The rise and (maybe) fall of BuzzFeed News – and larger dreams for digital journalism

THE HOUSTON CHRONICLE:

When BuzzFeed decided in 2012 to branch out from the cat videos, viral listicles and “OMG!” headlines that had put it on the map for under-30 readers for a bold new venture into serious journalism, its critics were skeptical. “WTF, indeed,” quipped Fast Company.

But less than a decade later, it had claimed its first Pulitzer Prize – for an investigative series that harnessed satellite imagery to demonstrate the extent of China’s secretive program for detaining the Uyghur people in the northwestern Xinjiang region – and secured a reputation as one of the brightest lights of digital media.

Now, though, the ambitions that once fueled BuzzFeed News appear to have dulled, after the company announced Tuesday it would shed staff in the coverage areas – investigative reporting, politics, science, economic disparity and social justice – where it once competed with the giants of traditional journalism. Management has offered buyouts to 36 of the news division’s roughly 100 journalists, which some fear could be a death blow for its long-term future. The union that represents many BuzzFeed News employees called the proposal an attempt to “gut our newsroom.”

The company has not announced any layoffs, but that’s a frequent next step at news organizations when too few employees opt for a buyout. In early 2019, the company laid off 215 employees, about 15% of its total staff, and 43 of them were journalists, many from its national news teams.

“Still don’t have words to capture what it’s like to see a company try to gut its teams of investigative, science, inequality and politics reporters,” investigative reporter Kendall Taggart wrote on Twitter, one of several journalists expressing frustrations with the cutbacks on social media this week.

Former BuzzFeed News reporter Joel D. Anderson said it “makes me incredibly sad for them and the future of journalism – I mean, we can’t all go work for the NYT.”

The news division also lost its top two editorial leaders, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mark Schoofs, who resigned, and deputy editor in chief Tom Namako, who is leaving for NBC News. The team’s interim head, Samantha Henig, encouraged employees “who are genuinely excited” about the new direction of the news organization to stay on, acknowledging that “it might be a shift that really doesn’t match your career goals,” according to a copy of her remarks obtained by The Washington Post.

READ MORE

Join now!