not be able to. In a way, BuzzFeed is helping journalism stay alive.
Furthermore, the people doing the hiring on the editorial side at BuzzFeed are real journalists; Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith came from Politico and has written for the Wall Street Journal, and Executive Editor Doree Shafrir was previously senior editor at RollingStone.com. Giving people who know how to put together a newsroom the resources they need to do it well could yield great results, which is an exciting prospect in our time of understaffed, cash-strapped news operations.
I can be part of it.
In fact, I am. So far, I’ve created six BuzzFeed quizzes, lists and articles, and I’ve garnered over 2,500 views for my content.
Anyone can do this. Create a BuzzFeed profile, make a few posts, and from then on anything you write will show up in the BuzzFeed Community section. This is BuzzFeed’s way of encouraging user interaction without having subpar content flood their site. By gating user posts, and further separating these posts by traffic metrics and quality, they’re providing themselves with only the best user-generated content, and they’re doing it without paying anything.
But there’s a benefit for me as a contributor, too. After a little over eight years of optimizing itself for sharing, BuzzFeed is deeply intrenched in the traffic generators of the Internet. And by tapping into that pipeline, my content immediately receives a boost. I can piggyback off of BuzzFeed’s search optimization and prominence in social networks like StumbleUpon because my posts are treated just like BuzzFeed staff pieces by outside sites.
I don’t see why more people don’t do this. BuzzFeed allows you to post, within good taste and legality, basically whatever you want, and you get to take advantage of their wonderfully simple content creation system (the CMS at play again). Once it’s published, your content immediately becomes part of an ecosystem designed to do nothing but generate as many clicks as possible. Compare this to an alternative like starting a blog, which, unless you spend some money or have a deep network (maybe even not then), nobody will read without a lot of time and effort. Why start from zero? Let BuzzFeed do some of the legwork for you while you’re doing the same for them.
*…with some caveats
Here’s where I temper my enthusiasm. I haven’t really talked about content itself yet, and in this regard, I’m not the unabashed proponent of BuzzFeed that I might have come across as.
There’s so much wrong with BuzzFeed’s content.
The way they write their news articles is very traditional, with a mix of text and photos. And that’s great. But the way its organized on the homepage ranges from nonsensical to downright inappropriate. As I write this, there’s an article titled “Insurer Anthem Says Hack Could Affect Up To 80 Million Customers, Employees” right next to “23 Times D.W. Was The Realest Bitch Who Ever Lived” (from the show “Arthur”). This is not a professional way to present news.
In the same vein, the featured story on BuzzFeed’s homepage is almost always titled with a pun. You wouldn’t know it from this whimsical naming system, but these stories are usually about pretty serious topics. “Pope A Nope”? A story about a referendum in Slovakia endorsed by Pope Francis to ban same-sex marriage and adoption. “Radio Silence”? A story about RadioShack filing for bankruptcy. “Yes Weed Can”? A story about marijuana’s potential health benefits. I don’t want to read a groan-worthy headline every time I check the news.
Let’s also look at the non-news content on BuzzFeed. “21 Funny Pictures That’ll Reaffirm Your Faith In The Philippines.” “14 People Whose Parents Definitely Did The Nasty On Valentine’s Day.” “14 Famous Landmarks That Are Actually Garbage.” Nothing here is worth reading. You’re not going to learn anything from the “Would You Die First In A Horror Movie” quiz, because the results are totally arbitrary. These kinds of posts are only meant to generate clicks. I argued earlier that BuzzFeed’s glut of content is a good thing, and I stand by that. But the negative side-effect of this model is that it’s harder to find the small percentage of posts that are worth reading. BuzzFeed’s news content can be Pulitzer-prize worthy, but it doesn’t matter if it’s lost in a sea of insignificant listicles.
There’s also a psychological component to BuzzFeed’s layout. In my personal experience, when I go to BuzzFeed, I don’t anticipate having to read much. I want to skim some headlines, look at pictures, take some quizzes, and watch a GIF. This mentality diminishes my will to stick with a long news piece, or even any article that’s written in the traditional paragraph style. Of course, much of this is incumbent on me, since I ultimately choose what I read. But I do think the BuzzFeed model makes us less inclined to digest long, in-depth pieces of writing than some other news outlets, which is something they will have to be aware of if they want to continue expanding into news.
To wrap it up
BuzzFeed is a singular organization in a unique position. They have a wealth of resources, an efficient and scalable content management system, and more content than they know what to do with. They’ve created a platform that both benefits everyone who contributes to their ecosystem and employs professional writers.
By all accounts, they should be the saving light of the digital media industry. But then there’s the flip side, the critic who looks at BuzzFeed and sees nothing but worthless posts dragging down meaningful journalism. BuzzFeed is in existential tension, and it’ll be interesting to see how they put what they’ve created to use. Will they keep cranking out shallow content to feed the masses? Or will they transform into a media powerhouse that dominates the journalism industry? Take our quiz to find out.