[ADAPTED FROM MY BOOK COVERING AMERICA, chap 15.]
REVOLUTIONS AND EVOLUTIONS
How is it that, without a printing press or a broadcast pipe, by sharing something with a few friends, I can reach millions of people?
Following the lead of pioneers like Arianna Huffington, more and more digital natives began creating new sites for journalism online. One of the most successful was Jonah Peretti, a restless, curious young man from California. Born in Oakland in 1974, Peretti applied himself to one of the central issues involved in putting journalism online: what kind of news do people want to share with their friends?
After graduating from the University of California-Santa Cruz in 1996, he taught school for a few years in New Orleans, then entered the celebrated graduate program at the MIT Media Lab, an institution devoted to disrupting old media. One day in 2001, while he was supposed to be working on his master’s thesis about learning and technology, he was surfing the internet and noticed a marketing campaign by Nike. The sportswear giant was conducting a promotion – called Nike iD – that invited customers to personalize a pair of shoes with a slogan of their own printed on them. Peretti, a self-described “smart-ass” seeking to mock the company for its Third World labor practices, tried to customize his Nike shoes with the word SWEATSHOP. Nike balked and sent him an email of bureaucratic mush suggesting that his request was “inappropriate.” Peretti persisted.
Dear NIKE iD,
Thank you for your quick response to my inquiry about my custom ZOOM XC USA running shoes. Although I commend you for your prompt customer service, I disagree with the claim that my personal iD was inappropriate slang. After consulting Webster’s Dictionary, I discovered that “sweatshop” is in fact part of standard English, and not slang. The word means: “a shop or factory in which workers are employed for long hours at low wages and under unhealthy conditions” and its origin dates from 1892. So my personal iD does meet the criteria detailed in your first email. Your web site advertises that the NIKE iD program is “about freedom to choose and freedom to express who you are.” I share Nike’s love of freedom and personal expression. The site also says that “If you want it done right . . . build it yourself.” I was thrilled to be able to build my own shoes, and my personal iD was offered as a small token of appreciation for the sweatshop workers poised to help me realize my vision. I hope that you will value my freedom of expression and reconsider your decision to reject my order.
Thank you, Jonah Peretti
The email chain lengthened. Then, Peretti sent the corporate emails from Nike to some friends. One of the friends posted the email chain on his website. People noticed. Click. Click. Share. Click-share-click-share-chickshareclickshareclick . . . Suddenly, Peretti was present at the creation of one of the first episodes of something “going viral” on the internet. Fascinated, he had found his life’s work.
From MIT, Peretti went to New York City and joined a startup called the Eyebeam art and technology center. He devoted his attention to the phenomenon of “contagious media” – those things that people find online that they not only enjoy but also pass along to their own networks. Peretti wanted to master the new art of causing cascades through networks. He devoted his energy to something he called the “Bored at Work Network” – all those alienated office workers worldwide who had time to kill during the workday while staring at their desktop computers and trying to look busy. Based on his experience, Peretti distilled in emerging philosophy in a manifesto he called “Notes on Contagious Media.” It consisted of 23 numbered paragraphs, each of which makes an assertion about the nature of viral content. Several key passages:
5 Contagious media is best understood from a social perspective. It does not matter if it is an email, a movie, or a game. What matters is how it diffuses virally through human-powered networks.
9 Contagious media is defined by its audience, not its author. The audience decides if a particular project is art, activism, or entertainment. The audience decides if the project reaches 10 people or 10 million people. The audience is the network and the critic.
13 To be successful, contagious media projects must be explainable in one sentence or less: “A phone line for rejecting unwanted suitors”; “A site to rate people based on if they are hot or not” . . . If you need more than a sentence to describe a project, you should probably not bother.
Tall and thin, Peretti could usually be seen wearing “smart-looking” glasses and carrying himself with an air of ironic amusement. A casual but intentional dresser, he projected an image of curated dishevelment. He conveyed the sense that he is not just interacting with people but also simultaneously processing the metadata about the interaction. Indeed, he started to see people – especially people in networks – as objects of study. Even before there was a Facebook or a YouTube, Peretti was working on the networking – or social – dimension of the internet. “I started to just try to understand, how does this stuff work? How is it that, without a printing press or a broadcast pipe, by sharing something with a few friends, I can reach millions of people?”
That very question lay at the heart of the new challenges facing everyone involved in journalism. Starting about 2005, the environment for practicing journalism changed again, forcing every species of journalist to adapt or face extinction. The conditions of journalism evolved in directions that shaped both sides of the enterprise – gathering the news and disseminating the news. There were four key developments:
–the spread of high-speed, broadband internet connections, which in turn enabled the use of video and the practice of two-way interactivity.
