A decade ago, BuzzFeed president Jon Steinberg reportedly got on his knees to beg its founder, Jonah Peretti, to accept a $650 million buyout deal from Disney.
At the time, Disney CEO Bob Iger said the up-and-coming media company would “never be worth what it would have been worth with us,” and he may have been proved right. BuzzFeed announced last week it is closing its Pulitzer Prize–winning news division and laying off around 180 members of staff—15% of its workforce.
Peretti apologized to staff for his decisions, the Guardian reported.
“I made the decision to overinvest in BuzzFeed News because I love their work and mission so much. This made me slow to accept that the big platforms wouldn’t provide the distribution or financial support required to support premium, free journalism purpose-built for social media,” Peretti wrote.
On the heels of the company’s latest catastrophe, former BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Ben Smith revealed details of Peretti’s decision to turn down an eye-watering amount of money in 2013, and insights into why he made the decision.
In an excerpt shared with Vanity Fair from his upcoming book Traffic, Smith suggests that Disney was frantically searching for a way to break into a media landscape increasingly angled toward social media engagement. Meanwhile, BuzzFeed was enjoying flourishing reader figures. Smith details how Peretti began negotiations with Disney by setting out a list of requests that he would want for the deal to go through, as well as an asking price of $600 million.
Learning from the “master” Iger was what attracted Peretti to the deal, according to Smith. “To Peretti, this was Disney’s most compelling aspect…to be one of 13 people reporting directly to the most successful CEO in modern media,” he writes.
Following the initial meeting between top Disney and BuzzFeed executives, Smith writes that he, Peretti, and Steinberg discussed the offer, with the latter pushing hard for Peretti to take it, eventually culminating with a scene in which Steinberg got down on his knees pleading for the founder to make the sale.
Disney’s official offer later came through, Smith claims, to buy the business for $450 million with the potential for an additional $200 million.
“It became clear that this was an offer that Peretti, almost, couldn’t refuse,” Smith writes.
Neither Disney nor BuzzFeed responded to Fortune’s request for comment.
Months later, in November, Smith suggests that Disney was fairly certain that the “no-brainer” of a deal would go through.
Peretti had been invited to speak at the moviemaker’s management retreat in front of 250 members of staff, and had asked to speak to Iger privately after his appearance.
Smith writes that “Iger had staged Peretti’s speech in a marquee slot to welcome him to the family,” and the internet entrepreneur “delivered one of his standard, edgy monologues.”
The speech, Smith writes, didn’t go down very well. Many of the jokes Peretti shared had been “recycled” from speaking engagements he’d done previously, while an HR executive for Disney observed that comments about Mormons and Jews made him a “problem,” according to Smith.
“Peretti had never gotten fewer laughs in his life,” Smith wrote. “He had a vision of himself having to explain the internet to these suits for the rest of his career while they stared blankly back at him and missed his jokes.”
Peretti came offstage and told Iger he couldn’t take the deal, Smith writes, theorizing that his old boss would want to brag about turning down one of the most powerful men in the industry. He added that Peretti would want to tout a story similar to Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to turn down Yahoo’s $1 billion offering for Facebook in 2006.
Iger wasn’t convinced BuzzFeed would have the same trajectory as Facebook, with Iger reportedly telling a fellow executive: “F–k him, he loses. That company will never be worth what it would have been worth with us.”
BuzzFeed managed to push through to a public offering in 2021, but it wasn’t what executives hoped for. And since then, like many of its online counterparts, the company has been hit hard by advertising money moving into new markets like video and influencing. BuzzFeed’s gross revenue in 2022 was around $436 million, with a net income loss of around $201 million.
Disney, meanwhile, has nearly doubled its gross revenue in the 10 years since the BuzzFeed deal went cold. The Walt Disney Company brought in just over $45 billion in 2013—by 2022 it had jumped to nearly $83 billion.
While Peretti has presided over BuzzFeed’s collapse, Iger was asked to return to Disney in 2022 to steady the ship after a tumultuous few years.
“In the cold terms of venture capital, Peretti’s—our—decision not to sell to Disney will go down as one of the dumbest in the history of digital media,” Smith writes.