Monthly Archives: September 2014

How a small change to BuzzFeed’s CMS vastly improved its mobile website

buzzfeed logo 2

If you’ve been publishing on the internet for long, you undoubtedly know what it’s like when you spend a significant amount of time formatting an article for the web, only to realize hours or even days later that the piece looks like shit on mobile. A photograph that you had right-aligned makes a paragraph unreadable. An image, rendered for the mobile screen, is tiny and indecipherable. The pagination is broken. Because we do most of our writing and publishing on a desktop/laptop, it doesn’t always occur to us to visit our own article on our mobile phone to ensure that it’s still readable. Realizing this, BuzzFeed’s vice president of growth and data Dao Nguyen made a subtle-yet-important change to the site’s CMS:

But writing a big list post is a lot of work, she said, and previewing it on a non-desktop platform was a task easily forgotten.

Now when BuzzFeed authors click the preview button in their CMS, they see what their posts will look like on mobile devices as well as on desktop computers when they preview them, Nguyen said. That’s a fix that’s important for the site’s readers’ experiences, because sometimes writers use “embeds and large graphics that don’t scale down to mobile-sized screens,” Chris Johanesen, BuzzFeed’s vice president of product, said on the same call.


Most publishers don’t realize how difficult it is to produce popular web videos

buzzfeed video

Even without any prior context as to the state of online video, the viewership stats for BuzzFeed Video are amazing. In an interview with BuzzFeed executive producer Andrew Gauthier, we’re treated to these numbers:

Unlike many text publishers that have pushed into video, BuzzFeed’s videos aren’t boom and bust. They regularly rack up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. For example, the last 10 videos BuzzFeed created have view counts between 221,000 and 1 million on BuzzFeed’s primary YouTube channel, BuzzFeedVideo.

I think the average consumer could reasonably assume that a website that already has millions of monthly visitors and millions of social media followers could start regularly producing web videos that rack up thousands of views. The reality is that success stories like BuzzFeed’s are far from the norm.

There’s been a trend in recent years of major news outlets, galvanized by the promise of higher CPM advertising rates, launching more robust video departments. How hard could it be to simply replicate the cable news talking heads model? Just put a few pundits and journalists in a room and have them analyze that day’s news. After wasting significant money and staff resources, many of these publishers have learned a difficult lesson: It’s harder than it looks. In fact, getting a significantly-sized audience to not only sit down and watch a video, but then go on to share it on social media, is a gargantuan task.

Don’t believe me? Look at the recent videos uploaded onto YouTube by the New York Times, arguably one of the largest and most well-funded news sites in the U.S. Of the 30 videos uploaded in the last five days, only one has more than 5,000 views. Most have fewer than 2,000. Or look at Post TV, the ambitious video project from the Washington Post. It launched in 2013 with the goal of producing several live shows that starred the newspaper’s most prominent pundits. It was met with dismal reviews, and by December of that same year the company announced that it was already rolling back its shows in favor of shorter videos. When you visit the Post TV website today you’ll mostly find a repository of short Reuters videos.


And god forbid you decide to forgo YouTube and only use your custom-made video player. YouTube’s ecosystem is massive (it’s the second largest search engine after Google), and its video recommendation engine has enormous influence. Unless your video is absolutely groundbreaking, without YouTube’s help it’s likely to get fewer than 100 views.

So the fact that BuzzFeed is able to regularly produce videos that attract hundreds of thousands of viewers proves that it isn’t a one-hit, listicle-dependent wonder. It has succeeded among the wreckage of hundreds of abandoned video departments that were launched by overly-eager news organizations.


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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at For a full bio, go here.

Why telecom and cable companies outmaneuver tech companies in Washington

Ben Smith reports on Silicon Valley tech companies ‘attempts to gain a foothold in Washington, DC. He notes that despite tech companies’ rabid fan bases and ability to throw down cash, they’re still being outmaneuvered by old-school telecom and cable companies:

Tech has been, from the puzzled perspective of Washington’s political class, always arriving, never quite there. Its sheer wealth, enormous economic vitality, and immense cultural force should have brought massive clout. But tech companies instead have a reputation for throwing the most lavish parties at political conventions — and then getting smoked in the back room by old-line cable and telecoms companies. The energy behind a real populist uprising, “Stop SOPA,” never quite forms into a permanent interest. The industry’s highest policy priorities — hiring more foreign engineers, for instance — don’t make it into law.

And then later:

“They’re still punching below their weight,” reflected a top former Obama aide who now consults tech companies. “I mean — who’s got cultural capital in next 50 years? Comcast? Or Google, Facebook, Twitter? Really, it’s bananas that Comcast still gets away with what it gets away with.”

Smith fails to point out in the piece that much of cable and telecom clout is derived from a geographic advantage. Comcast may be hated by customers, but it employs thousands of workers, and not only that, these are local workers. Workers who lay down and maintain the cable lines. Workers who visit and install your cable. These employees are incredibly influential at the Senate and House levels, where cable companies can accuse Congressmen of not supporting local jobs. This packs much more influence than a few high-paid lobbyist and some campaign donations.

