The Eternal Return of BuzzFeed

What the online juggernaut can learn from Time, USA Today, and MTV

Before Nyan Cat, before “Imma let you finish,” even before rickrolling, there was a small startup in New York dedicated to finding pre-viral content online. The first employees of BuzzFeed wrote about Borat, MySpace, and the “highly anticipated” Nintendo Wii.

That was 2006—nine years ago on the calendar, and an eon ago in Internet time. Today, BuzzFeed has more than 900 employees in 10 bureaus around the globe. The growth of the site’s audience is stunning: 200 million monthly unique visitors, and 1 billion video views a month, according to a spokeswoman. (Some context: According to the analytics firm ComScore, BuzzFeed logged about 78 million unique visitors in March, whereas The New York Times recorded about 57 million uniques.*) According to its founders, it has been profitable since 2013.

BuzzFeed is a successful company. And it is not only that: BuzzFeed is the rare example of a news organization that changes the way the news industry works. While it may not turn the largest profits or get the biggest scoops, it is shaping how other organizations sell ads, hire employees, and approach their work. BuzzFeed is the most influential news organization in America today because the Internet is the most influential medium—and, in some crucial ways, BuzzFeed demonstrates an understanding of that medium better than anyone else.

For everything that’s unprecedented about BuzzFeed, its CEO, Jonah Peretti, says he looks to earlier media eras for inspiration. “When Edward R. Murrow moved from radio to television, people said it was undignified,” he says. “When CNN first aired people made fun of it because it was so grassroots and low budget.” Major technological change has always created opportunities for new publications to lead the way—until the industry shifts again.

In their respective eras, Time, USA Today, and MTV were all revolutionary. Each of those three companies had a different set of innovations, a different rise, a different fall—and each offers a different way of understanding BuzzFeed.

Time has long been a fixture in American media, but it started in an era of media disruption not so different from today. In the early 20th century, the two dominant news formats were voluminous, inverted-pyramid style newspaper articles and long, ruminative stories in literary-political magazines like Collier’s and The Atlantic Monthly.

But in the 1920s, a combination of technological growth and the expansion of the eight-hour day and five-day workweek meant Americans had more leisure time than ever, and more choices about how to spend it. In order to appeal to them, a number of leading magazines undertook dramatic experiments. Consider this account and see if it doesn’t bring to mind Vox, Medium, and other contemporary news sites:

Forum tried a livelier layout. Liberty actually posted the time needed to read an article. Collier’s experimented with a one-page short story. Indeed, perhaps the most successful magazine of the 1920s, Reader’s Digest, reprinted abbreviated versions of pieces originating elsewhere. “To be brisk, curt, concise, telegraphic, and bright became the verbal mode of the hour,” Charles and Mary Beard wrote. “To print nothing that would take more than 10 or 15 minutes to read became almost a ruling fashion.”

You can almost hear the wizened, pessimistic editors lamenting the death of #longform.

The quote above—which comes from James Baughman’s 1987 book Henry R. Luce and the Rise of the American News Media—gives some sense of what made Time so appealing when it debuted in 1923. Two twentysomething New Yorkers—Henry Luce and Briton Hadden—founded the magazine with only $86,000, equivalent to about $1.2 million today. Less than two decades later, Luce had become “America’s single most powerful and innovative mass communicator,” according to Baughman.

Time turned boring newspaper reporting into fun blurbs. In other words, it aggregated. Its founders bet that its readers wanted to learn about the world but do it quickly, so it distilled local and world events into readable summaries shorter than 400 words. These story bursts were true stories, with a beginning, middle, and end, and their tone was relaxed but arch. Hadden cited The Iliad as an inspiration for Time’s epic-sounding sentence structure. The magazine’s early work, wrote Baughman, was “concise, entertaining, and frequently inadequate … Complex ‘running’ stories were simplified. Normally, the Time entry emphasized ‘personality.’ Knowing, if irrelevant, details flavored an entry.” For example, a 1927 article about Francis Scott McBride, one of the leaders of the Anti-Saloon League, began this way:

Carefree young U.S. citizens whose understanding of prohibition ends with the hard grins on the face of men that bring heavy bundles to their parents, last week turned a name over in their minds trying to think where they had heard it before. “F. Scott McBride?” they said. “Where before have I heard of F. Scott McBride?” A few of them realized that they had never before heard of F. Scott McBride. The name they were half-remembering was F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Time’s success sprang from a content innovation matched with a keen bet on demography. Its target audience was the average Fitzgerald protagonist, or, at least, his classmate. “No publication has adapted itself to the time which busy men are able to spend on simply keeping informed,” wrote the magazine’s two founders in a manifesto. It was for this audience, too, that the magazine mixed its reports on global affairs with briefs on culture, fashion, business, and politics. The overall feel of a Time issue was a feeling of omniscience: “Now, you, young man of industry, know it all.”

