Overnight, BuzzFeed announced it was closing its Australian and UK news operations, retreating to the US to refocus on “big hit” US stories.
It ends a six year experiment in building alternate voices via a local, Australian franchise of a global organisation.
Using a listicle as homage, here’s seven reasons why the BuzzFeed experiment was so valuable, and why its closing is a terrible outcome for Australian journalism and Australian democracy
1. More news deserts
BuzzFeed in Australia and overseas was designed by and for millennials. Most of the chatter about “news deserts” — communities that lack news which talks to them — is about country towns. Yet traditional news media increasingly target ol’ 55s (and if you get that joke, that means you!). BuzzFeed helped fill that gap. Now that it’s gone, that generational desert will be just that much drier.
2. Less news for Australia
When BuzzFeed launched in Australia in January 2014, it was one of a number attempting to build global reach through local online franchises, with Australia as test site, like The Guardian in 2012 and The New York Times in 2016. Australia seemed a perfect trial: English-speaking, large enough for a market but small enough to produce a meaningful picture.
Now, BuzzFeed News believes its future lies in the US, saying “both for economic and strategic reasons, we are going to focus on news that hits big in the United States during this difficult period”. This means: no more Australian news for BuzzFeed and less news for Australia.
3. No more innovation
Forget the sneering from an older generation of journalists, BuzzFeed’s listicle — a news article that uses a list to give it thematic structure — was a genuine innovation in journalism form.
It’s one of the few by anyone, anywhere, in the past two decades. It’s one thing that will endure.
4. Another loss to Facebook
BuzzFeed News’ recent struggles and demise (in the UK and Australia at least) is a reminder of just how much damage Facebook did to news media with its abrupt pivot to prioritising family and friends in 2017 and 2018.
This led to a hit in Australia, with BuzzFeed News winding back its presence in 2019 and cutting down to a handful of staff.
From a news perspective, BuzzFeed owned social media virality, particularly in the valuable millennial market. It grew up with Facebook in the US, after launching in 2006. It built its growth — and much of Facebook’s, too — through its understanding of just where the viral edge lay.
But what news drives traffic on Facebook since its pivot to family and friends? Fox News and the Daily Mail. That’s a very different edge.
5. The end of a unique model
BuzzFeed built a new business model for news. It was more than just keeping the ads apart, it used news as a sort of skunk-works that let it test just where the edge of acceptability was.
It could then turn that learning around and sell it to advertisers. Their global pull-back is a reminder of just how bad advertising is for all media — and how unlikely it is to bounce back.
6. A timely reminder
BuzzFeed brought the Silicon Valley “fail forward” sensibility to news; a sense that when you reach for the edge, from time to time, you’ll reach too far.
That’s bad for individual stories (and BuzzFeed Australia had some spectacular stumbles) but it’s good for journalism over all.
The craft needs to be reminded just how far it should — and shouldn’t — go. (Crikey likes to think it makes the same contribution.)
7. An end to deeper coverage?
BuzzFeed broadened the understanding of news with more (and often deeper) reporting about social issues, including great Australian challenges too often ignored by traditional media — climate change, refugees, Indigenous Australians and reproductive rights.
It forced the Australian media to give marriage equality the news status it deserved.
Across these issues, traditional media had to hurry along behind. Will this closing remove the pressure on them to keep up?
What will Australia’s media look like by the end of 2020? How do we save independent journalism? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected], and you could be featured in this week’s Your Say section. Please include your full name. Crikey reserves the right to edit letters for length and clarity.
NOTE: This article has been updated to reflect that it is only BuzzFeed’s news division that has closed in Australia.