Ben Smith picked just the right title for his saga of BuzzFeed, Gawker, and The Huffington Post: Traffic (though in the end, he credits the able sensationalist Michael Wolff with the choice). For what Ben chronicles is both the apotheosis and the end of the age of mass media and its obsessive quest for audience attention, for scale, for circulation, ratings, page views, unique users, eyeballs and engagement.
Most everything I write these days — my upcoming books The Gutenberg Parenthesis in June and a next book, an elegy to the magazine in November, and another that I’m working on about the internet — is in the end about the death of the mass, a passing I celebrate. I write in The Gutenberg Parenthesis:
The mass is the child and creation of media, a descendant of Gutenberg, the ultimate extension of treating the public as object — as audience rather than participant. It was the mechanization and industrialization of print with the steam-powered press and Linotype — exploding the circulation of daily newspapers from an average of 4,000 in the late nineteenth century to hundreds of thousands and millions in the next — that brought scale to media. With broadcast, the mass became all-encompassing. Mass is the defining business model of pre-internet capitalism: making as many identical widgets to sell to as many identical people as possible. Content becomes a commodity to attract the attention of the audience, who themselves are sold as a commodity. In the mass, everything and everyone is commodified.
Ben and the anti-heroes of his tale — BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti, Gawker Media founder Nick Denton, HuffPost founder Arianna Huffington, investor Kenny Lerer, and a complete dramatis personae of the early players in pure-play digital media — were really no different from the Hearsts, Pulitzers, Newhouses, Luces, Greeleys, Bennetts, Sarnoffs, Paleys, and, yes, Murdochs, the moguls of mass media’s mechanized, industrialized, and corporate age who built their empires on traffic. The only difference, really, was that the digital moguls had new ways to hunt their prey: social, SEO, clickbait, data, listicles, and snark.
Ben tells the story so very well; he is an admirable writer and reporter. His narrative whizzes by like a local train on the express tracks. And it rings true. I had a seat myself on this ride. I was a friend of Nick Denton’s and a member of the board of his company before Gawker, Moreover; president of the online division of Advance (Condé Nast + Newhouse Newspapers); a board member for another pure-play, Plastic (a mashup of Suck et al); a proto-blogger; a writer for HuffPost; and a media critic who occasionally got invited to Nick’s parties and argued alongside Elizabeth Spiers at his kitchen table that he needed to open up to comments (maybe it’s all our fault). So I quite enjoyed Traffic. Because memories.
Traffic is worthwhile as a historical document of an as-it-turns-out-brief chapter in media history and as Ben’s own memoir of his rise from Politico blogger to BuzzFeed News editor to New York Times media critic to co-founder of Semafor. I find it interesting that Ben does not try to separate out the work of his newsroom from the click-factory next door. Passing reference is made to the prestige he and Jonah wanted news to bring to the brand, but Ben does not shy away from association with the viral side of the house.
I saw a much greater separation between the two divisions of BuzzFeed — not just reputationally but also in business models. It took me years to understand the foundation of BuzzFeed’s business. My fellow media blatherers would often scold me: “You don’t understand, Jeff,” one said, “BuzzFeed is the first data-driven newsroom.” So what? Every newsroom and every news organization since the 1850s measured itself by its traffic, whether they called it circulation or reach or MAUs.
No, what separated BuzzFeed’s business from the rest was that it did not sell space or time or even audience. It sold a skill: We know how to make our stuff viral, they said to advertisers. We can make your stuff viral. As a business, it (like Vice) was an ad agency with a giant proof-of-concept attached.
There were two problems. The first was that BuzzFeed depended for four-fifths of its distribution on other platforms: BuzzFeed’s own audience took its content to the larger audience where they were, mostly on Facebook, also YouTube and Twitter. That worked fine until it didn’t — until other, less talented copykittens ruined it for them. The same thing happened years earlier to About.com, where The New York Times Company brought me in to consult after its purchase. About.com had answers to questions people asked in Google search, so Google sent them to About.com, where Google sold the ads. It was a beautiful thing, until crappy content farms like Demand Media came and ruined it for them. In a first major ranking overhaul, Google had to downgrade everything that looked like a content farm, including About. Oh, well. (After learning the skills of SEO and waiting too long, The Times Company finally sold About.com; its remnants labor on in Barry Diller’s content farm, DotDash, where the last survivors of Time Inc. and Meredith toil, mostly post-print.)
The same phenomenon struck BuzzFeed, as social networks became overwhelmed with viral crap because, to use Silicon Valley argot, there was no barrier to entry to making clickbait. In Traffic, Ben reviews the history of Eli Pariser’s well-intentioned but ultimately corrupting startup Upworthy, which ruined the internet and all of media with its invention, the you-won’t-believe-what-happened-next headline. The experience of being bombarded with manipulative ploys for attention was bad for users and the social networks had to downgrade it. Also, as Ben reports, they discovered that many people were more apt to share screeds filled with hate and lies than cute kittens. Enter Breitbart.