One of Time's earliest covers featured a dapper young FDR

The magazine’s method differed from BuzzFeed’s in key ways. While BuzzFeed News draws on a Politico-infused sensibility that withholds no tidbit, however small, from its potential audience, Time made a name for itself by leaving things out and selling putatively comprehensive summary. But both techniques promise their own kind of all-knowingness.

And BuzzFeed’s trajectory can mimic Time’s, often uncannily. Writing in the mid-1960s, the magazine historian Theodore Peterson noted that Hadden and Luce’s lack of professional experience always informed the Time style. No member of the founding staff “was more than three years out of college.” When the magazine tried relocating to Cleveland, it had to move back to Manhattan because it “missed the supply of adventuresome young intellectuals whom they could hire for comparatively small salaries in New York.”

Peterson added, “Even after Time Inc. had grown into one of the largest magazine-publishing houses in the world and had many experienced professionals on its staff, one could still detect traces of amateurishness in its open-minded approach to publishing problems and procedures.” Yet this amateurishness did not diminish its power. Time and its spin-off titles became the most powerful media instruments of midcentury America. In 1941, 18 years later after the first issue of Time went to press, the company’s revenues exceeded $45 million—the equivalent of more than $736 million today—and one in five Americans was reading a Time Inc. title.

USA Today’s newsroom in the 1980s. Early in its existence, the paper made an aggressive effort to hire women and minorities. (Courtesy of USA Today)

Rumblings of trouble in the news industry began before most Americans even owned a computer. Cable television emerged as a real threat in the early 1980s, but few took it seriously. This was, in part, because print was enjoying a level of decadence that sounds absurd today. Newspapers and magazines were absolutely flush with cash.

“So flush,” John Podhoretz wrote in Commentary, describing what it was like to work for Time in the 1980s, “that the first week I was there, the World section had a farewell lunch for a writer who was being sent to Paris to serve as bureau chief…  at Lutèce, the most expensive restaurant in Manhattan, for 50 people. So flush that if you stayed past 8, you could take a limousine home… and take it anywhere, including to the Hamptons if you had weekend plans there. So flush that if a writer who lived, say, in suburban Connecticut, stayed late writing his article that week, he could stay in town at a hotel of his choice.”

The idea that print publications might need to reinvent themselves was, to put it mildly, not top of mind for most journalists in the early 1980s. Newspapers continued posting double-digit returns on equity and maintained “extremely profitable, quasi-monopoly status” for more than two decades after the dawn of cable television, according to a 2010 Congressional Research Service report about how the news industry has changed.

So when USA Today launched in 1982, the flourishing industry wasn’t sure what to make of its aesthetic. It seemed more like television than print—a companion to the 24-hour Cable News Network, which was just 2 years old at the time. “They say the five-day-a-week newspaper, crammed with short articles and profusely illustrated with full-color pictures and charts, is proving to advertisers that newspapers can effectively compete with television for graphic impact,” The New York Times wrote in a 1983 account of USA Today’s first year.

Still, despite much criticism, USA Today was “loudly mocked and quietly mimicked,” the Times reported. “Rival journalists, comparing the paper to fast-food merchandizing, dubbed it ‘McPaper’ and joked that it would someday win a prize for ‘best investigative paragraph.’ The editor of the newspaper, John C. Quinn, said the journalistic style reflected the fact that ‘life is a lot of little paragraphs.’” Five years later, in 1988, the Times reported that USA Today had “earned itself more than five million readers and the grudging respect of competitors and many journalists.” For years it was the best-selling paper in the country.

The newspaper embraced a design standard that, in today’s terms, seems almost weblike: Its pages were dominated by charts, photos, and shorter blurbs of text. Its approach wasn’t just a response to cable television but to advances in print technology. “With the acceptance and eventual industry-wide move toward offset presses, the use of full-color photos, graphics, and other design elements became possible,” wrote Michael Williams in History of the Mass Media in the United States: An Encyclopedia.

