BuzzFeed

Online News Startups Feeling Ad Dollar Pinch

April has been a sobering month for online news startups, as BuzzFeed and other industry leaders were forced to cut budgets, layoff workers or slash revenue expectations for the year. The struggles stem from a perfect storm of plateauing web traffic and faltering ad revenue in the competitive online marketplace. 

April has been a sobering month for online news startups, as BuzzFeed and other industry leaders were forced to cut budgets, layoff workers or slash revenue expectations for the year. The struggles stem from a perfect storm of plateauing web traffic and faltering ad revenue in the competitive online marketplace. 

The story of newspapers struggling to escape an industrywide die-off amid an explosion of digital alternatives is nothing new.   

But you might be surprised to hear that the rising startups of the online news world aren’t exactly raking in the profits either. In fact, as John Herrman of The New York Times wrote last week, some of the biggest brands in online news are already being forced to tighten their belts.

“This month, Mashable, a site that had just raised $15 million, laid off 30 people,” Herrman said. “Salon, a web publishing pioneer, announced a new round of budget cuts and layoffs. And BuzzFeed, which has been held up as a success story, was forced to bat back questions about its revenue – but not before founders at other start-up media companies received calls from anxious investors.”

BuzzFeed appeared to be doing fine until The Financial Times reported earlier this month that the company fell $80 million short of its $250 million revenue goal for 2015. Building upon the dismal picture, BuzzFeed lowered expectations for the near future, slicing revenue projections for 2016 in half from $500 million to $250 million.

The news was a stunning development for an online world that has come to look to BuzzFeed as a content strategy leader. BuzzFeed has become a trend setter over the past several years with the popularity of its punchy listicles and quirky quizzes. Impressed with BuzzFeed’s ability to draw a massive online audience, struggling newspapers looked to the site as a model for how to get clicks. Building on that early success, BuzzFeed later expanded from a news and entertainment aggregator into providing its own news coverage. Fast-forward several years to today, BuzzFeed now fields a formidable investigative political reporting team, which has broken numerous stories about the 2016 presidential candidates.

But altogether, the revenue struggles of BuzzFeed, Mashable and Salon indicate it’s a dangerous time for publishers and a tricky time for advertising, both on the web and in print as neither sector appears to have found a stable business model for the digital age.

“The trouble, the publishers say, is twofold,” Herrman said. “The web advertising business, always unpredictable, became more treacherous. And website traffic plateaued at many large sites, in some cases falling – a new and troubling experience after a decade of exuberant growth.”

Numerous financial challenges have emerged for online publishers in the past several years, Herrman said. That includes anything from ad-blocking tools and automated advertising to the growing trend of readers gathering their news from stories posted on Facebook and other social networks.

“Audiences drove the change, preferring to refresh their social feeds and apps instead of visiting website home pages,” Herrman said. “As social networks grew, visits to websites in some ways became unnecessary detours, leading to the weakened traffic numbers for news sites.”

Of course, advertisers have taken notice of the metrics, leading them to invest heavily in ads on Facebook (and Google) than with online news startups like BuzzFeed, Morgan Stanley analyst Brian Nowak said.  

Posing further challenges on other fronts, Facebook just unveiled a big 10-year expansion plan that looks to give people fewer reasons to navigate away from Facebook. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg recently spoke of Facebook’s ambitions to launch “TV-style live video.” Some like BuzzFeed and Vox are racing for their own video production deals with sights set on TV and film, and others like Mashable are investing more heavily in expanding their presence on Facebook.   

“Other companies are looking to focus more on branded content like videos, sponsored stories and full-fledged campaigns,” Herrman said. “But publishers have quickly learned that those efforts are labor-intensive and put them in direct competition with advertising agencies.”

The bottom line is if you thought the online startups had it all figured out, well, not just yet at least. The future of the news industry is still just as unclear as ever before. 

Justin Runquist is CFM’s communications counsel. He is a former reporter for The Oregonian, The Columbian and The Spokesman-Review. Away from the office, he’s a baseball fanatic with foolhardy hopes that the Mariners will go to the World Series someday. You can reach Justin at justinr@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @_JustinRunquist.

People Like to See Things as They Happen

A news crew live streamed interviews at a GOP presidential debate on Facebook Live, a tool that is making live streaming of breaking events an attractive option with low production costs and high viewer and interactive upside.

A news crew live streamed interviews at a GOP presidential debate on Facebook Live, a tool that is making live streaming of breaking events an attractive option with low production costs and high viewer and interactive upside.

Streaming media may have started with elevator music in the 1930s, but today it has expanded to live streaming of events over the Internet. News organizations are trying to tap larger online audiences by live streaming newsworthy events. Their experiences may embolden public affairs managers to join the parade.

CFM’s most recent Under the Dome blog post reported how CNN, MSNBC and other news outlets provided real-time coverage of the March 28 Capitol shooter incident by live streaming video shot with smartphones by people trapped in the building. Other news organizations are experimenting with live streaming the news in a less ad hoc manner.

Poynter.org’s Benjamin Mullin shared the experiences of four different news outlets that are experimenting with live streaming via Facebook Live, a two-month-old channel that gets a news feed preference in the social media site’s algorithm. The early trials are pretty impressive and suggest live streaming news will become more prevalent.

Here are excerpts from Mullin’s piece about NPR, The Verge, BuzzFeed and KXLY-TV in Spokane:

NPR

The public radio network live streamed its political coverage of the so-called “Mega Tuesday” election results on Facebook Live after producing a video that it posted on Facebook after Super Tuesday voting. Lori Todd, an NPR social media editor, told Mullin that the live streamed coverage drew “thousands more comments and seven times the view duration.” The Mega Tuesday feed lasted 34 minutes.