Tech companies will start winning these battles once they can mobilize their users at the local level. A good example of this is Uber. Every time local Taxi companies have tried to step in and regulate the company out of existence, it has appealed to that city’s most fervent Uber fans to sign petitions and call their local city council members. And, as Smith’s article notes, Uber has begun winning battles all across the U.S.

Tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google are already utilizing geographic data for their targeted ads. They’re sitting on a wealth of information that can convert their most passionate users into brunt force cannon fodder against local politicians.

Should for-profit news orgs convert to nonprofit status?

There have been countless examples in recent years of nonprofit news organizations launching, from ProPublica to the Texas Tribune. But there are few examples of struggling news outlets converting to nonprofit status or being purchased by nonprofits. Mother Jones publisher Steve Katz explores why this strategy may work for a chain of local papers in California:

Managing local papers for short-term profit is the end of local newspapers. Managing local newspapers for the long run, based on deeper engagement with the local community, is the future of local journalism.

Like Mother Jones, CIR is a nonprofit organization, but with a sharp eye for the need to build out a dynamic business model. With increasingly diverse revenue streams, CIR is looking more and more like the kind of organization that MoJo’s been for a while — a hybrid, with a mix of earned (circulation, ads, syndication, consulting, events, etc.) revenue and philanthropic revenue.

This kind of economic model allows you to manage for the long run, to build an institution and a community of interest among people who care about the work — that’s why they’d give dollars to it. When this happens, a journalism outfit can begin to attract advertisers who want to get their stuff in front of a motivated audience who trust the journalism brand. No, it’s not easy. Yes, it can work.


How Forbes stumbled triumphantly into digital success

Among legacy news publications, Forbes can be counted as among the few that launched a “digital first” all-in strategy back when the rest of the industry was still trying to convince itself that this whole internet thing was a fad (The Atlantic was another early risk taker). It seems evident that this aggressive strategy paid off, as Forbes is deriving more revenue from its digital operations than the print magazine. In an article I hope to publish next week, I’ll explore the inner workings of its contributor network — its army of thousands of bloggers that are producing content on its site. But for now, check out Michael Wolff’s feature that explains the internal politics and family dynamics that allowed the company to make such an aggressive move while the rest of the industry was still trying to maintain a moat around itself.

The family found itself poised between protecting its legacy and protecting the wealth that it had come to assume was its due. It seemed clearer to some, notably Tim, and less clear to others, particularly Steve, that protecting the legacy was a losing battle.

And then, in 2007, the financial world collapsed, devastating many industries, perhaps none more than print publishing. The ever-downward glide of Forbes Media became a tailspin, and by 2009 the company was failing to make payments on its ­$90million credit line, and there was an exit of top managers, including Berrien, Spanfeller, Kneale, and the respected international head, Robert Crozier. A restructuring completed in 2010 mandated the ouster of Steve Forbes as CEO and his replacement with longtime magazine manager turned technology investor Mike Perlis, the first non-Forbes to run the company since it was founded, in 1917. Steve was allowed to go on holding the titles of chairman and editor in chief.

But perhaps even more profoundly, there was a radical restructuring of the editorial side, reportedly instigated by Tim. Lewis Dvorkin was an editor at the magazine who, with an investment from Forbes Media, had gone off to start a company called True/Slant, a user-created content concept (i.e., anybody could write and nobody got paid—at least, no more than a token dribble). When Forbes Media absorbed True/Slant, in 2010, Dvorkin was given primary editorial responsibility at the company, charged with creating a low-cost, high-traffic model. It was a kind of prewar/postwar contrast, one world giving way to the other, the necessary invention of a new society.

The self-inflated egos of techno libertarians

It’s a common refrain that’s become pervasive within Silicon Valley circles: The government has failed us, and the only way for society to move forward is for the coders who inhabit the Bay Area to liberate us via mobile apps. Such is the attitude of King Techno Libertarian Peter Thiel, who laments a world that has no robot maids or cures for cancer:

Thiel’s thesis: if change is going to happen on medical research, on climate change, or on getting a man to Mars, it will come from outside of large institutions.

Such world views ignore the enormous body of evidence that many of mankind’s largest innovations have come at the behest of large institutions. Look at the technologies made possible through NASA research or how DARPA enabled the creation of the internet. Thiel complains about the lack of cancer cures, but we’ve made vast strides just in the last few decades in prolonging the lives of cancer patients, and much of that success can be laid at the feet of the NIH, which contributes $60 billion in research funding a year. Thiel doesn’t explain how venture capitalism will amass and distribute this level of funding when there’s little short-term profit potential.

Thiel also doesn’t acknowledge how the need for bureaucracy grows as your deal with larger and larger populations made up of individuals who pursue their personal short-term goals often at the expense of the betterment of everyone. It’s not clear that a piece of technology can supplant the need for restaurant health inspections, nor can it single-handedly disincentivize companies from wantonly spewing carbon into the atmosphere.

To believe that we can solve the world’s problems by dispelling government is to rely on anecdotal evidence while enclosing yourself in a bubble of delusional self-importance. We will not cure cancer by simply handing over the reigns to people who build photo sharing apps.