Wednesday, New Yorker staff writer John Cassidy published a good essay about Ezra Klein leaving The Washington Post: Since “the Post was essentially being asked to finance a new media company—one that in some areas would compete with its own journalism—the issue largely comes down to economics: did Klein’s proposal make economic sense?” he wrote.
The piece also took some swipes at other players in online media:
Still, a note of caution is justified. TPM and Business Insider are both narrowly focused sites: Klein’s new venture is reportedly aiming to go broader. BuzzFeed and Upworthy aren’t really news sites: they specialize in listicles, lifestyle posts, funny GIFs, and celebrity stories. When I checked BuzzFeed’s home page on Monday afternoon, one of its featured headlines was “Ron Jeremy Does ‘Wrecking Ball.’ ” Over at Upworthy, there was this offering: “An Actor Who Got Super Famous Overnight Has Some Profound Thoughts on Celebrity Worship.”
Cue some blue-checkmark Twitter action:
— Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) January 22, 2014
— Andrew Kaczynski (@BuzzFeedAndrew) January 22, 2014
Cassidy later updated the piece to say BuzzFeed “also puts out serious journalism, including political reports, dispatches from overseas, and long-form stories. Still, the lists and other lighter fare are what drive a lot of its traffic.”
But “lighter fare” drives a lot of Internet traffic at publications like The New York Times, where a quiz on accents published at the end of last December was the most-viewed story of the year, attracting more readers than news coverage from months before. BuzzFeed has hired foreign correspondents, established an investigations desk and broken stories about government, international affairs, literature, politics and the news media. It’s invested in LGBT coverage and even books coverage (though the way it’s handling the latter has drawn some criticism).
News has always been a tenuous business model, as Jack Shafer wrote last year.
The units of the newspaper bundle not yet ransacked by the Web — international, national, state, local, and political coverage – have (to paraphrase Frank Zappa) little-to-no commercial potential. Traditionally, newspapers have struggled selling space to advertisers by invoking these news varieties unless the news is absolutely spectacular or sensationalized. As the bundle fragments, it becomes more difficult for publishers to support non-commercial news.
If anything, BuzzFeed, with its massive traffic and fat wallet, has reengineered the “bundle” so it can actually add news coverage in an advertising climate that’s caused other publications to get really good at subtraction.
So the ratio of fun content to hard-nosed stuff is different at BuzzFeed than at traditional outlets. That trade seems reasonable, as do the cat-GIF jokes that will greet every one of BuzzFeed’s journalistic accomplishments until approximately 2018.