I'm way behind on the BuzzFeed trend. I looked at the site for the first time yesterday, joining the 150 million people who drop in every month.
I decided to do this because two savvy tech investors recently bought equity in BuzzFeed. The price they paid suggests that the site is worth $850 million. Even in Silicon Valley, that counts as real money.
What I found on BuzzFeed were many trivial posts designed to appeal to people with too much time on their hands -- "Would You Have Survived The Battle Of Hogwarts?" and "What Type Of Shark Are You?" and "Here's James Franco With Blonde (sic) Bangy Hair."
Two months ago, BuzzFeed fired one of its reporters for more than 40 documented cases of outright plagiarism. In the press release announcing the action, the heads of BuzzFeed described it as "one of the largest news and entertainment sites on the web."
The press release made me interested in the non-entertainment part of the site. Here were the top five articles I found listed under "News."
--- A discussion of Iraqi leader Nouri Al Maliki's situation, based on BBC reports.
--- A report on racial tensions in Missouri, quoting CNN, Fox2 and the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch.
--- An update on US military assistance to Kurdish forces, quoting the Associated Press.
--- News of a moratorium on Ohio death penalty executions, also quoting the Associated Press.
--- "The Definitive Ranking Of Things Worth Waiting In Line For," apparently generated by BuzzFeed's in-house news team.
It left me with the impression that BuzzFeed doesn't do much of its own news reporting and that its readers are interested in News Lite, if indeed they are interested in news at all.
In the press release I mentioned earlier, the BuzzFeed bigs said, "we have scores of aggressive reporters around the United States and the world, holding the the people we cover to high standards."
Ha ha ha ha ha, I thought.
The State of News Today
Last year, the New York Times Co. sold one of its properties, the Boston Globe newspaper, for $70 million, or about the value of the real estate owned by the Globe.
Put another way, the value of the Boston paper, which no doubt employs many, many more actual reporters than BuzzFeed, is zero. Meanwhile BuzzFeed is worth $850 million.
The decline of newspapers is well under way, and much of the blame belongs to newspaper organizations themselves. For more than 100 years, owning a newspaper was easy and lucrative. If people wanted more information than could be found on radio or television reports, they had to buy newspapers. If merchants in a city wanted to let people know about their products, they had to buy advertising in newspapers. Owning a newspaper was like owning a machine that printed money.
Newspapers did too little, too late to adjust to the new realities of the web. A few -- the Wall Street Journal, lately the Washington Post -- have managed to sell at least some online subscriptions. No paper collects anywhere near the advertising revenue that was taken for granted in the past.
I doubt any news organization's online site attracts 150 million viewers each month, as BuzzFeed does.
I am sure that, somehow, this situation will be rectified. It has to be. We certainly don't need newspapers, but we do need news reporting. The functioning of our democracy depends on it.
One Last Time
I just now took my second and final look at BuzzFeed. Amid the serious news (a Fox News anchor said the first lady should lose a few pounds, a Republican candidate is taking advantage of Robin Williams' death -- hard-hitting and unbiased reports, those) were the following:
"16 Awesome Six-Toed Cats Who Live In Ernest Hemingway's Old House"
"13 Grocery Shopping Frustrations We All Know To Be True"
"13 First Date Questions That Are Actually Insightful"
"What Your Favorite Drunk Food Actually Says About You"
"19 Things Any Guy Can Do To Improve His Pad"
"The 21 Struggles Of Wanting A Dog But Knowing You Shouldn't Get One"
$850 million value, 150 million visitors.