USA Today had identified a technological shift and leveraged it to create a general-interest newspaper unlike anything else on the market. Its newsroom was also unlike any other of its time. USA Today, like BuzzFeed after it, made an aggressive push to hire women and people of color. By the time the paper was 5 years old, its parent company, Gannett, said it employed a quarter of the daily-newspaper publishers in the United States who were women and more than half of those who were minorities.

The newspaper wasn’t just impossible to ignore; it had “revolutionary impact,” according to Bill Kovach, the former editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Kovach reflected on its influence in an obituary for Al Neuharth, the Gannett mogul who died two years ago. “Virtually no newspapers in the country, nor many around the world, have not been deeply affected by USA Today in terms of look, color, graphics, and brevity,” Kovach told the Times.

Neuharth, for his part, remained antagonistic to the journalistic establishment throughout his life. “If USA Today is a good newspaper, then I’m in the wrong business,” Ben Bradlee, the long-time Washington Post executive editor once said. According to the Times obituary, Neuharth shot back: “Bradlee and I finally agree on something. He is in the wrong business.”

While readers loved USA Today, advertisers were slower to come around. The paper didn’t record its first profit until 1994, around the time when some Americans began getting their first dial-up connections. After that, USA Today’s revenue plummeted along with the rest of the print industry’s. “We aren’t organized to adapt to the changing audience demands on all platforms,” Gannett management told employees as they announced they would cut 130 jobs in 2010, according to The New York Times that year. Last year, USA Today slashed another 70 jobs last year—a “total bloodbath,” according to a journalist who worked there. So far, BuzzFeed employees don’t have any reason to fear a similar fate: In August, CNBC reported that the site was valued at $850 million.

Naturally, Peretti is reluctant to draw parallels between BuzzFeed and USA Today. But like the paper, BuzzFeed has been teased for its populist sensibility and ultra-digestible presentation, most evident in its GIF-heavy listicles and silly quizzes, and Peretti justifies that approach in a way that evokes Quinn’s early defense of the USA Today format. “We think humans are complex people,” Peretti says. “And they care about lots of different things.” He points out that in readers’ social media feeds, heavy and light stories from different publications tend to get “mashed together” anyway. BuzzFeed has simply decided to publish both kinds of content—the serious political articles and the GIFs of Ryan Gosling.

MTV’s first VJs, pictured in 1981 (Courtesy of MTV)

“The early days of cable do remind me of what we're experiencing now with mobile and social in the sense that it felt like there was an entirely new world opening up,” Peretti said. “People were running companies like madhouses, and certainly MTV was one of those iconic companies that was experimenting.” Peretti says he’s gained insight from talking to people who worked for MTV during its early years. “The stories they tell remind me a lot of what we're seeing now.”

Although MTV debuted to a tiny audience in 1981—it was not available in Manhattan during its first year—its viewership quickly soared. By 1983, it had 9 million viewers; two years later, it claimed 25 million viewers while turning a profit of $4.5 million.

“I was there when MTV launched—not inside the company but as a consultant,” says Kenneth Lerer, BuzzFeed’s executive chairman and a managing director at the venture capital firm Lerer Hippeau. “I think looking back on it a few years from now, BuzzFeed might be like an MTV.”

At its apogee, MTV was a force. It combined the intimacy of radio with the national reach of television. Just as BuzzFeed created an audience for its new form of storytelling, so did MTV. Its music videos became culturally ubiquitous. The network broadcast its first world premiere video, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” in 1983, playing it every hour on the hour, and the album went on to become the best-selling record of all time.

“The most important thing was the brand,” said Lerer. “Not any individual video or not any individual band who made a video, but it was always MTV. Same thing with BuzzFeed. What's most important is the brand. Not any individual news story, not any individual video, not any individual anything. It's all the brand. So if you wake up in the morning and you think of that, you're going to be 100 times more successful than if you go off into one direction.”

MTV rose by narrowly targeting teenagers while trumpeting the potential of the nascent cable industry. (Its sister channel, Nickelodeon, marketed itself to children with the same focus.) “No matter what, from Duran Duran to The Osbournes to Teen Mom, MTV is focused on the same demo. MTV is perpetually 14-year-olds,” said Craig Mark, who co-wrote a 600-page history of the network, I Want My MTV, in 2011.

