News Column

'BuzzFeed' Takes Great Leap Forward

August 12, 2014

By Rem Rieder, @remrieder, USA TODAY

OK, I'll resist the temptation.

I won't start with a list of 13 reasons why BuzzFeed is flourishing.

Especially since the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz trumped such a list by coming up with 50 million new reasons, in the form of a new $50 million investment in the list-happy, viral content-loving website.

The impressive investment and company expansion plans mark another important benchmark in BuzzFeed's unlikely evolution into major Internet player.

Chris Dixon of Andreessen Horowitz put BuzzFeedin pretty elite company in his blog post on the new funding. First, he likened it to Time Inc., CBS and Viacom as companies that grew out of emerging technologies. Later, he added, "BuzzFeed is a media company in the same sense that Tesla is a car company, Uber is a taxi company, or Netflix is a streaming movie company." Not too shabby.

Along with news of all of that new money, BuzzFeed announced plans for beefing up and broadening the enterprise.

First, BuzzFeed will separate its editorial operations into three units -- one for news, one for lifestyle and one for the Web culture explorations that have given it its ineffable, not to say off-the-wall, identity.

Widely known for its extensive array of video,BuzzFeed is renaming its video operation BuzzFeed Motion Pictures. Coming soon, or eventually: feature-length movies from BuzzFeed.

It's establishing a division to make off-site content for such venues as Instagram and Tumblr. It's launching BuzzFeeds in Mumbai, Mexico City, Berlin and Tokyo. And it plans to start up and acquire new companies.

Quite a heady mission for an outfit still more associated with wacky cat pictures than world domination.

New York City-based BuzzFeed, which launched in 2006, hardly started out as a likely destination for serious journalism. It made its name as the go-to place for irresistible linkbait, Internet memes and, yes, wacky animal pictures. It anticipated and spurred an era in which so much content attracts so much of its audience, thanks to sharing.

Its evolution into a news outlet, which began when it hired Ben Smith away from Politico in December 2011 to launch a national political reporting team, makes it in my view one of the more intriguing websites out there. After that foray into politics, BuzzFeed has added investigative reporting, business news, long-form journalism and foreign reporting to its repertoire.

When I talked to Smith in March 2013, he was contemplating the possibility of setting up BuzzFeed foreign bureaus. Now the company has six reporters devoted to international affairs, with journalists operating out of Kiev, Ukraine, Nairobi, Kenya, Tel Aviv and Istanbul (focusing on Iraq and Syria), and two rovers based in Washington, D.C.

Foreign reporting will be a major beneficiary of the venture-capital largess; Smith plans to establish outposts in, among other places, Mexico City, China and India. The foreign report's mission, Smith says, is telling big stories in a sophisticated way. "We're not trying to do colorful dispatches for the folks back home."

Given the enormous cutback by traditional media in overseas reporting in the past decade, it's exciting to see a new-media player helping pick up the slack.

Not that there's any danger of BuzzFeed turning into Le Monde. While its top headline Monday afternoon was "Chaos in Baghdad," it was also showcasing "13 Iconic Movies Improved By Cats" and "A Man Leaves A Sweet Revenge Note To The 'Douchebag' Who Stole His Bike."

When Smith left Politico in late 2011 to catapult BuzzFeed into the journalism business, no doubt there were many who thought he had lost his mind. Smith, who also worked for New York's Daily News, says he was confident he could put together a competitive political operation. And, he adds, "People had forgotten that aggressive original reporting was a way to succeed on the Internet."

But one thing has surprised him. He didn't expect the site to be as financially successful as it has been and to have so many resources. Venture capitalist Dixon says BuzzFeed, which attracts 150 million unique visitors a month, has been consistently profitable and "will generate triple-digit millions in revenues this year."

BuzzFeed's journey has already been full of surprises. It will be fascinating to watch the next stages of the trip.



Source: Copyright 2014 USA TODAY


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