It becomes all too easy, when discussing BuzzFeed, to oversimplify its mission and contribution to journalism. Because it sprang to life as a purveyor of GIFs and humorous lists, perfecting the form such that it reaped huge web traffic rewards, it lent itself to dismissive characterizations as mere clickbait fodder, even as it evolved into a more complicated and serious endeavor.
So it’s understandable if some people’s hackles get raised whenever an editor at a traditional news outlet takes an offhand swipe at BuzzFeed. Back in May, an internal “innovations report” produced at the New York Times leaked to the public, and in it we found a scathing rundown of the paper’s failures to adopt to the digital age. In the wake of that report, the Times hired Alex MacCallum, an early Huffington Post editor and an executive on the business side of the Times, to head an audience development team. This week she granted an interview to Digiday’s Lucia Moses, and when she was asked about the Times’s competition with BuzzFeed, she had this to say:
“The whole mission of BuzzFeed is to get people to share,” she said. “That is not the mission of The New York Times. The mission of The New York Times is about the best journalism in the world and giving people accurate, timely information. I don’t think that BuzzFeed is competing in that space. I wouldn’t discount them as competition at all. But the Times should be there when people search for a big news event.”
This quote produced ire in certain circles of the internet. NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen noted that “nothing brings out lazy assumptions and half-thought ideas in legacy media like some people’s offhand statements about Buzzfeed.” But perhaps nobody was more irked by it than Mathew Ingram. In a column for Gigaom, he said that MacCallum’s comments “set off alarm bells,” and he argued that BuzzFeed and New York Times are certainly in the same business, even if the Times doesn’t want to admit it. “It was easier to dismiss [BuzzFeed] when it was a tiny thing run by nerds, but it has close to 1,000 staff around the world — including journalists doing serious news and political coverage in a number of foreign bureaus — and a theoretical market value of close to $1 billion. It’s not just a bunch of listicles and cat photos any more.”
I agree with him on many of these points, but where I draw the line is his assertion that the Times and BuzzFeed are in the exact same business, and in terms of competition, “BuzzFeed is winning.” This claim seems to be based on the fact BuzzFeed receives more shares — and by extension web traffic — than the Grey Lady. But saying that BuzzFeed is beating the New York Times because it receives more traffic is like saying Android is beating Apple because there are more Android phones on the market.
While there certainly is overlap in the venn diagram when you compare BuzzFeed and the Times’s market, that overlap is far from 100 percent. First, we must start with the obvious. The New York Times dwarfs BuzzFeed in revenue. BuzzFeed hit $100 million in revenue in 2014. The New York Times produced triple that number in just its last quarter.
When you examine how the Times generated that revenue, you begin to understand the different constituencies it serves and why it must be more nuanced in its approach to social sharing than BuzzFeed. While BuzzFeed primarily makes money from its native advertising, the Times has several revenue streams, ranging from print display advertising, classifieds advertising, print subscriptions, online display advertising, digital subscriptions, and a new native advertising product.
When you’re trying to sell premium, paid-for products which kick in and start demanding money after your 10th visit to the website, you’re then incentivized to maximize information ROI for each of those 10 visits so that by the 11th visit the consumer is convinced of its value enough to shell out lots of cash — up to $455 a year. While BuzzFeed can afford to produce posts explaining the Egyptian revolution with Jurassic Park gifs, and entertain lots of people while doing so, I doubt those people, when they hit a 10-post limit, would pay hundreds of dollars a year in order to continue accessing it.
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I would argue, also, that those 875,000 digital subscribers are worth many times their number in web visits to BuzzFeed — not only are they producing more direct revenue, but there’s also an argument that you can sell advertising to them at a higher premium. This is why comparing website traffic between BuzzFeed and the New York Times is largely apples to oranges. Currently, those subscribers generate $100 million a year in revenue, as much as BuzzFeed pulls in via all its revenue streams.
In some ways, you could also say that the Times is catching up to BuzzFeed at its own game. Despite BuzzFeed having a significant head start on the native advertising front, the New York Times is quickly beefing up its sponsored content studio, and native advertising is one of its quickest-growing divisions, contributing to a 16.5 percent increase in digital advertising revenue.
Don’t get me wrong, BuzzFeed and the New York Times are certainly in competition for a lot of the same readers and journalistic talent, and it would be foolish for the Times to dismiss BuzzFeed and ignore any encroachments it makes on its business, but at the same time I can certainly see where MacCallum is coming from in that her mission isn’t entirely in alignment with BuzzFeed’s. She must perform a delicate balancing act, ensuring that the paper of record continues to cater to its premium customers while also making it more accessible — and by extension shareable — to millions of casual web readers. Given that the New York Times saw a 20 percent increase in traffic in just two months after forming the audience development team, I’d wager she’s performing that balancing act quite nicely.
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