The Washington Post | by Jeremy Barr | March 23, 2022
When BuzzFeed decided in 2012 to branch out from the cat videos, viral listicles and “OMG!” headlines that had put it on the map for under-30 readers for a bold new venture into serious journalism, its critics were skeptical. “WTF, indeed,” quipped Fast Company.
But less than a decade later, it had claimed its first Pulitzer Prize – for an investigative series that harnessed satellite imagery to demonstrate the extent of China’s secretive program for detaining the Uyghur people in the northwestern Xinjiang region – and secured a reputation as one of the brightest lights of digital media.
Now, though, the ambitions that once fueled BuzzFeed News appear to have dulled, after the company announced Tuesday it would shed staff in the coverage areas – investigative reporting, politics, science, economic disparity and social justice – where it once competed with the giants of traditional journalism. Management has offered buyouts to 36 of the news division’s roughly 100 journalists, which some fear could be a death blow for its long-term future. The union that represents many BuzzFeed News employees called the proposal an attempt to “gut our newsroom.”
The company has not announced any layoffs, but that’s a frequent next step at news organizations when too few employees opt for a buyout. In early 2019, the company laid off 215 employees, about 15% of its total staff, and 43 of them were journalists, many from its national news teams.
“Still don’t have words to capture what it’s like to see a company try to gut its teams of investigative, science, inequality and politics reporters,” investigative reporter Kendall Taggart wrote on Twitter, one of several journalists expressing frustrations with the cutbacks on social media this week.
Former BuzzFeed News reporter Joel D. Anderson said it “makes me incredibly sad for them and the future of journalism – I mean, we can’t all go work for the NYT.”
The news division also lost its top two editorial leaders, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mark Schoofs, who resigned, and deputy editor in chief Tom Namako, who is leaving for NBC News. The team’s interim head, Samantha Henig, encouraged employees “who are genuinely excited” about the new direction of the news organization to stay on, acknowledging that “it might be a shift that really doesn’t match your career goals,” according to a copy of her remarks obtained by The Washington Post.
“People were definitely upset, and I don’t blame them,” Henig, a former audio executive at the New York Times, said in an interview Wednesday. “It was a lot to take in.”
But, she said, “I think we can absolutely do great work with [a smaller newsroom] and take big swings and kind of fan out and cover a lot of different aspects of the world today. I think we’ll continue to punch above our weight. That is core to the BuzzFeed News way.”
Some outside observers said BuzzFeed’s cuts illustrate the challenges of finding a new journalism business model in the digital era – even for the agile and aggressive start-ups that once seemed poised to chart a new path for the entire industry.
“If anything, this BuzzFeed move highlights that quality and sustainability are not always the same thing,” said Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, “and I think that’s always troubling for journalists to think about in that way.”
From the beginning, the company’s journalistic ambitions were vast. When BuzzFeed announced in late 2011 that it had poached political reporter Ben Smith from Politico as the news division’s editor in chief, it announced plans to create “the definitive social news organization.” Many questioned Smith’s decision to leave a sure-thing job for an experiment. But quickly the site began delivering political scoops – such as Sen. John McCain’s decision to endorse Mitt Romney for the 2012 GOP nomination – and digging into government spending in Afghanistan. A political research team led by a 20-something journalist named Andrew Kaczynski pioneered a new brand of digital deep dives, sparking new controversies with the old comments they found in recordings of long-forgotten radio interviews and televised debates with leading politicians. Kaczynski would soon be hired away by CNN, just one of many young BuzzFeed talents stolen by the media giants that once scoffed at the site.
“Political coverage was the thing that made everyone sit up and recognize BuzzFeed News,” said Kate Nocera, who served as D.C. bureau chief between 2016 and 2020.
When Nocera first joined BuzzFeed News as a congressional reporter in 2013, she said even the name tripped up some of the politicians that the news division covered. “We would say, ‘Buzz’ like the bee, ‘feed’ like food, to explain the name,” she said. “It very quickly became our goal for people to talk to us and take us seriously. It was an uphill battle at the beginning.”
But, Nocera added, “We always felt like we could stick our necks out for BuzzFeed and do great work and be fearless because BuzzFeed would have our back.”
In addition to political coverage, BuzzFeed News contributed hard-hitting, revelatory reporting to the broader MeToo movement reckoning, including a long-in-the-works investigation of R&B singer R. Kelly by journalist Jim DeRogatis that contributed to his conviction last September on nine federal sex trafficking and racketeering charges. (“I generally avoided BuzzFeed’s homepage,” DeRogatiis wrote, explaining how he brought the story to the site, “but BuzzFeed News had been doing some of the most impressive journalism of the Trump era.”) Its coverage of accusations of sexual misconduct against the actor Kevin Spacey also stood out from the pack.
In July 2020, BuzzFeed News reporter Krystie Lee Yandoli revealed the “toxic work culture” at Ellen DeGeneres’s talk show, which the host ultimately decided to end.
But it was the news organization’s four-part investigation of Chinese reeducation and internment camps in 2020, written by Megha Rajagopalan, Alison Killing and Christo Buschek, that brought BuzzFeed News its first Pulitzer and seemed to vindicate its journalistic mission. That same year, BuzzFeed News and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists were also named finalists for a massive reporting project that shed light on how the world’s biggest banks facilitate international money laundering and corruption.
Yet Nocera, who is now an editor for Axios, noted that the company’s business and editorial strategy seemed to shift frequently. “I don’t think they ever gave news a real chance to make money,” she said. BuzzFeed chief executive Jonah Peretti long touted the news team’s burnishing effect on the company’s overall reputation, but while other media organizations took aggressive steps to set up paywalls and sell subscriptions, BuzzFeed opted to keep its journalism free, experimenting with a membership model that allows readers to make donations. A recent decision to take the company public failed to bring in as much investment as the company had hoped.
“We won’t be able to do as many year-or-more, long-gestating, moonshot investigations, but we will still do them,” Henig said Wednesday. “We’ll just need to be even more strategic about the targets, if we’re going to support projects that are quite that resource-intensive.”
Some of the BuzzFeed News reporters who expressed sadness and frustration about the cutbacks also signaled a desire to keep going. “Whether it’s here or elsewhere, we’re going to keep breaking stories that change the world,” Taggart, the investigative reporter, wrote on Twitter. “We most certainly will,” added Jason Leopold, another investigative star. “100 percent.”
BuzzFeed News now needs a new top editor to direct that coverage. “We’re hoping to move quickly because we recognize that that’s a big piece of giving people a clear vision of the future,” Henig said.
Bell, however, is skeptical about BuzzFeed’s ability to retain and recruit journalists. “I think some of the really good journalists they’ve employed have lost faith in the management, and you can’t really rebuild that.”