The sad closure of BuzzFeed News should serve as a warning that media brands can no longer afford to leave their destiny in others’ hands.
In BuzzFeed’s case, those others were the social media giants who fuelled the site’s staggering growth during the 2010s but ultimately smothered the life out of its business model a decade later when they concluded that it would be far more lucrative to monetise users on their own platforms rather than funnel them off to publishers.
As BuzzFeed boss Jonah Peretti acknowledged in his memo announcing the closure, he had been “slow to accept that the big platforms wouldn’t provide the distribution or financial support required to support premium, free journalism purpose-built for social media”.
Capturing the social media zeitgeist earlier and better than most in the publishing world was BuzzFeed’s great editorial triumph. With youthful exuberance, it excelled in identifying and packaging trends and disseminating them back to those same social media sites in the form of its own viral content.
But as myriad imitators emerged, and the likes of Facebook, Twitter and later Tiktok cottoned on to the value viral viewing offers to their own platforms, BuzzFeed’s role as an internet culture arbiter became less pronounced – and so too did its brand.
Its Pulitzer-winning newsroom’s efforts to distinguish its often-excellent journalism from its parent company’s kittens and quizzes image only served to make BuzzFeed News blend in with its competitor set as yet another mainstream digital publisher. And having grown accustomed to being spoon-fed BuzzFeed content at their convenience on social media, readers had little compelling them to go and seek it out for themselves on buzzfeednews.com.
Without reader loyalty, BuzzFeed News was left entirely exposed to the whims of social media algorithms and a digital advertising downturn which has left many publishers and even those apparently mighty social media platforms, shaken in 2023.
So how can others avoid the same fate?
Forget, for a moment, the journey. For publishers now it’s all about the destination.
After being fixated for so long on meeting users wherever they are – invariably on a social media feed somewhere – news publishers must refocus on being recognised as destinations in their own right. And that means having more confidence in their own platforms.
For that to happen, publishers will have to ask themselves if they really understand their audiences, and what those audiences need from them. They’ll also need to wean themselves off the vanity metrics and the scale game, which has become a law of diminishing returns.
For all but the very biggest publishers, it is invariably likely that smaller but better-defined readerships will yield greater returns than large but amorphous audiences.
Lessons on how the world’s best publishers, big and small, succeed even in tough times will be in evidence at The Drum’s Online Media Awards taking place later this year. The awards reward original, clever and thought-provoking work and are open to editorial teams and media owners, of any size, who demonstrate the skill and commitment needed to keep the public informed.
Last year, the likes of ITV News, Gay Times and Sunday Times triumphed after demonstrating both editorial excellence and brand distinctiveness. If you think you and your teams belong in this company, you still have time to enter your work at onlinemediaawards.net.
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