MTV was also structured around a different kind of economics. In today’s terms, the network might be seen as a platform as much as a publisher, as it got most of its material without paying for it. “Record companies either had music videos lying around,” Mark said, “or, once MTV proved it could sell records, companies provided them essentially for free.”

MTV hasn't gone anywhere, but its influence has diminished. The most popular explanation for the network’s decline is its decision to stop featuring music videos in favor of reality shows and other forms of entertainment. “When music ceased becoming the bullseye of MTV, lots of people felt like MTV lost its identity,” Mark said.

But according to Mark, the channel also had little choice: Other cable networks had been playing music videos over the years, and the genre was beginning to feel dated. “Once the novelty of music videos wore off, then MTV had to find something new to do. They felt that they could do the same thing [as other networks]—already, they had teens and twentysomethings watching—so they could program other things and teens would watch those shows,” he said.

Financial changes associated with its 1986 acquisition by Viacom changed the network, too, causing many early internal leaders to leave the company, Mark said. Those departures, along with the absence of music videos, eventually ate away at MTV’s identity.

“You have to make sure that everything you create fits into the same look and feel,” Lerer said. “It's easy when you do it well. When you don't do it well, it's pretty obvious.”

The BuzzFeed staff at work (Emily Epstein/Corbis)

BuzzFeed is different from MTV—and, for that matter, from Time—in one important way: Although it has a reputation as a media product for young people, it doesn’t actually operate as though it has one core demographic. BuzzFeed instead taps into a number of different existing networks—distinct groups like new parents, or people from northern Michigan, or children of immigrants, or people named Ashley—and then capitalizes on the distribution platforms the people in those groups use to connect with one another.

It helps that BuzzFeed’s own staff is anything but homogenous: Its editor of news, Shani Hilton, has led the most successful newsroom diversity initiative in recent memory. The diverse make-up of the editorial team is a major force shaping BuzzFeed's coverage—a fact that's made explicit by editorial leaders but also clear from its early coverage of same-sex marriage, its ongoing coverage of immigration, and other issues.

What keeps the site unified is its consistent look and feel. Unlike most online publications, which rely heavily on existing platforms and widgets, BuzzFeed does just about everything in house. “Part of the reason the site looks the way it does, is we took the approach of building the technology and doing the design and creating our own ad products and making all our own editorial instead of doing wire services,” Peretti said. “It’s more tightly integrated.” That shapes the site’s aesthetics as well: “Our look can be cleaner because of how we've built tech and product.”

BuzzFeed’s biggest tech innovations have to do with the way its stories are distributed. Online publications have long been experimenting with ways to make their stories more “clickable” and search-engine friendly. What BuzzFeed understands is that today’s media consumption is about much more than the individual reader. “When people are sharing a BuzzFeed list or quiz, they're doing it partly for the content and partly to connect with someone else in their life,” said Peretti. “When you think about media that way, it starts to look like a form of communication. And when media becomes a form of communication, technology becomes a more important aspect.”

Last year, when BuzzFeed made quizzes easier to create and share on mobile, the format experienced a boom across the entire Internet. (For anyone still skeptical about the massive appetite for BuzzFeed’s way of doing things, consider how popular Clickhole, the Onion-made parody of BuzzFeed, has become in its own right.) BuzzFeed not only spends money on making content shareable; it also tracks that content with incredible precision so it—and its advertisers—can understand how information travels across the web.

When Lerer and Peretti spoke about the projects that excited them most, they both mentioned apps (BuzzFeed plans to release three this year) and mobile video. BuzzFeed Motion Pictures came up repeatedly in conversations with Peretti and Lerer. The film division prompted a $50 million boost from venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz last August. The company has numerous other projects in the works. In March, BuzzFeed launched two podcasts. One, called Another Round, focuses on race, gender, pop culture, and drinking; the other, wryly named Internet Explorer, focuses on the weirder and grosser sides of online culture. Both shows seem targeted at Millennial audiences.

The company also has some ventures that are separate from its editorial work. BuzzFeed BFF, an experimental team, makes and publishes social-friendly content for platforms like Instagram. (BFF’s Tumblr bio describes the endeavor as a “team of humans making all-new original stuff for our favorite sites and apps. We like emojis, animals, handmade things, rappers, Harry Styles, selfies, good advice, movies, food, naps, the internet, and making you smile.”)

