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By Thomas Baekdal - April 2023

A media analyst's post-mortem of BuzzFeed News

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

In this edition: Let's talk about the loss of BuzzFeed News (and what that means for the rest of us), plus, another coming rise in news fatigue.

Welcome back to another edition of the Baekdal/Basic newsletter. I have mentioned this multiple times now, but, if you haven't seen it yet, has changed and there are now three tiers:

If you want to know more about why I made this change, I wrote an article about this here.

A media analyst's post-mortem of BuzzFeed News

As you have probably already heard, BuzzFeed is not doing so well, and has been forced to cut costs across its business. This has led to a number of things. People are told to "write more articles" in "less time" (a strategy that has never worked anywhere), they talk about using AI to write more cheap content (again, a highly questionable strategy), and they have shut down BuzzFeed News.

Now... as a media analyst, I'm not surprised by this. In fact, I'm more surprised that it took this long. Mind you, I actually liked BuzzFeed News. It was a very good news organization, and during a time where most other newspapers were cheapening their journalism, BuzzFeed News took things up a notch. And, over the years, the investigative stories they produced have been incredibly influential. They have even won a Pulitzer.

But BuzzFeed News always had two massive problems that cemented their fate since its start.

The first problem was that it never had a business model. I mean, sure it had advertising (and I will get back to that), and at one point it also put up a "$5 membership" model, but it was not a paywall.

In itself, this could have worked. I mean, look at the Guardian as an example of a newspaper with a voluntary membership/donation model. But, what is different is the execution. On the Guardian, they are heavily focused on convincing people to support them. While you don't have to pay the Guardian, they are using every single conversion trick in the book, and it's heavily optimized, it's very sophisticated, and the "stop-rate" (a key measure to subscription success), is extremely high.

On BuzzFeed News... well... they mostly just put a tiny button at the top of the page saying "support us"... and then they kind of forgot about it.

That's not a business model. That's not really anything.

What about advertising, you ask? Well, same story. One of the things I have been saying over and over again for many years now is that news is not a good fit for advertising, and with BuzzFeed, we saw this very clearly.

BuzzFeed itself was able to generate substantial ad income and ad partnerships because it had a more fun and thus more ad friendly focus. While BuzzFeed News with its hard-hitting, serious, and often very negatively focused journalism is not a good fit for advertising.

On top of that, BuzzFeed News were basically using banner ads (the lowest performing ad format that we have). So, the ad income was also not a real business model.

As a result, BuzzFeed News ran at a loss from the day it launched to the day it was discontinued.

But this problem pales in comparison to the much bigger second problem, which is that BuzzFeed itself also didn't have a real business model. BuzzFeed News survived for six years because it was subsidized by the viral content posted on BuzzFeed itself, which in turn survived based on random traffic from Facebook. But as soon as Facebook started to change and that traffic started to dry out, BuzzFeed also started to fail and suddenly there was not enough money to keep BuzzFeed News around.

I have seen many blame Facebook for this, but that's the wrong way to look at this. If there is one thing you need to learn about the internet it is that you cannot rely on traffic from another site to drive your revenue.

This has been true since the internet started. Before Facebook we had sites like StumbleUpon, which generated an absolutely silly amount of traffic to publishers, and because of this, several viral publishers launched new websites to take advantage of it. But then a few years later, as StumbleUpon started to ... well... stumble, those sites lost their revenue.

Then we had sites like Digg. Remember Digg... it too was a massive driver of traffic, and it too caused viral sites to spring up around it to exploit some of that traffic. But then Digg went away ... and all those viral publishers failed with them.

Facebook is the latest example of this, and in the future there will be other examples.

The lesson here is simple. As a publisher, if you are relying on random traffic from another site for your business, your days are numbered. Sure, in the beginning, it's like a gold rush. But it's not a long-term sustainable model, and one day it will fail ... as it is doing now to BuzzFeed.

You can't blame StumbleUpon, Digg, Facebook and any other sites for this. They have their own problems.

As I posted on Twitter the other day:

As a media analyst, let me say this (again). No matter what you do, and no matter your focus, your main revenue model and profitability should come directly from you. If you then on top of that can make some extra money from Facebook traffic, that's great.
But, as a publisher, if you are not profitable without traffic from Facebook/TikTok/Snap or whatever, you don't have a lasting business.

