Is History Repeating Itself?

My recent memo to the BuzzFeed staff 


Hello BuzzFeeders,

I wanted to take a moment to explain to you why I’m convinced we’re at the start of a new golden age of media and why BuzzFeed will have a big role to play.

I’ve been reading a history of the media industry called The Powers That Be by David Halberstam at the suggestion of Ken Bensinger, one of our new investigative reporters. The stories in the book, which was first published in 1979, are great reminders that even traditional media companies like Time Inc., CBS, and the New York Times were once small startups. In those early days, they had many similarities to BuzzFeed and other new web startups that are emerging today.

We have so much to learn from these early media companies and in many ways it feels like we’re at the start of another formative era of media history where iconic companies will emerge and thrive for many decades. It will take luck, talent, and hard work, as well as a willingness to learn from the past and embrace the future, but BuzzFeed has a real shot to be one of the great, enduring companies of this new era.

Let’s start back in the 1920s with Time magazine.

Time began as a clipping service in a small office. A group of writers subscribed to a dozen newspapers and summarized the most important stories, rewriting the news in a more digestible format.

BuzzFeed also started as a clipping service in a small office seven years ago. Instead of subscribing to newspapers, we surfed the web (and used technology) to find the most interesting stories and summarized them into a more digestible format. (You can ask Peggy or Scott how it worked in those early days!)

Of course, both Time magazine and BuzzFeed evolved from our respective early days to become much more ambitious. As Time and BuzzFeed emerged from our respective youths, we both expanded into original reporting, commissioned longform features, and built teams of foreign correspondents. In our case, it only took a few years to go from summarizing web trends in our little Chinatown office to reporting from Syria and the Ukraine with local security, body armor, helmets, and satellite phones. And both Time and BuzzFeed grew by creating irresistible lists such as Time’s “100 Most Influential People” and BuzzFeed’s “42 People You Won’t Believe Actually Exist.”

The big breakthrough for Time Inc., the company, came 13 years after the launch of Time, when printing press technology advanced to enable the launch of Life, the pioneering magazine filled with vivid pictures of people and events. It figured out how to cover cheap paper with a glossy coating, making a mass-produced photo magazine economical for the first time and creating a smash hit that enabled aggressive investment in print journalism at Time and photojournalism at Life.

The big breakthrough for BuzzFeed also came after our early clipping service days when smartphones became social and could display vivid pictures and video for the first time. Suddenly our lists, quizzes, and videos could be seen and shared by an audience of billions of connected readers right from their phones. Social and mobile converged, becoming the primary form of distribution for our content. The leverage provided by this massive reach is why we can make aggressive investments in journalism and entertainment. (We are still in the midst of this shift, with mobile, social, and global distribution accelerating faster than ever).

There are a bunch of other examples in Halberstam’s book that suggest history is repeating itself, and we can learn lessons from these old-school media companies’ early days. For example, I noticed that all the successful companies he describes in the book built really great businesses. The publishers who ignored the business side didn’t thrive or survive for long. This might seem obvious, but the opposite was also true: Companies that only or mostly cared about business didn’t thrive either. The organizations that went on to become multibillion-dollar juggernauts built great businesses AND had values that went beyond just business.

The New York Times is a great example. At the start of World War II, the Times was locked in a fierce battle with the Herald Tribune to be the No. 1 paper in New York and the U.S.

One reason the Times beat the Trib was because it was a better business. The Times gained a big advantage by publishing listings of all the garment merchants visiting New York City to do business. And its editors put these commercial listings on the paper’s front-page (!), ensuring that everyone in the industry needed to buy the Times and advertise with the Times.

But the Times also won because it didn’t sacrifice its editorial values and mission in pursuit of short-term profits. As World War II progressed, newsprint was rationed. There was less room in both papers, and both papers had to choose what to leave out. The Trib chose to print all the ads and cut back on news, while the Times cut back on ads to maintain its full news coverage. The Times faced angry objections and threats from its advertisers but it didn’t yield. Instead, it provided maximum coverage of the war, and took a financial hit for several years. After the war, the Times emerged as the unparalleled paper with more subscribers, more advertising revenue, and became, by many measures, the leading newspaper in the world.

The obvious lesson from this story is that we need to build a great business while remaining true to our readers and editorial mission.

A few other relevant stories from the book:

In 1928, when William Paley left his family cigar business to build CBS radio, the conventional wisdom was that radio would never be a big business. Years later, Edward R. Murrow was denied access to the British Press Club because it wasn’t thought to be possible for a real journalist to work in any medium other than print. Again and again, the conventional wisdom was dismissive of every new medium; each new communications technology was seen as a fad, a tool for demagoguery, or the end of journalism. And always these skeptics were proven wrong, usually by newbies who didn’t care about the old way things were done. Murrow for example, never made the transition from print to broadcast — he started in radio and moved to TV — so he had no bad habits to unlearn and could speak clearly into the microphone or camera with an emotional fluency most print journalists lacked. One of Murrow’s contemporaries, a writer named Robert Landry, summed up Murrow’s advantages:

“Murrow has three advantages over correspondents for the greatest American newspapers: 1) He beats the newspapers by hours; 2) He reaches millions who otherwise have to depend on provincial newspapers for their foreign news; 3) He writes his own headlines. That is to say he emphasizes what he wishes—whereas the newspaper correspondent writes in cablese.”

