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Can BuzzFeed Be Stopped?

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It’s been a good week for old media. The Guardian, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal have all done a superb job of reporting on the NSA/PRISM revelations. Unfortunately it has also been a terrible decade for them. Newspaper advertising revenue has fallen by more than half since 2007, and paywalls aren’t even coming close to covering that loss.

Worse yet, nimbler competitors are doing their breakneck best to steal the audience…and they seem to be doing it well. I recently got curious about how frequently various news sources are shared on social media, and since I couldn’t find any tool that measured quite what I wanted, I built one myself. (And I’ve spent like a hundred dollars on App Engine server costs amassing all of its data, so I hope you appreciate this.) The results were eye-opening.

My handy-dandy tool, called Scanvine, tracks stories from a panoply of online sources, measures how often they’re shared, and compares and ranks them all. Guess what its leaderboard says as of this writing? None of the above are ranked in the top three. Nor the NYT, or the WSJ, or the New Yorker. Instead, third place goes to The Onion, with an average of 2000 shares per story; number two is Cracked, with 2700; and number one, at over 3000…is much-loathed BuzzFeed.

But wait, it gets worse. The numbers for most of the sources Scanvine tracks have been pretty consistent since the start of the year, which is how far back its data collection goes. Here’s a handy-dandy chart of the New York Times since then:

scanvine-nyt

and here’s the BBC World News:

scanvine-bbc

and here’s TechCrunch. (Which, incidentally, does very well indeed among tech sources.) (modest cough.)

scanvine-techcrunch

All three are basically still where they were in the second week of January. But here’s BuzzFeed –

scanvine-buzzfeed

and here, I’m sorry to say, is the Mail Online. (As a former UK resident I have good reason to despise the Daily Mail, and while the Mail Online is not quite the same thing–basically it’s the UK’s TMZ–it’s guilty by association.)

scanvine-mailonline

Can you see the difference?

Now, it’s possible that some methodological tweak has somehow caused Scanvine to overstate the recent rapid increase in the share counts for BuzzFeed and Mail Online — and indeed I kind of hope so — but you’d be hard-pressed to deny that quick-hit low-journalism sites, as personified by those two, have had a much, much better half-decade than the gray old-media titans of yore, and there’s no sign of this trend turning around anytime soon.

Please note: I said low journalism, not bad journalism. There’s a huge difference. High journalism, eg the investigative Snowden/NSA reporting, is like protein; low journalism is more like chocolate. And there’s definitely a place in this world for good chocolate, à la The Onion and Cracked, whose stories usually manage to be about something while still being hilarious. But BuzzFeed? Not so much.

Historically, high journalism has largely been subsidized by low journalism. Nowadays, though, the two are increasingly decoupled, largely because we can get the latter online in unlimited quantities. BuzzFeed is the poster child of this movement, partly because of its undeniable success, partly because it is to low journalism what high-fructose corn syrup is to chocolate, as satirized by, er, The Onion. BuzzFeed is little more than a superbly engineered machine for turning animals, animated GIFs, and repackaged Reddit threads into pageviews. It’s almost pure sugar water.

To be clear, I’ve been amused by many a BuzzFeed post myself; and to their credit, they’re trying to do more. They’re not just expanding further into video, they’re looking to broaden their remit into high journalism as well. Under Ben Smith, they’ve expanded into political reporting, and they’ve just hired The Guardian‘s Moscow correspondent as their first foreign and national security editor:

The idea for the expansion, says BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti, took shape after the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings… “It was a real eye-opening moment,” Peretti says. “They don’t have a legacy news brand, and they were turning to BuzzFeed, a site they visit every day, to figure out what was happening. … Our top five stories were all hard news content.”

Well, maybe. But I built Scanvine to tabulate the available data myself, and according to it, here are BuzzFeed’s 40 most-shared stories for the week following the Boston bombing. You do find “29 Reasons To Love Boston,” “Comfort Dogs Come To Boston”, “Boston Marathon Met With Unbelievable Acts Of Kindness,” “Dunkin’ Donuts In Boston Stayed Open During Lockdown,” and “16 Eerie Images Of Boston On Lockdown,” but only three stories there could remotely be considered hard news — and they’re way, way down the list from “27 Signs You Were Raised By Asian Immigrant Parents,” “20 Reasons Why Going To The Gym Is A Huge Waste Of Time,” and “27 Dogs That Will Do Anything For Kids.”

I challenge you to find political or hard news high on the BuzzFeed Top 40 list for any other week this year, either. If their audience really is into hard news and politics, then they sure seem to be going out of their way to keep it hidden from one another.

Who knows? BuzzFeed may yet become, well, the BuzzFeed of hard news. And I genuinely admire their attempt to do so. But if they do succeed, it will be one of the great media pivots of our time. I doubt it will happen. I think that instead the world of news will continue to bifurcate into the high/hard and the low/soft, and that BuzzFeed will remain the lowest and softest of the latter category.

All of which means that for pretty much the first time in the history of newspapers (unless you count The Economist, which continues to defy all trends) we’ll all have to find out whether or not hard news and investigative journalism can survive and thrive all on their own. Let’s hope so. Because as this week shows, we still need those grizzled old-media watchdogs to keep their eyes and teeth sharp. Maybe now more than ever.