BuzzFeed News, a pioneering digital news site that won a Pulitzer Prize and stirred controversy by publishing the Steele dossier, said Thursday it will close after 12 years.
The news was broken to dismayed employees in an email from the site's co-founder and chief executive, Jonah Peretti, who wrote the company couldn't maintain a stand-alone news organization and cited "more challenges than I can count," including the pandemic, declining advertising and "a tech recession."
He also blamed himself, writing that he was "slow to accept" the challenges in building a site around free digital journalism. "I could have managed these changes better as the CEO of this company and our leadership team could have performed better despite these circumstances," Peretti wrote.
Parent company BuzzFeed Inc. plans to lay off roughly 180 employees - representing 15 percent of the company's total workforce of about 1,200 - and begin shuttering BuzzFeed News, which was started in late 2011 as an adjunct to BuzzFeed.com, a website that specializes in creating more frivolous content such as viral "listicles" about celebrities and popular culture.
"I am deeply sorry," the site's editor in chief, Karolina Waclawiak, wrote to employees in a note she subsequently shared on Twitter. "You deserve better. There is no reason this company couldn't have built a business around BuzzFeed News far earlier." Waclawiak told The Washington Post she would be staying with the company to manage the transition and other projects.
The company plans to preserve old BuzzFeed News articles on BuzzFeed.com, which will continue to operate along with its sister publication, HuffPost.
"I'm heartsick about it," said BuzzFeed News's former editor in chief Ben Smith, who is now editor in chief of Semafor and author of a forthcoming book about the history of this era in digital media. "I do think it marks the end of the marriage between news and social media."
BuzzFeed - a pioneer of viral content and pop-culture listicles at the time - started its news division in 2011 with grand ambitions to package hard-hitting journalism for the digital age. It poached Smith from Politico to serve as the first editor in chief, with plans to create "the definitive social news organization."
BuzzFeed News employed reporters with impressive credentials to follow through on that vision, and its journalists were soon landing scoops, such as Republican Mitt Romney locking down Sen. John McCain's endorsement in the 2012 presidential race.
BuzzFeed carved a lane for itself in political journalism, with a research team unearthing politicians' misbehavior and its reporters getting poached by more established media companies such as CNN and the New York Times.
It also notched other journalistic triumphs. BuzzFeed News won a Pulitzer Prize in 2021 for a series on the mass detention of Uyghurs Muslims by China. An investigation into R. Kelly's sexual misconduct by longtime music journalist Jim DeRogatis was part of a series of events that culminated in the singer's conviction. And reporter Krystie Lee Yandoli exposed the "toxic work culture" at Ellen DeGeneres's talk show; DeGeneres ultimately decided to end the program.
Not all of its scoops were roundly praised. Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, BuzzFeed published a leaked copy of the Steele dossier, as it is called, a collection of largely unverified reports that claimed the Russian government had compromising information about Donald Trump. Almost none of the information was subsequently proved, and today the dossier's publication is widely viewed as an example of irresponsible journalism.
Like many other start-ups, BuzzFeed News struggled to build a profitable business model around digital journalism. BuzzFeed opted to keep most of its content free as competitors erected paywalls, while also rolling out a paid-membership program.
When the company went public in 2021, it anticipated the move would bring in more investment with a deal valuing BuzzFeed at $1.5 billion.
A year later, the company was worth about a third of that.
BuzzFeed had gone through several rounds of buyouts and layoffs before its end was announced Thursday. In early 2019, about 15 percent of its staff was laid off - 219 employees including 43 journalists. A year after winning a Pulitzer, BuzzFeed offered buyouts to 36 people within its news division, shedding staff in coverage areas such as investigative reporting and politics.
Another digital media outfit, Insider, also announced large cuts Thursday, notifying employees that the company was cutting 10 percent of its 950-person workforce. "Our industry has been under significant pressure for more than a year," two top executives, Barbara Peng and Henry Blodget, wrote in a memo. "Unfortunately, to keep our company healthy and competitive, we need to reduce the size of our team. We have tried hard to avoid taking this step, and we are sorry about the impact it will have on many of you."
The Washington Post