Here are two recent articles about BuzzFeed:
- “How BuzzFeed Motion Pictures Is Retaining Its Top Talent,” Hollywood Reporter, April 19
- “BuzzFeed slashes forecasts after missing 2015,” Financial Times, April 12
The first article is about BuzzFeed’s thriving L.A.-based video operation, which churns out videos that routinely rack up millions of views in the span of hours. Have you noticed those videos on Facebook in which a pair of disembodied hands assembles an often dubious looking meal from beginning-to-end in the span of about 60 seconds? Those are BuzzFeed. One for Chicken Fajita Salad, posted on Tuesday, has already been viewed 33 million times. Every other media company on Earth would commit ritual sacrifice for that level of “engagement.”
Anyway, the Hollywood Reporter piece focuses on how BuzzFeed “Motion Pictures” is keeping its first wave of on-camera talent from leaving for the brighter lights of Hollywood proper. This group includes The Try Guys—four men who humiliate themselves in the name of upholding gender and sexual stereotypes—and Quinta Brunson, a 26-year-old comedian whose videos translate Tina Fey’s humor to a generation saddled with student loan debt.
Those five and two unnamed others have signed two-year contracts through BuzzFeed Motion Pictures’ Development Partners program. The contracts bind the creators to the company while also allowing their work to flow out and away from BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed may facilitate such upward mobility, and they will take a cut of any resulting riches. As an example, the article opens with the writer watching Eugene Lee Yang, the Justin Timberlake of the Try Guys, at BuzzFeed’s studio workshopping a makeover show called Mansformation (wacky!). But the show is not intended for BuzzFeed. Instead, Yang is pitching it to Lifetime.
The most detailed description we get of the contracts is this:
These are comprehensive deals, covering projects for digital, linear and theatrical distribution as well as sponsorships and other branded content opportunities. Talent receives a base salary and gross revenue participation. In some cases BuzzFeed might act as a producer, studio or distributor on the projects.
Regardless, BuzzFeed’s recognition that this privileged group of talent would be welcomed elsewhere in the media and/or entertainment industries obviously means that said talent is being handsomely compensated for sticking around at BuzzFeed. (Though probably not too handsomely: Matt Bellassai, BuzzFeed Video’s biggest breakout star, left the company earlier this year to sign a deal with power-broking talent agency CAA.)
Yet the cheery tone that powers the Hollywood Reporter article is not shared by the one in the Financial Times, which reports that BuzzFeed has cut its internal revenue target for 2016 from $500 million to $250 million. BuzzFeed said the report wasn’t true, but those of us who observe the media from within nonetheless took the story as an indication that the billowing content bubble is about to pop. And if BuzzFeed will indeed be out an assumed $250 million—or even $100 million, or $50 million!—it’s not hard to imagine the company finding savings by shedding a few employees. But which ones?
If you had to guess which group of BuzzFeed’s content creators will be hit the hardest in the event of a “correction,” would you go with the incredibly prolific video division and its prized stars (who have large followings on Facebook, which is eating publishing) who may have scored exclusive contracts or... the people (once prized stars themselves) who just write shit?
Earlier this week, Verizon (the telecommunications company) and Hearst (the media company) announced the joint acquisition of Complex Media. (The Wall Street Journal pegged the price at somewhere between $250 million and $300 million; I have heard it’s closer to $350 million, but what’s $50 million really?) Complex Media is a conglomerate of websites and blogs you may have never heard of, but its flagship namesake site takes a rap-focused view of pop culture and is popular with younger readers. Let’s see if we can deduce which of Complex’s various content-types is important to both Verizon and Complex. Via Variety:
“The decision to acquire Complex is certainly a continuation of our media strategy, which is focused on disruption that is occurring in digital media and content distribution, and involves building a portfolio of the emerging digital brands of the future for the millennial and Gen-Z audience,” Brian Angiolet, Verizon’s senior VP of consumer product and marketing, said in announcing the deal.
According to Complex, the company reaches more than 50 million unique monthly visitors and delivers 300 million monthly video views, representing 415% year-over-year growth. “Since honing in on video, we’ve proven our ability to create culturally relevant, premium video content at scale in a very short amount of time,” [Complex CEO Rich] Antoniello said in a statement.
The “disruption” referred to by the Verizon suit is video, and Complex’s CEO helpfully acknowledges that in his statement. In its write-up of the sale, Variety calls Complex a “video-focused media company,” which is really just a pleasant spoonful of PR. Complex started as a magazine, and since its inception it has been run by varying people with vast experience in print journalism. Complex currently employs dozens of writers and editors who produce far more content than its video team. If anything, Complex aspires to be a “video-focused media company,” and that’s really all you need to know. If you were a Complex editorial staffer who did not work on video, would these quotes about your company’s sale to several corporations inspire you? Would they soothe you? My guess is: no.
Instead of feeling celebratory, you might instead feel kind of like the group of Mashable staffers who were suddenly fired a few weeks ago as the company shifted its focus towards video. The internet craves more video, and it definitely needs it from Mashable.
Back when bloggers were themselves the disruptors, print publications belatedly started building out websites. At magazines especially, this created a division—if not quite a caste system—within those publications. Web staffs and print staffs existed in their own silos, with separate (and highly unequal) budgets and separate teams of writers and editors that rarely if ever commingled. At some places—such as within Condé Nast—this structure still exists. You read some writers online but never in print, and the writers you read in print you only read online when their articles get put there for the people who don’t read magazines (everyone).