This is the problem that BuzzFeed faces, and it's why BuzzFeed News is no more. It's not "because of Facebook".

News avoidance is going to get worse...

As most of you know, I have been closely studying and following the trend of news avoidance and news fatigue since 2019, and during this time, the trend has only gone one way. More and more people are now saying that they sometimes or often choose to avoid the news.

And the reason why this is happening is very well known. It's a combination of the news focusing too much on politics, on negativity, that the volume is generally too high, and that people don't feel they can do anything with the information. And, on top of that, we have the second problem that an increasing number of people are saying that no newspaper is worth paying for at all.

All of this is happening despite the subscription growth we have seen over the past five years, which indicates that we also have an increasing news polarization, where we are getting better at converting one part of our audiences, while our overall market is shrinking.

This is obviously not a good thing, but what frustrates me as a media analyst is that I see no effort to really change this. Instead, the media industry seems to try to make it worse and worse.

Let me give you a simple example:

Here is the front page of the BBC News. What you see here are seven articles about Biden running for president. Promoted and featured in such a way that you think the election is a month away.

But, of course, it isn't. The next US Presidential Election is in November 2024 ... that's a year and a half away from today. This is nuts. And if we continue to do this, I can guarantee you that the trend around news avoidance and news fatigue is going to increase even more.

This form of journalism, this volume, this focus, this bombardement of stories is exactly what people have been telling us that they do not want.

But this is not the only problem. There are two more problems.

The second problem is that this is the BBC, which is not even a US news site. Meaning that most people who see these stories are also outside of the US. That means that there is nothing that they can do with this information.

I call this the "attention disconnect". As the press, we are filling people's attention with information that they cannot do anything about.

And if you are thinking, "But, Thomas, this is important news. We have to report that" ... that's not the point. It's not that we are reporting the news. It's how we are doing it. There are seven articles on this front page, and over the next year and a half, we are going to see thousands more. That's not "reporting it". It's "flooding the public with it".

Again, this is exactly what causes news avoidance. People look at this and they go "Oh f... this. I'm out", and they start to avoid the news, and then a really scary thing that happens is that people start to feel JOMO. The "Joy of Missing Out".

We see this, again, in the studies. People say that they feel better and that it is a more useful time when they stop reading the news.

I mean, this trend is scary as hell.

But this leads us to the other problem, which is that our coverage is fundamentally undemocratic, and our coverage is undermining the principles of a fair election.

This is a pretty bold claim to make as a media analyst because I know that everyone working for a newspaper feels they are protecting democracy. But let me show you a graph from the 2016 US election.

What you see here is that one candidate received more news coverage than all the other candidates combined, and with more than 16 times more coverage than the lowest candidates.

In other words, through our coverage, we massively help one candidate to get the exposure they need, while simultaneously making it basically impossible for other candidates to get heard or even have a chance of getting elected.

Our coverage is massively skewing the public's attention to a point where we no longer have a fair election. And, every one of us knows this. After the 2016 election, we talked about this exact problem in the press, we recognized this impact, and several newspapers agreed that this is something we needed to fix for the future.

Well, now we are one and a half years from the next US election, and what are we doing? The same thing!!

Here is a headline from another newspaper:

Once again, we already decided as the press which two candidates will be president, and we are now skewing our coverage to guarantee that only these two people get the attention. Any other candidate will not get an appreciable amount of attention, which means that the public will not have an informed choice, and it's not a fair election.

And it's because of things like this that we see that people are giving up on political news. Because when they see our news coverage they fundamentally feel that we are part of the problem.

Again, this drives up the trend of news avoidance.

This is a serious problem for society, ourselves, and our industry. But, as I said before, I don't think anything will be done about this. Instead, I predict that over the next one and a half years, as the press, we will do even more of what I just described. So more news, more volume, more drama, and all of it almost exclusively centered around just two candidates.

And as a result, the level of news fatigue will increase even higher. In other words, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. We know that it is happening, but we still do it...

As a media analyst, this makes me incredibly frustrated.

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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