BuzzFeed Inc. will close down its journalism venture, BuzzFeed News, the company’s cofounder and chief executive Jonah Peretti revealed on Thursday, in yet another grim reckoning for the digital-media industry.
Spun out of BuzzFeed over a decade ago, the News unit was credited with bringing prestige to the website, whose reputation had been mostly one of fun-but-mindless quizzes, meme-stuffed listicles, and internet jokes since it started in 2006. The website’s bread and butter includes such classic content as “10 Bananas That Look Like Celebrities,” “Yuck and Yum These Pies, And I’ll Decide If You’re Harry Potter,” and “Hey Millennials, How Many Of These Uncool Things Are You Still Doing, According To Gen Z?”
When the website decided to invest in a hard-hitting journalism division, BuzzFeed News was born, and it hit the ground running. It covered such gnarly topics as the influence of white supremacism and neo-Nazism on Breitbart, the existence of the Steele dossier on Donald Trump-Russia collusion, and alleged atrocities against Uyghur populations in Xinjiang, China, for which it won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.
But despite its accolades, BuzzFeed News was never profitable, highlighting a sort of Catch-22 for publications chasing success in the 21st century media business. “We’ve determined that the company cannot continue to fund BuzzFeed News as a stand-alone organization,” Peretti wrote in a memo to staffers. “I made the decision to overinvest in BuzzFeed News because I love their work and mission so much. This made me slow to accept that the big platforms wouldn’t provide the distribution or financial support required to support premium, free journalism, purpose-built for social media.”
“More broadly, I regret that I didn’t hold the company to higher standards for profitability,” he added. In the future, “we will work together to run a more agile and focused business organization with the capacity to bring in more revenue,” he wrote.
It’s a blow for investigative journalism’s morale industry-wide. But it’s also a herald of the changing times. And in the wake of the news, observers have begun to read the tea leaves hidden between Peretti’s lines.
“We will bring more innovation to clients in the form of creators, AI, and cultural moments,” Peretti wrote. In particular, some speculate that artificial intelligence, which exploded on the pop culture scene last fall, could play a major role in BuzzFeed’s game plan. In January, the company said it would be using ChatGPT, the impressive text-generator developed by OpenAI, to create AI-powered quizzes that could spit out customized results for each quiz taker. (In BuzzFeed’s heyday for quizzes, circa 2010, that content was mostly crowdsourced—written by BuzzFeed community members who could sign up for accounts and self-publish on the website.)
Consumer appetite for such content, in fact, tracks with history. Hard journalism has long employed diversions of levity to make heavy dumps of sobering news more palatable. In the 1900s, it was crosswords and comic strips. In the 2000s, it might just be AI quizzes.
News of BuzzFeed News’s shuttering comes alongside a 15% job cut company-wide, affecting 180 people across content, tech, and administrative teams. Of those, 60 are from BuzzFeed News specifically, a source told the New York Times. It’s a sign of what many in the industry have already known for years—that operations will need to be leaner and meaner than ever to survive an evolving online world. BuzzFeed will move forward “only with parts of the business that have demonstrated their ability to add to the company’s bottom line,” Peretti wrote.
BuzzFeed went public via SPAC in 2021. Its stock sank 23% earlier today but is still up by 3% year-to-date as of midday, buoyed by an over-300% surge following its ChatGPT announcement in January.