BuzzFeed Says Changes Are About Expanding Video, Not Downsizing News
BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti announced late Tuesday that the New York-based media company is restructuring, separating itself into an entertainment unit and a news operation. But BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith says that the change is not about putting news on the back burner.
In fact, he says, it’s just the opposite.
Smith admits that one reason for the move is the need to create more video because that’s where most of the money is in the media industry, and particularly at BuzzFeed—which, like several other media outlets, is being paid by Facebook to create live video.
But Smith tells Fortune that this growth won’t come at the expense of the company’s ongoing investment in news.
“Jonah has always had a pretty deep personal commitment to news, which I think you can see by what he says about it in his memo,” Smith says. “This is really more of a restructuring than a downsizing or de-emphasizing of news or anything like that.”
CNN reported in May that some unnamed employees were concerned about the company’s growing focus on video, afraid that this might translate into less investment in traditional news. Those concerns were fueled in part by a report earlier this year that BuzzFeed missed its revenue projections for 2015.
Some of the fear is also likely being driven by what happened earlier this year to Mashable, which laid off most of its news team in order to focus on video. And BuzzFeed no doubt feels the pressure of expectations from NBCUniversal, which put $200 million into the company last year, giving it a theoretical market value of $1.5 billion.
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In his memo to staff, Peretti said the company was still committed to investing in BuzzFeed News, which he said will continue to “encompass the work that is rooted in reporting and journalistic independence—on topics both serious and fun—and focused in the long term on building the trust of our audience.”
One of the main purposes of the restructuring, Peretti explained, was to try and move video expertise into all areas of the organization, because “having a single video department in 2016 makes about as much sense as having a mobile department.” As part of the changes, the news side of the business will now have its own dedicated video team.
The announcement sparked some speculation that BuzzFeed might be looking to spin off or sell its news arm in order to focus on entertainment. A CNN report compared the restructuring to moves by News Corp. (NWS) and Tribune Corp. that saw those companies spin off their money-losing news units.
Smith, however, told Poynter the company isn’t looking to spin off or sell its news operation. And he tells Fortune that BuzzFeed is still investing in the unit, hiring new reporters and editors, and looking to expand its foreign presence.
The restructuring is mostly about becoming more efficient when it comes to making effective use of video, Smith explains. Under the previous structure, news teams working on a big story would have to co-ordinate with a video team run by Ze Frank, the head of BuzzFeed’s video arm.
That worked fine, Smith says, but now the news side will have its own video teams that report to him, which will make it easier to create video that works well with the editorial unit’s big news stories and features.
BuzzFeed has no idea what will work and what will fail:
“We’ve always seen text as just one way of telling a story. For some things it works well, but there are other ways of telling stories,” Smith says. “If you look at this election cycle in particular, there’s been a lot of video and even audio has played a big role. For us, it doesn’t really matter what format the news comes in, we just want to tell stories in the best way possible.”
The non-news side of the company, meanwhile, will be part of a separate unit called the BuzzFeed Entertainment Group that will be run by Frank. In addition to creating video—including the sponsored content that BuzzFeed gets paid a lot of money to create—the group will also be in charge of developing other forms of entertainment content as well, such as listicles and quizzes.
Far from splitting the two parts up, Peretti has said that he sees BuzzFeed as building a company that can do both news and entertainment. In his memo, the BuzzFeed CEO said he believes the company has “an opportunity to be the leading entertainment company for the mobile, social age. And we are in a position to build the #1 global news brand for a new generation who consume news differently.”
The full text of Peretti’s memo appears below:
We are making a big change at BuzzFeed that will simplify our organizational structure, allow us to operate more entrepreneurially, and help us better serve the hundreds of millions of people who enjoy BuzzFeed each month.
In this new structure, video won’t be the job of just one department. Having a single “video department” in 2016 makes about as much sense as having a “mobile department”. Instead, it will be something we expand and embed across the organization. As digital video becomes ubiquitous, every major initiative at BuzzFeed around the world will find an expression as video, just like everything we do works on mobile and social platforms. Instead of organizing around a format or technology, we will organize our work to take full advantage of many formats and technologies.
To that end, we will expand BuzzFeed News under Ben Smith’s leadership across platforms. BuzzFeed News will encompass the work that is rooted in reporting and journalistic independence — on topics both serious and fun — and focused in the long term on building the trust of our audience. Practically speaking, this means we’ll be adding some existing editorial groups, including our health team, to the global news operation that includes beat reporters, breaking news team, investigative reporters, and foreign correspondents under BuzzFeed News. Our recent expansion of video news under Henry Goldman will also become part of the BuzzFeed News organization, and we will continue to expand that news video team. In this new structure, Ben will focus primarily on news, his first and enduring love.
Simultaneously, we are establishing a new department called BuzzFeed Entertainment Group (BFEG) that will provide an umbrella for all our entertainment content. Ze Frank will no longer focus exclusively on video and assume a new role as President of BuzzFeed Entertainment Group. In addition to his current team, Peggy Wang, Tommy Wesely, and their team of talented artists, designers, and storytellers will report up to Ze and Jeremy Briggs will join that team and continue his work expanding entertainment video in NYC and helping people make video for the first time. This new structure will allow us to focus on being the #1 entertainment brand globally, across many platforms, in formats that include short and long form video, posts, lists, quizzes, micro-content, and more.
We have ambitious goals for both departments. We have an opportunity to be the leading entertainment company for the mobile, social age. And we are in position to build the the #1 global news brand for a new generation who consume news differently than their parents, but care passionately about what is happening in a quickly-changing world.
This structure will allow us to be better at entertainment and better at news. It will also complete our shift to becoming a cross-platform media company, with entertainment and news both living on our site, our apps, and distributed on platforms across the web in multiple native formats. And the new structure will better support our international teams, which will continue to be organized regionally, and draw on both BFN and BFEG for support, resources, and content.
Can’t wait to see what BuzzFeed Entertainment Group and BuzzFeed News will do in the coming years!