According to most of the obvious metrics, BuzzFeed is a massive media success story: It has grown rapidly from one of founder Jonah Peretti’s research projects into a 1,000-person, globe-spanning media entity with hundreds of millions of unique visitors a month and a market value of close to $1 billion. That makes it difficult to argue that the company has a problem — and yet the results from a recent Pew Center research report suggest that it might, and that problem is trust.
In the report, the Pew Center looked at the behavior of news consumers, and found among other things that a majority of millennials get political news from Facebook (which I think raises a number of crucial questions about the impact of Facebook’s filtering algorithm). But it also looked at which organizations are the most trusted among millennials, as well as those from Generation X and Baby Boomers.
Interestingly enough, the number one most-trusted news entity according to Pew wasn’t Vice News, or BuzzFeed, or Mic, or any of the other organizations that claim that they have a lock on the highly desirable millennial market. The winner was CNN, which 60% of millennials said that they trusted. Others who ranked highly were NBC News, the New York Times and the BBC. And where was BuzzFeed on that list? It was close to dead last, with just 4% saying they trusted it, the same as the Glenn Beck Show.
Trust is somewhat complicated topic when it comes to BuzzFeed. What does trust mean in the context of a site that most people know — if they are aware of it at all — as a source of funny listicles, cat GIFs and other ephemera? Was the survey asking whether readers trusted it to show them a good time, or be entertaining? Or did it mean trust in the sense of reliable, factual and relevant news content? Because those are very different things, although each might be valuable.
The actual Pew Center question first asked survey respondents whether they were aware of a specific outlet at all — which accounts for lower results among millennials for Bloomberg, Mother Jones and The New Yorker — and then asked them whether they trusted that outlet for news about government and politics. The BuzzFeed result is interesting because millennials had a far greater awareness of the site than Gen X or Baby Boomers, but their trust level was just as low.
One obvious response from BuzzFeed to this news would be: “Who cares whether we are trusted or not? We are making money hand over fist and our company is worth a billion dollars.” But it’s not quite as simple as that. BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith, a veteran political writer, has spent a considerable amount of time and money trying to develop a serious reporting team to cover breaking news around the world. Trust matters a lot when it comes to that kind of content, but it appears most millennials are unaware of it.
To the cynically-minded, of course, BuzzFeed’s whole “serious news” side is just a dodge, a marketing exercise to try and convince venture investors and media insiders that it is a reputable news organization, and that it cares about issues like national politics. But it’s clear that Smith at least cares deeply about what he is doing, and the company has devoted a significant amount of resources to it. And it appears to care enough to talk about why it has deleted articles and made other controversial moves, instead of just plowing ahead and getting on with the business of viral content.
In a sense, BuzzFeed is trying to do the exact opposite of what many mainstream media entities like the New York Times and even Time Inc. (which owns Fortune) are trying to do. While those traditional outlets are desperately trying to get more web-savvy and entertaining with their news and content — and are even experimenting with “viral” social content similar to what would naturally show up on sites like BuzzFeed or Upworthy — BuzzFeed is trying to add a layer of serious investigative journalism.
Which of these is the greater challenge? That’s difficult to say, but there is an impact for both when it comes to the brand, and it’s important to remember that brand value is all about trust (and “trust is the new black” for media organizations, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark has said). If the New York Times or Time Inc. start pumping out listicles about the allure of specific Kardashian body parts, what effect does it have on the brand? And how does BuzzFeed’s usual content impact its ability to get attention for its hard-hitting investigative news pieces?
Neither of these are zero-sum questions. The Times and/or Time could manage to achieve both of those goals, and BuzzFeed could find a way to be seen as both a serious outlet for breaking political analysis and a site where you can get reliable access to pics of Grumpy Cat. But judging by the Pew Center survey, the latter has a mountain to climb before that happens.
Update: BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti responded to my post on Twitter, pointing out that the Pew Center survey is over a year old, and in the interim the site has carved out a separate site for BuzzFeed News and has continued to publish hard-hitting journalism. He also noted that other media entities such as ABC, NBC and CBS had to establish a reputation for themselves as news entities, and that doing this takes time.