–the emergence of new platforms, including tablets and smartphones, which in turn contributed to a world in which digital media became ubiquitous, commanding more attention in many Americans’ lives than the physical world.
–the explosion of social media, which not only brought many people together with “friends” new and old, but also created the networks that make it possible for catchy or powerful stories to “go viral.”
–the arrival of “metrics” – the new data that allow journalists to measure, track, and count every story, video, and photo – in a trend that has given new urgency to the old question of journalism’s purpose: is it to entertain or to inform, or some combination of both?
Taken together, those four changes – broadband, platforms, social media, and metrics – transformed the ecology of journalism by the second decade of the twenty-first century. In just a few years, those powerful trends began to drive change throughout the environment for news, challenging the legacy media and helping to give rise to a host of innovative new “native” digital media. The choices people made in the new environment would determine the future of news. For users, many of those choices were driven by boredom, curiosity, or profits. For journalists, many of those choices were existential. The new ecology of journalism put more distance than ever between the emerging media and the traditional forms of printed newspapers and magazines, terrestrial radio, and broadcast television. News became ever more instantaneous, continuous, and out of anyone’s control. For more and more users, more and more often, news arrived unbidden – coming from a friend on Facebook, or from a provocative source on Twitter, or from a stranger who had paid to reach them via phone, tablet, or some other platform.
* * *
In this changed environment, journalists faced a paradox. On the one hand, most of the institutions of journalism, especially those “legacy” operations with a pre-digital past, were struggling or dying. In the early twenty-first century, Americans deserted the newspaper in droves, declining to renew subscriptions to printed papers, leaving many small and mid-sized newspapers devastated. People told pollsters that they did not trust the news media. Newspapers (and even some digital sites) shrank, closed, merged, or got swallowed up into larger entities. Local television news declined in ambition and reach, relying more and more on news provided to them by government agencies – weather, traffic, and crime. As for radio, with the notable exception of National Public Radio and the occasional all-news format AM station, the news on radio barely existed any more.
On the other hand, most of the practices of journalism, especially those created in recent years specifically for the internet, were flourishing. In the early 21st century, journalists found more and better tools for everything they wanted to do, from drone-based cameras to video-editing software – all requiring new skills. “Digital native” sites grew and started offering serious salaries and even employee benefits. Upstart online-only news outlets like ProPublica began winning Pulitzer Prizes. Even as newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters continued to retrench, individual journalists and some of the start-up news sites were doing admirable work. The digital pioneer Esther Dyson observed: “There’s a holy church of journalism, which isn’t doing that well. But there is, if you like, the faith, or the religion of journalism, which is searching for the truth. That still exists and it will persist.” Individual churches might collapse or move, but the faith will survive.
* * *
The fundamental fact facing almost all legacy news media was this: the news media became dependent on money from advertising, and now that money has gone away. A corollary: When ads were plentiful, consumers of news got used to paying much less than the full cost of gathering and editing all that news, and now they must face up to whether they want to pay the real price. Even while the overall economy was recovering from the Great Recession that began in 2008, total newspaper advertising revenue continued to evaporate. In retrospect, it appeared that peak revenue for newspapers occurred sometime in 2005 and 2006. In those years, total ad revenue was just below $50 billion – of which about 95 percent came from the traditional source of advertisers paying to buy space in the newspapers’ printed editions. That was it – the all-time high-water mark for a business model that had really gotten going in the 1830s. By 2016, total revenue for the newspaper industry was just under $20 billion – a drop of about 60 percent from a decade earlier. The bulk of that smaller advertising pie still came from print ad sales – which constituted about 82 percent of the total. At the same time, digital ad sales were rising, but from a very low starting point and at a slow pace. Digital ads contributed a bigger proportion of total revenues not because they were growing but because they were not shrinking.
Not surprisingly, the size of the newsroom workforce in the nation’s newspapers fell relentlessly in the same decade. From a recent peak in 2006 of 55,000 reporters and editors, the ranks of newspaper journalists plunged to fewer than 33,000 ten years later. In other words, employment contracted by about one-third, and about 22,000 newsroom jobs vanished. Some of the lost newsroom positions were made up elsewhere – at new digital ventures and in some expansion at NPR and some television stations. But many of those old jobs simply ceased to exist, which caused a decade of painful layoffs, buy-outs, and firings. It also further weakened those newspapers’ capacity to hold powerful people accountable, as they had to cut the size of their city hall and state house bureaus and pull back from expensive undertakings like covering war, corporate mischief, international news, and investigations.
