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The *real* reason BuzzFeed is doing longform journalism

Screen Shot BuzzReads

It’s to get more ad money. But their strategy is a lot more devious than you may think.

Bringing out the big guns

“Long-form (or longform) journalism” is the serious, in-depth, strongly researched article that is greater in length than can fit on one printed newspaper page (more than 1000 words). Some types of longform journalism are “narrative,” “investigative” or “creative non-fiction.” Think the New Yorker, the Watergate story, or any work that has won Pulitzers.

High-brow stuff, right?

Right. So back in 2012 when cat-video connoisseur BuzzFeed set out to hire a longform editor, the journalism world fainted from the shock. Here are some questions the traditional media shouted across the universe:

  • How could fluff media compete in a market reserved for only the biggest, oldest news media outlets?
  • What integrity does the site have to do serious reporting?
  • Who would read it? The brand’s audience is made up of Cat Ladies Who Quiz.

Two years later, the site is humming along, churning out longform journalism daily. But don’t be fooled; BuzzFeed isn’t some team of do-gooder, democracy-protecting freedom fighters out to rid the world of injustice. It’s a capitalist endeavor with an ingenious strategy to make more money.

What’s the catch?

The question isn’t if BuzzFeed can pull off longform. The question is: Why do it? Why not stick with the insanely successful stuff they’ve peddled so far?

Answer: Obviously the site wants more views. But how? First the company acknowledged a few key facts about Internet readers:

  • The quiz-and-listicle lovers also consume longform stories (these aren’t distinct audiences traditional media always assumed they are)
  • Those who enjoy the quizzes and lists are ashamed to admit they do so
  • A large contingent of people stay away from clickbait sites (and may take pride in themselves for doing so)

The challenge is getting these cohorts to – proudly – share a BuzzFeed link. From its inception, the brand’s reputation is one of pure fluff, with links like mental flatulence meant for time-wasting purposes only. If it could somehow generate a respectable reputation, then more users wouldn’t be embarrassed to share its articles. And that share, in Internet terms, is the Holy Grail.

But this is not where it ends. This is where the evil genius begins.

Like many websites, BuzzFeed banks on the “2nd Click” for the beaucoup ad revenue. The first click that comes from an original share is great, but it’s merely the beginning of a (hopefully) lengthy journey through their content jungle. The 2nd click to a related article or another section of the site are what advertisers consider the prime views. Once a reader is “down the rabbit hole,” his attention splintered enough to be grabbed by an advertisement.

"Journalism is going to survive. I just don't see how the businesses that have provided it will survive." -Clay ShirkyThe strategy

With their longform campaign, BuzzFeed is going after 2 specific audiences:

  1. College educated, middle-class users who may partake in a “What kind of cat are you?” quiz but would be ashamed to share any article that comes with a buzzfeed.com link;
  2. College educated, middle-class users who would never share a BuzzFeed link.

I consider myself in the latter camp. One of my 2014 New Year’s Resolutions was to never click on rabbit-hole bait, including links to BuzzFeed, Upworthy, SFGate, etc. If BuzzFeed produces something of worth, I’ll have to break that rule, and the site will eventually produce something of worth. Its ad earnings from cat videos will fund top-notch journalists and the libel insurance to back them up. The team will eventually win Pulitzers because they have the money, the technology and the network to go after the big guys and the big problems.

For these first few years, my friends and I will offer caveats along with any BuzzFeed share: “I don’t do clickbait sites but this article is actually pretty good.” But after a few solidly-reported, viral longform articles and some journalism awards, we’ll drop the caveats and RSS the content. And BuzzFeed will acquire the New York Times to be their “serious” division.


Photo Credits: BuzzReads: Screen Shot, October 30, 2014, 12:18 pm EDT.

Clay Shirky Quote: Ron Mader on Flickr