A $15 Million Challenge To The Huffington Post

Divorced of context, meme aggregator BuzzFeed's announcement today that it raised $15.5 million to fund "real reporting" seems a little absurd; the site's current front page includes the stories "This Cat Is Planning Something Evil," "30 Choice Hotties Of 1999," and "Panda Vs. Stuffed Toy Dragon," don't betray expensive, investigative ambitions. BuzzFeed's new direction is better understood as part of a battle over the direction of online media, led by principals trying to best with what the Huffington Post has become.

"The biggest shift for us is refocusing... as an organization that does real reporting and original content," BuzzFeed co-founder Jonah Peretti told TechCrunch today. He'd just announced BuzzFeed will take $15.5 million from BuzzFeed chairman Ken Lerer's Lerer Ventures, from New Enterprise Associates and from Hearst Media, Softbank and RRE capital. The site is also adding former HuffPo president Greg Coleman, and of course added Politico's Ben Smith as editor in chief late last year.

Peretti didn't mention the Huffington Post, which he and Lerer were pivotal in starting. But in an interview with The Atlantic Wire last month, "Peretti was careful to say that he ended his involvement with HuffPost after the AOL acquisition almost a year ago... and wouldn't speak directly about" similarities between it and BuzzFeed.

Lerer, meanwhile, also left HuffPo last year, and has since criticized Arianna Huffington for watering down the brand. "[AOL CEO] Tim [Armstrong] and Arianna are saying it's not progressive," he told Vanity Fair last year, "because they don't want to take that position because of advertisers."

When Lerer and Peretti helped Huffington start her publication in 2005, the idea was to build a left-wing counterweight to the Drudge Report. Lerer had a very active role at HuffPo - dozens of emails a day active - even as he helped raise money for Barack Obama. He was reined in before the 2008 election, and last year was reported to have ended his involvement with the site entirely, allegedly because he wanted to grow the site more "deliberatively" than Huffington did.

At BuzzFeed, Lerer and Peretti are evidently seizing the chance to build the political media powerhouse they think Huffington Post could have become. As one former HuffPo colleague of theirs told me,

It's pretty well established in my mind and the minds of those I knew at HuffPost that Jonah and Kenny think they lost an opportunity there as Arianna overwhelmed the product.

No one is saying the BuzzFeed principals are actively antagonistic toward their counterparts at the Huffington Post; Lerer strained to be polite publicly toward Huffington even as he left the site last year.

And Peretti told us, when we emailed him for this post, "I cofounded the Huffington Post and I love it an enormous amount. What we are doing at BuzzFeed is very different."

But there's also no denying that BuzzFeed, after coexisting alongside HuffPo for many years under principals who remained involved with HuffPo, is now moving much more aggressively into the publication's turf, under principals who have cut ties, and who, in Lerer's case, publicly voiced discontent at how HuffPo is evolving. This media feud isn't nearly as entertaining as a hotly contested primary election, but if you're a Democrat with little interest in right-wing intramural mudslinging, it may have to do, at least for the next few months.

Update: Added Peretti's comment.

[Image of Lerer, left, via Columbia Journalism School/YouTube. Image of Huffington via Getty Images.]