BuzzFeed co-founder Jonah Peretti wrote a kind of open letter to his employees recently, in which he compared the rapidly growing viral-content empire to Timemagazine. Is this just the typical kind of hubris that infects startup founders, to compare a nine-year-old website known primarily for its “listicles” and funny cat GIFs to a venerable and award-winning newsmagazine like Time? Not really. In fact, there are a lot more similarities between Time magazine and BuzzFeed than even most media-industry watchers would probably care to admit.
Peretti describes how he started reading David Halberstam’s book “The Powers That Be,” about the early days of what are now the leaders of the mainstream media — entities like CBS and the New York Times and Time Inc. — and how it struck him that those companies were once very much like BuzzFeed: scrappy new players run by people with new ideas about what the media should be, ideas that were almost universally condemned when they first appeared on the scene.
“The stories in the book, which was first published in 1979, are great reminders that even traditional media companies like Time Inc., CBS, and the New York Times were once small startups. In those early days, they had many similarities to BuzzFeed and other new web startups that are emerging today.”
A new way of looking at the news
As the BuzzFeed founder notes, Timemagazine — for decades the centerpiece of the Time-Life empire, a bulwark of the North American media industry — started as just a crazy plan hatched by a couple of twenty-something former university friends named Henry Luce and Briton Hadden. Their bright idea? To take news that had already been reported by other more mainstream media organizations and summarize it, make it more readable and more entertaining, but mostly short enough so people could catch up on the news. In other words, the first modern newsmagazine (a word that Hadden coined).
In case you missed it, that sounds an awful lot like what BuzzFeed and others, including Gawker and The Huffington Post, did when they first arrived on the scene: they aggregated and highlighted content from other outlets — to the point where they were heavily criticized for it, just as Luce and Hadden were — and made it more user-friendly, made it more entertaining. That may be difficult to reconcile with the Time magazine we know now, but that’s how the empire began (others were also summarizing the news, including a startup called Reader’s Digest).
“Time began as a clipping service in a small office. A group of writers subscribed to a dozen newspapers and summarized the most important stories, rewriting the news in a more digestible format. BuzzFeed also started as a clipping service in a small office seven years ago. Instead of subscribing to newspapers, we surfed the web.”
Luce eventually started hiring writers to create his own content, in much the same way that BuzzFeed has been hiring “serious” writers to cover politics, to do investigative journalism and so on (as HuffPo did before it). The Time Inc. founder then used the success of his newsmagazine to start another ground-breaking publication — a journal he called Life, which helped pioneer journalistic photography — and then a third one, called Fortune. Each was an attempt to tailor content to a specific audience, something that was still relatively new.
Toys and the innovator’s dilemma
But one of the biggest things that BuzzFeed andTime have in common is that both were ridiculed by most of their much larger and more powerful competitors — when they weren’t being ignored — because they were seen as not important, or trivial, or not “serious” enough to bother with. As venture investor Chris Dixon pointed out some time ago, in a paraphrase of Innovator’s Dilemma author Clay Christensen, the next big thing “always starts out looking like a toy.” That’s why it’s difficult for others in the same industry — whether it’s the automotive industry or the disk-drive business — to see these innovators as actual competitors, which often gives them a valuable head start. And it’s not just BuzzFeed: the same could arguably be said of Twitter and Facebook, both of which seemed like toys before they became multibillion-dollar companies.
“Again and again, the conventional wisdom was dismissive of every new medium; each new communications technology was seen as a fad, a tool for demagoguery, or the end of journalism. And always these skeptics were proven wrong, usually by newbies who didn’t care about the old way things were done.”
Will BuzzFeed become or spawn the next big thing, or evolve into a media colossus like Time Inc.? That’s anyone’s guess. But the idea shouldn’t be dismissed simply because it started with aggregation and cat GIFs.