BuzzFeed’s second problem was that BuzzFeed News had no sustainable business model other than the unsustainable business model of the rest of news. News isn’t, despite the best efforts of headline writers, terribly clickable. In the early days, BuzzFeed didn’t sell banner ads on its own content and even if it had, advertisers don’t much want to be around news because it is not “brand safe.” Therein lies a terrible commentary on marketing and media, but I’ll leave that for another day.
Ben’s book comes out just as BuzzFeed killed News. In the announcement, Jonah confessed to “overinvesting” in it, which is an admirably candid admission that news didn’t have a business model. Sooner or later, the company’s real bosses — owners of its equity — would demand its death. Ben writes: “I’ve come to regret encouraging Jonah to see our news division as a worthy enterprise that shouldn’t be evaluated solely as a business.” Ain’t that the problem with every newsroom? The truth is that BuzzFeed News was a philanthropic gift to the information ecosystem from Jonah and Ben.
Just as Jonah and company believed that Facebook et al had turned on them, they turned on Facebook and Google and Twitter, joining old, incumbent media in arguing that Silicon Valley somehow owed the news industry. For what? For sending them traffic all these years? Ben tells of meeting with the gray eminence of the true evil empire, News Corp., to discuss strategies to squeeze “protection money” (Ben’s words) from technology companies. That, too, is no business model.
Thus the death of BuzzFeed news says much about the fate of journalism today. In Traffic, Ben tells the tale of the greatest single traffic driver in BuzzFeed’s history: The Dress. You know, this one:
At every journalism conference where I took the stage after that, I would ask the journalists in attendance how many of their news organizations wrote a story about The Dress. Every single hand would go up. And what does that say about the state of journalism today? As we whine and wail about losing reporters and editors at the hands of greedy capitalists, we nonetheless waste tremendous journalistic resource rewriting each other for traffic: everyone had to have their own story to get their own Googlejuice and likes and links and ad impressions and pennies from them. No one added anything of value to BuzzFeed’s own story. The story, certainly BuzzFeed would acknowledge, had no particular social value; it did nothing to inform public discourse. It was fun. It got people talking. It took their attention. It generated traffic.
The virus Ben writes about is one that BuzzFeed — and the every news organization on the internet and the internet as a whole — caught from old, coughing mass media: the insatiable hunger for traffic for its own sake. In the book, Nick Denton plays the role of inscrutable (oh, I can attest to that) philosopher. According to Ben, Nick believed that traffic was the key expression of value: “Traffic, to Nick … was something pure. It was an art, not a science. Traffic meant that what you were doing was working.” Yet Nick also knew where traffic could lead. Ben quotes him telling a journalist in 2014: “It’s not jonah himself I hate, but this stage of internet media for which he is so perfectly optimized. I see an image of his cynical smirk — made you click! — every time a stupid buzzfeed listicle pops on Facebook.”
Nick also believed that transparency was the only ethic that really mattered, for the sake of democracy. Add these two premises, traffic and transparency, together and the sex tape that was the McGuffin that brought down Gawker and Nick at the hands of Peter Thiel was perhaps an inevitability. Ben also credits (or blames?) Nick for his own decision to release the Trump dossier to the public on BuzzFeed. (I still think Ben has a credible argument for doing so: It was being talked about in government and in media and we, the public, had the right to judge for ourselves. Or rather, it’s not our right to decide; it’s a responsibility, which will fall on all of us more and more as our old institutions of trust and authority — editing and publishing — falter in the face of the abundance of talk the net enables.)
The problem in the end is that traffic is a commodity; commodities have no unique value; and commodities in abundance will always decrease in price, toward zero. “Even as the traffic to BuzzFeed, Gawker Media, and other adept digital publishers grew,” Ben writes, “their operators began to feel that they were running on an accelerating treadmill, needing ever more traffic to keep the same dollars flowing in.” Precisely
Traffic is not where the value of the internet lies. No, as I write in The Gutenberg Parenthesis (/plug), the real value of the internet is that it begins to reverse the impact print and mass media have had on public discourse. The internet devalues the notions of content, audience, and traffic in favor of speech. Only it is going to take a long time for society to relearn the conversational skills it has lost and — as with Gutenberg and the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and Thirty Years’ War that followed — things will be messy in between.
BuzzFeed, Gawker, The Huffington Post, etc. were not new media at all. They were the last gasp of old media, trying to keep the old ways alive with new tricks. What comes next — what is actually new — has yet to be invented. That is what I care about. That is why I teach.