While BuzzFeed has largely won over the industry with its tech savvy and popular appeal, some of its editorial decisions have been controversial. Last year, BuzzFeed removed thousands of articles from the site without making any disclosure to readers. The site’s editor in chief, Ben Smith, told Poynter that the deletions were part of BuzzFeed's “growing up” process. Some of the posts had broken technical elements. Others “didn't age well,” he said, or had been “kind of done as inside jokes.” But he admitted that the removal hadn't been “a really well-thought-through process.”

More recently, BuzzFeed removed a post by the site’s beauty editor that was critical of an advertising campaign by Dove. In a memo to the staff published by Gawker, BuzzFeed editors explained that the decision was a matter of editorial voice: The author had used her own voice—“and hence BuzzFeed’s voice”—to advance a personal opinion instead of reporting on a larger conversation. But the decision drew criticism because Dove happens to be an advertiser. BuzzFeed ended up reinstating the piece, along with another it had removed from the web, late Friday afternoon. Smith said BuzzFeed’s advertising relationship with Dove wasn’t a factor.

On the whole, BuzzFeed has managed the relationship between editorial and advertising fairly seamlessly. Like many news organizations, including The Atlantic, BuzzFeed uses an approach known as “native advertising”: It runs ads that borrow the form of articles. But BuzzFeed doesn’t run traditional banner ads at all, and it works closely with advertisers to create what it calls “custom content worth sharing.” As New York Magazine put it in 2013, “BuzzFeed’s ads are meant to be just as clickable as the site’s most popular and uplifting posts.” The company then tracks these ads in real time as they make their way across the Internet.

Peretti had already started to rethink the banner ad during his time at the Huffington Post. “Whenever we asked smart people for advice, there was never any question about whether to do banners and display ads. That was just what you did,” he said. “I never totally understood why. It never felt like the best way of doing it.”

So far, BuzzFeed’s alternative strategy is working astonishingly well. “For every 10 people who click directly on a BuzzFeed native ad, the site expects 3 of them will share it with friends via email or on a social network,” wrote Mat Honan in Wired—just before he left that magazine to work for BuzzFeed.

In March, the tech business analyst Ben Thompson wrote that “BuzzFeed makes money by creating BuzzFeed-type stories for brands. In some respects they’re an advertising agency (and how they scale long term is an open question).” But he also noted that BuzzFeed’s approach has freed its writers from certain longstanding constraints. Because their financial success isn’t tied to the number of people who view a specific story—and because they don’t have to worry about the interests of advertisers who appear on a particular page—they’re free to write stories they truly think readers will enjoy:

BuzzFeed has returned to the journalistic ideal that many—including myself–thought was lost with the demise of newspapers’ old geographic monopolies: true journalistic independence. Just as journalists of old didn’t need to worry about making money, just writing stories that they thought important, BuzzFeed’s writers simply need to write stories that people find important enough to share; the learning that results is how they make money ... The incentives are perfectly aligned.

Culturally, economically, even politically: BuzzFeed is so influential because it is still in ascendance. We don’t yet know how big this publication will get, how sweeping and lasting its effects on the American media sphere will be. “We're still really small,” Peretti insists. “You have Disney and Viacom and Time Warner—the really big media companies are giant compared to us.” But BuzzFeed’s growth has been relentless in recent years. It shows no signs of slowing. Peretti is deliberately and aggressively building his company to be big. “The Internet isn’t for small companies,” he said last year.

What does it even mean to be a big news organization in 2015? Is it about money? Staff? Volume? Growth potential? Cultural attention? MTV, Time, and USA Today each had a different kind of reign. USA Today proved influential among newspapers, but its dominion was cut short by print’s own. MTV lost its influence as the company, altered by its own financial success, lost its early visionaries. Time became something else entirely. After decades of being both hugely lucrative and hugely influential, Time is now refashioning itself for the web. Today it is one of the many sites that emulates BuzzFeed.

And of course, BuzzFeed’s continued success hinges only in part on what it does or fails to do. Technology is changing. Somewhere, there may already be another small team, another set of ideas, another new approach.

* An earlier version of this story compared BuzzFeed's 200 million figure, which comes from Google analytics, to The New York Times’ audience numbers as recorded by ComScore. We've updated the article to include ComScore numbers for both sites.