All the retrenchment and misery in the legacy media was somewhat offset by gains in the money coming to newspapers from the other traditional revenue stream: circulation – that is, charging readers money for the right to read. After years of expecting news on the Web to be free, readers eventually began to decide that all that content might actually be worth paying for. Slowly, credit cards came out and digital subscription rates began to rise.
* * *
While the legacy news media were struggling, the digital natives were proliferating. They had no printing presses that needed ink. They owned no fleets of delivery trucks that needed diesel fuel. They did not need access to cable television. They owed nobody any pension benefits and often did not fund anybody’s health care, either. And they almost never had stockholders looking for regular and growing dividends. Thus, the digital news sites could survive on a comparative trickle of revenue. They had, in short, the right metabolism for the new ecology. They did not do “process” stories (BILL ADVANCES TO NEXT COMMITTEE) or stories “for the record” (THAI PRIME MINISTER ENDURES). Especially during the Obama years, a second generation of digital natives not only succeeded in journalism but also thrived. Like Arianna Huffington, most of them did not come from a hard-news journalism background. Instead of boasting about the newspapers they used to work for, the digital natives talked about generating buzz, churning their metrics, and “winning the internet.” Huffington and the rest of the new generation brought a new sensibility to journalism – restless, irreverent, ferociously fast. Their sites were buzzy and visual and, above all, social, featuring irresistible headlines – known as “clickbait” – that just begged to be shared on social networks. In a war of all against all, they competed at the level of the individual story, slideshow, and headline to gain currency in the new “attention economy.” That approach explained much of the growth of the Huffington Post, which grew from a vanity project to a giant news-and-opinion source, as well as the rise of BuzzFeed, Breitbart, Mashable, Vice, Jezebel, The Undefeated, and many others.
While HuffPo was surging to the front, one of its founders, Jonah Peretti, was already losing interest. What he wanted to know was not what’s new but what’s viral. To Peretti, that question was more compelling than building the HuffPo brand. Despite the excitement of participating in Arianna Huffington’s widely watched startup in lower Manhattan, Peretti was soon bored at work, so in November 2006 he began devoting one day a week to a side project that he called BuzzFeed.
Initially, Peretti thought of it as a new, “internet popularity contest,” and the challenge was to see how many people he could reach and, later, how many of them he could connect to each other in a new, shifting network. In the old days of analog things, a newspaper entered a home or an apartment, and it was an inert object. One or several people read it, and they might comment to each other about an item or two. End of story. The newspaper’s customers were linked to the central node but not to each other. Same with radio and television. They all operated networks, but they were one-directional, sending information and images from a central node to isolated customers. In that one-to-many model, the audience could almost never send a message back to the central source. And audience members could almost never find each other – unless they met in a bar or some other public space and the talk happened to turn to the news.
In the early days at BuzzFeed, Peretti struggled to help the site evolve and adapt to the digital environment. It looked much easier in retrospect than it did as a startup. One issue was video. How could it be optimized for smartphones? How could videos be shared? Could a BuzzFeed video play directly on a platform like Facebook, or would a viewer always have to follow a link back to BuzzFeed’s home page? Another issue was the problem of the ubiquitous (and annoying) banner ad. They were bad enough on a desktop or a laptop, but they did not translate well to the much smaller screens of mobile phones. Like everyone else, Peretti was stumped. Eventually, he turned away from banner ads altogether as artifacts of the print era. Since the days when Macy’s and Gimbel’s had bought full-page ads in the New York World, displaying text and images to sell things had gone unquestioned. Now, Peretti decided that they were so annoying to users that they were not worth the money. All the while, he was devoting more and more time to BuzzFeed, shifting from one day a week to four. When HuffPo sold in 2011, he devoted his full time and energy to BuzzFeed.
Eventually, Peretti and the team at BuzzFeed began to see the possibilities in journalism. News was something that, under the right circumstances, people wanted to share on their own networks. When Peretti and his team started noticing that people were posting more and more news articles on Facebook or linking more news stories on Twitter, they realized that journalism could be just as share-able as K-pop dance videos.
At BuzzFeed, reporting was not an end in itself; reporting was useful so long as it advanced the company’s overarching goal – to get its content shared around the world and across platforms. The goal, Peretti has said many times, is for BuzzFeed to be global, social, and mobile. That is, he wanted to get the most out of the inherent advantage of the internet, which is free, frictionless distribution. He wanted to capitalize on social media, which enabled users to distribute BuzzFeed content far beyond the reach it would have otherwise. Above all, he wanted BuzzFeed content to be designed with mobile devices in mind, so that it would load well and look good on the world’s billions of smartphones.
