BuzzFeed Is The Future (Whether It Lives Or Dies)

It’s time for a little inside baseball! Be still your beating hearts.

But admit it: secretly you want to know about the success/failure of the myriad news sources whose stories flit disconnectedly across your Facebook and Twitter feeds from time to time, if only so you can tell your friends that you already knew who was doomed, on the day that long-fabled Great Shakeout finally comes and half of the world’s journalists find themselves surplus to needs.

Old media! Right? Newspapers, magazines, and even, eventually, television: those shambling dinosaurs will be eaten alive by nimble new-media mammals, obsoleted by customized news feeds like Flipboard and Pulse and Feedly and Facebook’s new Paper. As our collective news diet is slowly but inexorably shaped ever more by our social media feeds, rather than the TV channels we watch or the newspaper(s) we read, their audience will turn away from them and leave them to die. You’d think.

And yet I am the proud possessor of some interesting data which indicates that the world is, as always, to some extent at least, more nuanced and complex than that. I’m talking about my pet social-sharing tool Scanvine, which I built last year* to track, measure, and rank how often news stories from a panoply of sources are shared on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn. Scanvine now has a whole year of data under its belt, which points in some interesting directions.

A whole lot of old-media sources are stagnating, it’s true. I give you the BBC World feed…


…which is plenty jagged, but clearly shows a slow decline in shares-per-story over the course of 2013. (The red line counts average shares per story, the blue line how many stories Scanvine tracked.) The same was true for Fox News:


…at least until the week of December 2, after which there was a noticeable uptick. Hmm. What could possibly have happened that week?

Oh, right. December 2, 2013: ‘Facebook’s Feed Adds More Links And “Related Articles” To Battle News Discovery Apps.’ And boom, all the major TV networks benefit — ABC, CBS, and NBC all spiked near the end of the year. NBC less so, admittedly … but then, they were the only one of the Big Four who had been thriving already. It seems Facebook’s new feed gave a shot in the arm to some organizations who hadn’t quite figured out social media for themselves.

Will that really matter in the long run, though? All of those graphs are still essentially flat. Consider those old-media mavens who are thriving on social media, like The Atlantic:


And above all, CNN who, to my considerable surprise, boast the second-highest shares-per-story average of any news source that Scanvine tracks:


That’s legitimately impressive — until you compare the slope of that graph to, say, TMZ:


Or most of all, BuzzFeed:


I’m not sure what’s up with that anomalous dip at the end of the year, but that graph as a whole is insane. But still more sensible than Upworthy, which doesn’t just top Scanvine’s source leaderboard, it dominates it to such an extent that I actually thought there was some kind of bug in my code until their pre-eminence was confirmed by NewsWhip. (Which does what Scanvine does, sort of, albeit in a paid and slightly less idiosyncratic way.)

So. My data indicates that a) old-media sources are thriving b) some new-media sources are really thriving. (Other examples: Business Insider and, I’m very pleased to say, TechCrunch.) But not everyone can win. People may be reading more news than ever, but there are still only so many eyeballs to go around. So who’s losing?

Guess what? It’s not just old media. My data says that once-mighty Gawker saw a slight but distinct decline over the course of 2013:


As did Jezebel:


And in the world of tech news, which I know best, some former giants have developed feet of clay. Wired, in particular, has seen far better days:


And it’s hard not to feel sorry for poor PandoDaily, which seems to have essentially flatlined at a mere 100 social shares per story:


Though on the other end of the spectrum, credit where it’s due, The Verge has had a spectacular year.


So what does this all mean, Jon? I imagine you inquiring. Funny you should ask. I just might have an answer or two.

1. New media rises and falls much faster than old media. That bodes ill for the latter.

What happens in the future is all about the rate of change today, and counting shares on social media seems a pretty good way to measure that rate of change. Television, newspapers, magazines — your CNNs, your New York Times, your New Yorkers — appear to have enormous momentum, meaning that their social readerships rise and fall only slowly. External forces like Facebook’s news-feed tweaks can influence this, but only a little.

This isn’t a factor of sheer size, either; BuzzFeed pieces already get many more social-media shares than do most so-called “mainstream” media sources, and yet their share counts just kept on skyrocketing all through last year. Rather, the so-called “new media” tend to rise — but also fall — much faster than the old. I can’t help but wonder whether Upworthy, in particular, will be here today but gone tomorrow.

So will we see a few new-media titans rise to stand with The Economist, The Guardian, The New York Times, etc., and dominate the landscape for many years? Or will those colossi totter and collapse like Ozymandias, only to be replaced by an endless series of flashes in the pan, as new generations of media organizations just keep on evolving and emerging, faster and faster, each one devouring the previous?

I think the answer is staring us in the face, one way or another: and I think its name is BuzzFeed. Immensely successful, hugely popular, everyone’s favorite source of online GIF listicles has quietly diversified to some impressive international and investigative news, as well as video. If BuzzFeed thrives and prospers, then we’re witnessing the rise of a new generation of titans; but if they fail and wither, if they are out-Buzzfed by something newer and hotter and hipper and catchier, then we’re seeing the news industry as we know it descend into an endless thrashing maelstrom of mayflies competing desperately for attention from an ever-more-fickle audience before they, in turn, are devoured. Let’s hope for the former.

2. Permeable paywalls are probably a pretty good idea.

One other striking thing about Scanvine’s data: every single source that Scanvine tracks, without exception, has a shares-per-story distribution which looks something like this:


Or this:


In other words, all online news follows a power law: The scaling exponents may vary, but the fundamental distribution remains the same. A small number of viral articles get most of the attention, a long tail gets little to none, and the decay from the former to the latter is described by a surprisingly smooth curve.

This means that allowing readers to view N articles/month for free, but requiring them to pay a modicum to see the rest, makes good business sense. Your viral articles still go viral, so you attract most of the free eyeballs you would have anyway, while your long tail makes money from subscribers. How big should N be? Well, that depends —

— but this assumes, of course, that you can get anybody to pay you at all, which is a neat trick when there are a zillion other free news sources out there. And how do they pay for themselves? Via advertising, which is really only lucrative if you have a wealthy and highly targeted market like sports or tech news — or via sponsored content, such as…yep, you guessed it. BuzzFeed. So will the future be sponsored or paywalled? Again, for the answer, look to them.

And watch very carefully. Because if I’m right, they are the future of news in miniature, in real time, right here before us, as we witness it. No pressure, all y’all over there: but please don’t screw it up.

*Completely singlehandedly, he muttered modestly, right down to its Android/iOS apps. And its UX design. Which explains its UX design, in case you were wondering.