Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti poses for a portrait at Buzzfeed's New York Headquarters.
Nicholas Hunt—Getty Images
By Aaron Pressman and Adam Lashinsky
January 25, 2019

It turns out moving fast and breaking things might not be the best business model.

The obnoxious phrase is Facebook’s, and I’ll come back to the “social media” company in a moment. But the expression popped into my head when I read about the hundreds of job losses at former new-media darling BuzzFeed. The layoffs are in the name of profitability, which BuzzFeed hasn’t achieved despite half a billion dollars in investments.

BuzzFeed and Facebook are inextricably linked, for good and ill. Just like Zynga (who?) before it, BuzzFeed rose to prominence by being popular on Facebook. So popular in fact, that much of the rest of the journalism world either got suckered into or felt pressured to ape BuzzFeed’s listicle-addled virality—a word founder Jonah Peretti all but invented. The amazingly prolific and clear thinking Jill Lepore lays out the case nicely in The New Yorker for the damage BuzzFeed did by dragging its betters into the gutter with it.

So “successful” was BuzzFeed’s strategy that quality publications needed to mimic it, right down to the click-baity headlines and allowing its stories to be shared for free on Facebook. I know a certain prominent magazine company, of blessed memory, that invested tremendous resources into placing videos on Facebook even when no revenues would come from the effort. “Building audience” was considered worth it because, well, it worked for BuzzFeed. Duh.

A few publications, like The New York Times, wised up in time. Though it kept its newfound edge—give BuzzFeed credit where it’s due—The Times pivoted away from chasing its digital tail and toward subscriptions. Donald Trump’s ravings notwithstanding—hell, quite literally thanks to Donald Trump’s ravings—it is thriving. The Times’ own straight-down-the-middle story on the BuzzFeed layoffs said the unprofitable company, with 1,300 employees, had 2018 revenues of $300 million. The profitable New York Times Company had nearly double the revenue-per-employee figure in 2017.

If there’s anything to be learned here it is to be suspect of companies that are killing it while spending their investors’ money without needing to make profits. BuzzFeed used some of its venture-capital scores to produce some fine journalism, and the fear is that its quest for profitability will nix that effort. I take no pleasure in that prospect.

As for Facebook, someone commented to me recently that the company will need to rebuild itself brick by brick. That’s a funny metaphor. Facebook is another company that played by new rules, as if rebar embedded in concrete, following building codes, was so passé. If you move fast and break things there ultimately will be a price.

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I’ve long had a homophone problem, and spellchecking programs don’t catch homophone mistakes. So thank you to the reader who wrote to remind me I didn’t “wrap” Facebook on the knuckles in an earlier essay. “You ‘rapped’ them on the knuckles,” he wrote. Then he added: “Spoken as one who was rapped on the knuckles by a nun as an 18-year-old-college freshman at a Catholic university (apparently the nun didn’t find my ability to provide smart-alecky remarks in Spanish, the language we were studying, nearly as entertaining as I did).”

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Have a good weekend.

Adam Lashinsky
@adamlashinsky
adam_lashinsky@fortune.com

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