Another key to BuzzFeed’s success was a new attitude toward advertising. When Peretti turned his back on display ads, the question was how to replace them. One method could be subscriptions, but curtailing access to the site would undercut the goal of going viral and goading users to distribute BuzzFeed content as widely as possible. The answer that Peretti and his team hit upon was a version of native advertising. Some legacy news organizations were also using native advertising, but they do so reluctantly, afraid that it represents a breach in the traditional wall separating “church and state” within news organizations. Peretti is something of an agnostic. As he put it:
I agree wholeheartedly that church and state is really important. The thing I don’t like about the church/state division, as someone who sits above the divide, is that it can lead to a two-tiered system where the journalists are seen as the whole purpose and greatness of everything, and that the people in advertising are seen as a necessary evil. . .
Instead, Peretti embraced native advertising, to the point where there was no separation between ads and stories. Many ads were simply transformed editorially into a quiz or a personality test that just happens to feature brand names. Thus, “Can You Shop at IKEA Without Blowing Your Budget?” or “How Well Do You Know Your Sephora Prices?”
Less visible than ads or content but perhaps more important, BuzzFeed’s true advantage was its use of data. BuzzFeed was just as concerned about the incoming data as the outgoing data. Like everyone else in the news media, BuzzFeed has a home page, and many readers go there to find stories. Like some companies, BuzzFeed also has its own apps that facilitate finding its content on mobile devices. And like very few other companies, BuzzFeed takes advantage of social media to develop a “distributed model” in which many people encounter BuzzFeed content by finding a single story shared on their social network, even if they never visit the BuzzFeed homepage. All the while, data flows back to BuzzFeed about who is sharing what, and why. The goal at BuzzFeed is to learn something every time content is shared, which is not a priority (or even a possibility) at many legacy news media. Peretti is an evangelist for iterative thinking: try something and learn from it.
Ultimately, the point of “buzz” was to learn how to get better at generating buzz. In one case, the results were dramatic. In February 2015, a blogpost appeared on Tumblr showing a dress made of material in two colors. A BuzzFeed editor who monitors Tumblr noticed that there was a lot of traffic around the dress. Some people saw it as black and blue; others saw it as white and gold. BuzzFeed posted a simple poll on the evening of February 26, inviting readers to judge the colors for themselves. The result was an episode in the madness of crowds. The number of concurrent visitors to the BuzzFeed site peaked at 673,000. Twitter exploded too. At its height, the hashtag “TheDress” appeared in 11,000 tweets per minute, and it soon turned into a bonafide global phenomenon. The Washington Post called it “the drama that divided a planet.” Was any of this journalism? Hard to say, but it seems likely that publishers of popular newspapers like Benjamin Day or Joseph Pulitzer would have appreciated it, even while most of the journalistic establishment either snickered or ignored it.
Buzzfeed was described as an “insane morphing rocket ship” and as “the most important news organization in the world.” On the other hand, it was condemned as “the single biggest threat to journalism ever created.” It was never intended to provide a one-stop comprehensive accounting of the world’s doings. In that sense, BuzzFeed is not really in the big-time news business. But it is important to understand that Peretti is not a zany and irresponsible imitator of a serious journalist.
It was not the case that he was trying to make BuzzFeed into the New York Times and failing at it. Like Pulitzer, Luce, or Ted Turner before him, he was trying to reimagine the definition of news and reinvent the mechanism for delivering it. On his own terms, he was, for a time, a raging success. A few years ago, BuzzFeed had 7 billion monthly global views of its content, more than 200 million monthly visitors to its website, more than 90 million unique monthly visitors from outside the United States, about 1,500 employees worldwide (mostly in New York and Los Angeles), and a growing number of bureaus around the world. At the same time, it must be noted that BuzzFeed news did not serve any particular locality or try to keep any state or local government honest.
Instead, the goal was long-term sustainability. After losing money for many years running, BuzzFeed began turning a profit in 2013. It is not a publicly traded company, so details are not easy to come by. According to one estimate, the company’s annual ad revenue was about $100 million, which is not much by the standards of big media. Nevertheless, BuzzFeed was on a growth trajectory that made it very attractive to investors. In the summer of 2015, the old-media company Comcast bought a stake in BuzzFeed that lifted its estimated value to $1.5 billion. That should have made BuzzFeed news sustainable for a while. . . .
p.s. I wrote that in 2017, and I was proven wrong just six years later. This may be why historians should stick to the past and leave the future to others.