Which type of media startup are you?

Five years after its pivot into journalism, BuzzFeed’s news production is still up in the air

BuzzFeed’s founder and CEO Jonah Peretti, first from the right, speaks about digital media strategy at a summit by RebelMouse in 2014. (RebelMouse on Vimeo via UpstartCity)

Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed’s founder, sees no conflicts in mixing frivolous cat videos with serious journalism. “Imagine you are a French intellectual at a Cafe,” he wrote in a 2012 post. “You are reading Sartre and Le Monde,” but when a dog sits under the table, “you pause for a moment to pet and admire the dog.”

BuzzFeed tries to appeal to all facets of human being. Today, the front page features absurd quizzes like “Fuck, Marry, Kill: The Delicious Foods Edition” side-by-side with traditional news coverage on Donald Trump, the National Security Agency, and Hurricane Matthew. Founded in 2006, the New York startup has become the queen of new media by churning out funny videos, quizzes and listicles that consistently go viral.

But BuzzFeed’s pivot into journalism proves to be more difficult than Peretti expected. This week, CNN poached an entire investigative team — a total of four political reporters — from BuzzFeed to report on the upcoming presidential election. While the move is a testament to BuzzFeed’s hard news coverage, it also shows that BuzzFeed is competing with traditional news outlets head-on.

Five years ago, BuzzFeed launched the newsroom by hiring Ben Smith, a reputable columnist from Politico, to be its editor-in-chief. Soon the company began landing big scoops. In February 2012, it broke news of Senator John McCain’s endorsement of Mitt Romney. In 2013, it began dispatching correspondents to the Middle East, who later reported on U.S. special forces’ war on ISIS from the front line in Iraq. This year, when the Stanford rape victim was asked where she’d like to publish her anonymous letter, her response was “BuzzFeed, hands down.”

Kathleen Zhou, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, is one Buzzfeed reader who was pleasantly surprised to find original investigative reporting on the site. “I was never a huge fan of BuzzFeed,” she said, adding that videos and listicles were not her thing. “But because I was so impressed by one of their articles, I value them pretty highly.”

But collisions did happen, as journalists joined a company where bloggers pumping out thousands of “LOL” and “WTF” were taking the reins. Establishing citation rules was one of them. In 2012, BuzzFeed bloggers were accused of stealing text and pictures from Reddit and others. In response, Smith had to “(make) those traditional reportorial standards a lot clearer,” he said in an email to Gawker, which exposed the plagiarism. Soon, Smith hired BuzzFeed’s first copy editor.

Other times, journalists reconciled with BuzzFeed’s signature style. In 2012, BuzzFeed launched a series of articles on the election, publishing an end-of-the-year political roundup called “The 15 most OMG BuzzFeed Politics Stories of 2012.”

But four years later, BuzzFeed has yet to build a significant presence in news coverage. “It hasn’t been a leading player in this year’s election coverage,” said Mitchell Stephens, a professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at New York University. “It’s not one of those places I am finding news.”

The business potential of the pivot is even murkier. Unlike curated non-news content, which generates big fees from advertisers, news articles cannot be sponsored. Last year, BuzzFeed reportedly missed its revenue target: it had projected about $250 million but only earned less than $170 million, according to the Financial Times. It also cut its internal revenue projection for 2016 by half. The company later denied the numbers, but didn’t release alternative data.

The news industry, by and large, is operating in a dismal environment. Losing advertisers to social media sites like Facebook, news outlets are struggling to find alternative revenue sources. Bloomberg, for example, uses revenue from Bloomberg Terminals, a financial data machine for bankers and investors, to support its news production.

But unlike Bloomberg, which relies on reporters feeding financial news into the machine, BuzzFeed’s entertainment business is a perfect standalone. Last month, Peretti announced a split between the news and entertainment divisions, each equipped with a video studio.

The decision has raised doubts on whether BuzzFeed will spin off its news operation, although the company quickly dismissed this idea. Nevertheless, the shift to video can be “scary for people who write for a living,” said Peretti during the announcement.

At BuzzFeed, another pivot is already on the rise.