Soon, we will start to see the same sort of fissures—and resentment—within digitally native media companies, except instead of print versus web it will be words versus video. This may already have started.
Last week, BuzzFeed Motion Pictures released a video titled “27 Questions Black People Have For Black People,” which you see above. The video was widely criticized and mocked for perpetuating racist stereotypes, and earlier this week BuzzFeed formally apologized for the video on Twitter:
We've heard your concerns about last week's video. We made a mistake, and want to get better at earning the trust of our black audience.— BuzzFeedVideo (@BuzzFeedVideo) April 18, 2016
In the hours after the video was posted, the gathering social media mob was looking for answers, and, naturally, they turned to some of BuzzFeed’s more publicly visible black writers and editors. As a result, some of those writers not only publicly denounced the video, they also made it clear in no uncertain terms that their side of BuzzFeed had nothing to do with that video, nor anything produced by the other side of BuzzFeed. (The two factions are helpfully located on opposite ends of the country, with writing mostly produced in New York, and BuzzFeed studios producing most videos out of L.A.)
Said staff writer and podcast host Tracy Clayton:
this is important tho: buzzfeed motion pictures is its own thing. i dont work for them, am not consulted, have no say, isnt my job.— Tracy Clayton (@brokeymcpoverty) April 13, 2016
important addendum: @cocoabutterbf also has nothing to do with buzzfeed motion pictures & is not involved in their videos.— Tracy Clayton (@brokeymcpoverty) April 13, 2016
also, you dont know that we're NOT yelling at our company. you dont know what happens behind the scenes & you dont know us. @LeLeGiggles— Tracy Clayton (@brokeymcpoverty) April 13, 2016
Said mobile news editor Stacy-Marie Ishmael:
1) lots of people work at BuzzFeed and BuzzFeed News 2) lots of people work at BuzzFeed Video 3) 1 and 2 are not the same.— stacy-marie ishmael (@s_m_i) April 13, 2016
Said ex-BuzzFeed writer Ashley C. Ford:
Y'all @-ing people who ain't in the video, ain't seen the video, don't work in video...— Ashley C. Ford (@iSmashFizzle) April 13, 2016
Trust me, those people are as pissed off as you are. When stuff like this happens, it sets back THEIR work. They know they lose your trust.— Ashley C. Ford (@iSmashFizzle) April 13, 2016
BuzzFeed is a tight ship that rarely leaks or cracks. Because of its, um, disruptive approach to the internet, it is frequently criticized by its competitors. It also famously has no use for haters. As a result, its writers have always tended to project a unified, above-it-all, drama-free happiness that can only be achieved through unencumbered success. But the “27 Questions Black People Have For Black People” video was so bad and so immediately hated that BuzzFeed’s facade of positivity was punctured, and what spilled out was anti-BuzzFeed Motion Pictures tea that could not have been brewed just in one night.
So who will protect the written word? The answer, ultimately, is probably no one. Some people do seem to be trying, but they must also hedge their bets. The Ringer, Bill Simmons’ second attempt at a Good Website, has so far amassed a staff that appears to be slanted heavily towards writers. And yet, the biggest announcement out of the shop so far is that it has partnered with HBO for a post-Game of Thrones recap show. There are ethical questions that arise when a website that aims to carry the torch for cultural criticism teams up with the leading manufacturer of prestige television, but it’s no surprise that those questions have taken a backseat to, you know, getting the hell onto HBO.
Over at the new MTV—which has been rebooted by a core staff from Simmons’ old site—emphasis has also been put on the written word. But in the last week, the site has rolled out podcasts. And video. And there are entire bylined articles living in Instagram captions. Ideally, this could all be part of a robust new media operation, but it’s more realistic that some stuff will stick and other stuff will slide off the wall. And if writing—produced by experienced and, at the new MTV especially, well-paid professionals—is the least profitable of those things, who will save MTV’s burgeoning edit staff? Definitely not this fucking guy.
This post is obviously a self-serving lament. Perhaps readers (well, viewers and listeners now) won’t notice or particularly mind as the amount of primarily word-based content pushed into their feeds shrinks. The market simply doesn’t provide as many writing jobs as there are people who wish to make their livings as writers, something that is the case in most “creative” fields. And, of course, there are likely to be even fewer slots for writers in our video-centric media future: The production of professional-quality video is hugely expensive compared to the production of words, and it requires significantly more behind-the-scenes labor than the current dominant forms of internet writing—blogging and personal essays. Resources will have to be shifted.
An explosion of video content probably means fewer distinct critical voices, overall. And probably fewer interesting ideas, as well. So far, the Content Internet’s video boom has not valued thoughtfulness and critical thinking. Since Buzzfeed’s viral watermelon detonation (already an epochal event in digital newsrooms), publications have suddenly tossed their writers in front of cameras to satiate the industry’s sudden and accelerating obsession with streaming stunts and experiments broadcast on Facebook Live. These streams have been light and goofy in a self-consciously amateur way, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the videos are also, on the whole, unwatchable. Last week, Mic streamed a series of basic chemical explosions*—a bizarre attempt to keep pace with the future by reciting one of the internet’s oldest tricks. With time, these videos should improve. But the question is, will the writers get better at doing them, or will they be replaced with people who don’t need to improve at all?
*This post originally stated Mic detonated Mentos and Diet Coke. It was hydrogen peroxide liquid, yeast, warm water, dish soap, food coloring.