Today we see a similar phenomena happen again and again. The media industry establishment initially dismisses, and then embraces, the new communication technologies the internet has given us: blogging, Twitter, social, mobile, web video. And the people who pioneer the new formats, do the most innovative and creative work, and who bring the rest of the public from skepticism to enthusiasm, are mostly the ones who don’t care what the establishment thinks, who come to the industry with a fresh mind without anything to unlearn, and who have a broadly optimistic disposition toward new communications technology. I don’t need to spend too much time connecting the dots. Obviously I’m describing the team at BuzzFeed!

Of course, there are limits to these historical comparisons. These days, media companies don’t have natural monopolies or oligopolies where one or two newspapers dominate a local market or a handful of broadcasters are the only options on a limited dial. There is more competition, the market is more fragmented, and gatekeepers have less power. Advertisers have more ways to reach consumers so they aren’t as dependent on publishers and can negotiate lower rates. In fact, some smart people in our industry don’t think it is possible to build a huge new media company anymore, that the golden age is over, and that all the growth now will be limited to pure technology companies.

This pessimistic view is wrong because it is focused entirely on what has been lost (monopoly pricing power, etc) and ignores what has been gained. This is a common psychological trap: People tend to be overly focused what is lost, while under-appreciating gains. We need to resist that mistaken thinking, and to help, here are some of the amazing advantages we have because we are doing this today:

1) Technology

Technology has replaced geographic- and spectrum-based distribution monopolies as a competitive advantage for publishers. Our tech team, product team, and data science team have built a very powerful publishing platform that allows us to serve our readers better. We have spent years building publishing formats (lists, quizzes, video, longform, short-form, breaking news, photo essays, explainers), stats and analytics, optimization and testing frameworks, integrations with social platforms, native-mobile apps, and a user friendly, visually pleasing design. This is a massive investment that is very difficult to replicate, it is part of the reason that the best editorial talent wants to join BuzzFeed, and it creates a virtuous cycle where a growing number of talented people use increasingly powerful tools to do their job.

2) Scale

At the start of the golden age of publishing, a circulation of 1 million readers was considered large and even at the peak, reaching 10 million readers was considered a huge hit. Since those days there have been many exciting developments that have enabled a publisher to reach 10 times or even 100 times that scale. Literacy rates have grown, educational attainment has increased, the internet has connected people around the world creating a global audience, social networks have made it easy to share and discuss media, mobile phones enabled access to news and entertainment for billions of people even when they aren’t at home or at an office. The BuzzFeed of today, thanks to these massive technological and demographic trends, reaches more people than the combined circulation of the 1950s versions of Time, Life, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. It is very hard to beat the scale of the social, mobile web! In the U.S. today, BuzzFeed reaches more people each month than networks like MTV, CNN, or Comedy Central, we reach more more people globally than the print circulation of all the biggest newspapers or magazines, and as we continue to expand internationally the benefits of this scale will become even more dramatic. The golden age of media never saw numbers this big!

3) Diversity of Talent

We don’t just have a much larger pool of readers: The pool of talent for hiring has also vastly expanded. The early days of U.S. publishing were tough for anyone who wasn’t a white Protestant male living in the same city as the local paper. Even Jews like Adolph Ochs, the publisher of the Times, struggled to gain acceptance in New York society. According to Halberstam, this is why in the early 20th century the Times focused on publishing boring, respectable stories designed to appeal to Wall Street WASPs and why, for much of its early history, the Times resisted hiring and promoting Jewish reporters for fear of appearing “too Jewish.” Fortunately for BuzzFeed, times have changed; we can attract the best talent to our team regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion, and we can recruit beyond just New York in a growing list of global cities where we have expanded: Los Angeles, Washington, San Francisco, London, Sydney, Sao Paulo, Paris, and soon Berlin, Tokyo, Mumbai, Mexico City, and many more. Technology and scale are essential, but if you don’t attract the most talented people in the world you can’t thrive in a global market. Fortunately, we have access to the best, most diverse pool of talent in history and that is why we’ve been able to build such an amazing team.

All this suggests that there are major trends bigger than us that bode well for the future of BuzzFeed; that what we are doing has a strong precedent grounded in the history of newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV; and that exciting possibilities have been unlocked by the global internet, social networks, and smartphones that would make an earlier generation of media companies jealous.

The team at BuzzFeed has built an amazing company. I’m so grateful and excited to be working with all of you who have made this possible through your amazing work and creative ideas and can’t wait to see what we will do in the coming years.

But let’s not forget that despite the wonderful opportunity in front of us, our future success is not inevitable. We could easily blow it, stop innovating, get lazy or arrogant, and give our leadership position to someone else. The next couple of years will be critical. We need to stay humble, playful, and creative, work hard, keep learning from our successes and mistakes, and rise to the occasion. We’ve got an opportunity to build the next chapter in media history!

I’m really looking forward to sharing this amazing adventure with you,

Jonah