Todd said live streaming allowed NPR to reach highly engaged fans as questions from the Facebook Live audience were used in the broadcast. “Facebook has built the tool to be accessible to the most people possible – all you need is your phone and the Facebook app,” she added.

The Verge

The Verge – a Vox-owned American tech news and culture network – has applied live streaming with Facebook Live to product release announcements for the Galaxy S7 and iPhone SE and in-office question and answer sessions. It has used the technique to demonstrate the security risks of New York Wi-Fi hotspots and test new Oreo flavors. Vox reports its live streaming experiments have attracted a “large video audience” with only a “small time investment from producers and writers.” It also has boosted Facebook page reach, Vox says.

BuzzFeed

Through its multiple Facebook pages, BuzzFeed has conducted 70 live streaming videos, including its Tasty’s Fondue Party that Mullin said “racked up 5.2 million views and thousands of comments.” Encouraged by early results, BuzzFeed is doing its homework “to learn more about live – what type of content our audience enjoys live, how we can use live in new and different ways, how we can interact more with our audience by creating live content.”

KXLY-TV

An ABC affiliate in the smaller Spokane news market, KXLY-TV has toyed with live streaming to give viewers a behind-the-scenes look at its newscast, conduct a live Q&A with its sports director and cover a press conference “about a man who shot a pastor.” Station officials received positive feedback from viewers who appreciated hearing firsthand what was said by law enforcement spokesmen about the troubling incident.

Melissa Luck, executive producer and director of social strategy for the TV station, told Mullin, “It has given viewers a chance to interact directly with our reporters and anchors and it has benefitted both sides of that video stream interaction. People like watching things as they happen."

The relative simplicity and low technology threshold posed by live streaming creates intriguing opportunities for issue managers and crisis counselors. A video production showing how a complex process works may be less believable than watching a spontaneous live-streamed demonstration. Video from the scene of an environmental spill that is placed on Twitter provides a timely update, but live coverage of spill remediation may be more reassuring and less suspect.

Some of the live streaming pioneers report squeamishness about events “being suddenly broadcast for the world to see.” While understandable, “live streaming” is already out of the bottle as people with smartphones become reporting genies on the spot. Mastering these emerging tools is just another way to keep up with the competition of sharing news – and telling your story. 

BuzzFeed Delivers Downers to Political Candidates

Nobody has exploited digital media better than BuzzFeed to explode the hypocrisy and contradictions of political candidates, setting an example for others to follow to humble the mighty or trip up the well-intentioned.

Nobody has exploited digital media better than BuzzFeed to explode the hypocrisy and contradictions of political candidates, setting an example for others to follow to humble the mighty or trip up the well-intentioned.

The digital age has become a heyday for opponents. You can bring down a dictator or a local ballot measure with a laptop computer and cell phone. You can embarrass a political candidate by digging up obscure speeches, photographs and video stored on the Web.

Lately, nobody has been better at humbling the mighty than BuzzFeed.

BuzzFeed launched nine years ago to track and share “contagious news.” By 2011, BuzzFeed graduated from a social media and entertainment Internet company into a full-fledged news operation that retained its “clickbait headlines."

Based in New York City, BuzzFeed produces content daily from its staff reporters, regular contributors, syndicated cartoonists and its community of readers. During the 2016 presidential election cycle, which seems like it has gone on forever, BuzzFeed has become the journalistic equivalent of what political pros call “oppo research.”

Andrew Kaczynski, 26, is in charge of BuzzFeed’s 4-person political research unit, called the K-File. He is referred to as the unit’s “old man."

Kaczynski is a journalist who earned his spurs by posting clips on YouTube that contradicted what politicians said on the stump. BuzzFeed hired him in 2011 and his reputation has continued to grow. One admirer called Kaczynski the “Oppenheimer of archival video research.” He was called the most influential opposition researcher in the 2012 GOP presidential primary, where he posted footage of Mitt Romney running for governor of Massachusetts as a “progressive.” It was Kaczynski who exposed Rand Paul for plagiarizing lines from the movie Stand and Deliver for a Senate floor speech about immigration.

BuzzFeed has vexed most of the candidates in this cycle by finding material from their shadowy pasts that causes them present-day heartburn. A piece this week by NPR credited BuzzFeed for discovering the video in which Ben Carson said the pyramids of Egypt were built as grain silos and the records showing Hillary Clinton’s claim was false that all four of her grandparents were immigrants.

It was BuzzFeed that found the C-SPAN clip from 1996 when Clinton referred to some children as “superpredators” and the dusty 1985 video of Bernie Sanders speaking admiringly about the Sandinistas and Fidel Castro. It also was BuzzFeed that produced audio indicating Donald Trump wasn’t opposed to invading Iraq from the beginning after all.

Having potent material on BuzzFeed’s popular channels would be bad enough for candidates, but its posts are now routinely picked up by more traditional news organizations. It was CNN that pinned down Clinton on her “superpredator” remark and got her apology. 

The BuzzFeed model conforms perfectly to digital media. It relies on deep dives into long forgotten data pools. It thrives on shareable, attention-grabbing content. It produces contagious news that spreads virally through and beyond social channels.

The cautionary tale of BuzzFeed is that all it takes to be good at opposition research is the patience to keep searching for contradictions, misstatements and hypocrisies. The caution in the tale extends beyond running for political office to any kind of public statement, proclamation or claim. Make sure what you say is true and consistent with what you have said. If you’ve changed your view, own it. If you have dirt swept under the rug, be prepared to deal with it. 

Andrew Kaczynski isn't a digital one-off. His clone may be your next-door neighbor.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.