Two flagship publications of the digital-media age recently announced their own demise. Vice is attempting to make a deal with some lenders to avoid bankruptcy after dramatically scaling back its news operation, including ending its television program, Vice News Tonight. Perhaps more startling, BuzzFeed shuttered its award-winning news division. Both organizations had newsrooms with hundreds of employees not so long ago.
This digital-news collapse marks a dramatic shift. As Jill Abramson noted recently in Vanity Fair, “during the last years of my run [as managing editor] at the New York Times, it seemed possible that digital news start-ups, like Vice and BuzzFeed, could eclipse old, legacy news organizations like us.” In 2017, Vice was valued at an astonishing $5.7 billion. One-time Vice reporter Aris Roussinos reminisced in UnHerd, “As a young war reporter for Vice News, I had the nagging feeling that one day I’d find my wizened older self…droning on about punk, reminiscing about the time when we brash millennial upstarts had the world of TV newsgathering at our feet. But I never expected it to be so soon.”
Others also waxed elegiac (and more than a little hyperbolic) in their praise of these upstart companies. Writing in Slate about BuzzFeed, Hillary Frey claimed, “They had it all—the coolness of the tech world, the chops of the best newspapers, the know-how of the internet. They did great work that mattered and won awards. They raised up a generation of journalists that have made our industry better and smarter. It is crushing that it’s going away for good. I believe that it’s bad for journalism, and even democracy.”
No. Suffice it to say, if democracy fails, it won’t be because BuzzFeed News or Vice disappeared. It’s notable what’s been missing from these narratives about Vice and BuzzFeed: any recognition that in their pursuit of buzz and clicks and cutting-edge content, their leaders abandoned some important journalistic principles and contributed a great deal to the declining trust in media.
Churning out documentaries, frontline news stories, and books, Vice had legacy institutions scrambling to keep up. It also drew a much younger audience that was, in Roussinos’s words, “enraptured by the hard-edged, thrilling content from the worst places on earth.” The message was clear: “The future of news was young and online, and there was no going back.”
A few of the reporters who cut their teeth at these places did excellent work. But the “young and online” orientation so widely praised during these start-up years eventually infected all of media and had its own deleterious effects on journalism in general. As more and more “young and online” reporters embraced identity politicking and put pressure on their editors and managers to publish pleasing political narratives rather than often-uncomfortable facts, they skewed perceptions inside their newsrooms of what the rest of the world believes about controversial political and cultural issues.
It is a short hop, click, and a jump from this sensibility to the present media landscape, where mainstream outlets frequently offer one-sided coverage of “young and online” issues such as transgenderism, and where editorial direction comes as often from Twitter as it does from the wisdom of experience.
As the inimitable Nellie Bowles, who once worked at Vice, noted recently in the Free Press: “Here’s what happened: the content got bad. Vice stopped telling great stories in enough quantity to be a profitable storytelling business. That’s it.” Vice started targeting “the small community of thirtysomething hipsters who want niche identity politics viral rage content,” Bowles explains. “These readers don’t actually want any vice at all; transgression sounds like, hmm, transphobia?”
Roussinos hints at this as well when he notes how, after 2016, “Vice, which had won acclaim for dispassionately showing viewers how the world really is, now looked excessively concerned with its own virtue.” Stunts such as reading the entire Mueller Report live on-air, as Vice did in 2019, is something you do when you’ve lost the thread of what it means to provide valuable information to people.
BuzzFeed News faced a different moral challenge, and it failed spectacularly—although you wouldn’t know it from the coverage of its demise. BuzzFeed was responsible for kicking off one of the modern world’s most effective disinformation campaigns when it published the Steele dossier, that steaming pile of opposition research originally meant to help Hillary Clinton win election in 2016 by claiming that Russia had salacious, compromising information about Donald Trump. It wasn’t true, but when BuzzFeed published the dossier in its entirely in December 2016, it effectively launched the Trump #resistance and spawned Russiagate.
None of the obituaries for BuzzFeed in Slate or NPR mentioned the Steele dossier, and in the Atlantic, former BuzzFeed News editor in chief Ben Smith is still making the case that his decision to publish it was not a craven effort to drive traffic and attention to his site, but, in fact, an act of respect for you. “Don’t you, the reader, think you’re smart enough to see a document like that and understand that it is influential but unverified without losing your mind?” he writes.
Please. It was BuzzFeed’s publication of the dossier that made it “influential,” since Smith’s organization broke the dam that had prevented other outlets from writing about it. He and his BuzzFeed colleagues are in many ways responsible for the orgy of Trump-era rumor-mongering on the left. And yet this still elicits from him a “meh” rather than a mea culpa.
There was also a decline-of-the-Roman-Empire vibe to the workplace culture of such outlets. When a news division relies for its existence on listicles with titles such as “15 Poop Horror Stories that will make you feel better about yourself,” it’s no wonder their managers would come to believe that old business rules no longer apply. You know, rules such as: Success is measured by how much money people are willing to pay for your wares.
In an oral history posted on the final days of BuzzFeed News, many of its writers inadvertently high-lighted the contrast between the heady feeling of seeing stories go viral with their often-banal content. “I did a really simple post about McDonald’s selling mozzarella sticks for $1,” said a food reporter. It was “just something short and fun that I put very little time into, and suddenly half a million people had read that story.”
Their staffs also partied like they had the lavish expense accounts that legacy media institutions had long since eliminated. “Guess what happens when you give a group of twentysomethings unlimited resources to chase stories?” wrote reporter Tom Warren. “They go bat—t crazy….There were wild parties, lots of them,” including warehouse raves in Brooklyn and expensive dinners in Istanbul.
The partying continued even after revenue was declining. Veronica Dulin, who managed BuzzFeed’s D.C. office, described it thus with the eloquence and measured vocabulary that typified the world of digital media: “Holy s—t, the WHCA [White House Correspondents’ Association] Dinner afterparties… They were all open bar for hundreds of people…. They’d lay off journalists…then throw this f—ing rager for tens of thousands of dollars.” Editor Jason Wells recalled being sent to Australia “with explicit instructions to use my corporate card to wine and dine the staff, make everyone feel special…. I was there for a month and did just that. A few months later, after I returned, we laid the entire team off to save money.”
As for editorial judgment? Reporter David Mack said he “never had as much freedom and fun doing anything in my life. In 8.5 years, I never had a single idea rejected. Nothing was off-limits.” Which might explain why BuzzFeed published more than one story under different bylines about a Navy pilot who drew a giant penis in the sky.
Journalism has been in various states of crisis for some time, threatened by the incursions of the digital economy. But the steep decline in the public’s trust in media occurred at precisely the time that outlets such as Vice and BuzzFeed were worshipping at the altar of virality and patting themselves on the back for breaking all of journalism’s rules. Now they’re broken. And broke. And will be forgotten.
Photo: Hal Horowitz/Invision for Buzzfeed/AP Images
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