The transformation from startup to public company is supposed to be a very big deal.
So let’s start by acknowledging that BuzzFeed, which started 15 years ago as an internet experiment, has hit a milestone: December 6 is the day you will be able to buy and sell shares of BZFD on the Nasdaq.
We can also acknowledge that BuzzFeed’s transformation has been much rockier than it would have liked. Last week, when it formally morphed from a private company into a public one (using a “SPAC” — a bit of financial engineering that was very popular a year ago and has now fallen out of favor), investors gave the company a thumbs down. That meant it only raised $16 million instead of the $250 million it had hoped to raise earlier this year. On top of that, 61 of the employees in its BuzzFeed News operation — about 5 percent of the company’s overall workforce — walked off the job last Thursday to protest the state of their negotiations for a union contract.
But step back a bit further. The fact that BuzzFeed is around at all — let alone publicly traded, with all of the financial transparency and investor expectations that come with that — is worth noting.
BuzzFeed is perhaps the best-known member of a cohort of digital publishers that launched in the last decade, and for a time looked like they might usurp conventional media companies. Their ascent freaked out incumbent publishers, and briefly convinced investors to throw billions of dollars their way.
Then their main strategy — latch on to Facebook, and profit when the social network put their stuff in front of a gazillion eyeballs — collapsed about four years ago, when it became clear that Facebook was more competitor than partner. And then many of them shrank dramatically or disappeared altogether.
So the fact that BuzzFeed is still around, and big enough to plausibly exist as a public company, is … something.
It’s not nearly as sexy a story as it was six or seven years ago, when BuzzFeed’s existence — along with other publishers like Huffington Post and my employer, Vox Media — worried the New York Times enough that the paper created a what-do-we-do-now internal report dedicated to fending off the insurgents. Or when BuzzFeed seemed to have such deep insight into digital culture that Ben Smith, then its editor-in-chief, could boast that “the world has moved toward us.” Or when it was telling the world that it was going to take what it had learned making viral content and use those insights to upend Hollywood.
Flash-forward to now, and BuzzFeed’s ambitions are considerably scaled back: Like everyone else in media, it is trying to sell projects to studios and streamers that need content. But the idea of a BuzzFeed Motion Pictures unit seems like a stretch, which seems to be why the company no longer has a unit called that anymore. The New York Times, it turns out, didn’t really need to copy the viral content strategy that BuzzFeed helped pioneer. Instead, it has flourished by producing excellent journalism and asking its readers to pay for it, which they seem happy to do. And it’s been able to use that money to hire stars from digital competitors like Vox and BuzzFeed. Including Ben Smith.
A more concrete way of putting it: As of last week BuzzFeed was valued at $1.5 billion — less than the $1.7 billion investors thought it was worth back in 2016, even though it has since acquired both HuffPost and Complex, both big publishers in their own right.
Or, another, more practical way of underlining BuzzFeed’s reined-in expectations: For years, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti said he was fine with the fact that his BuzzFeed News unit was a money-loser, because it did important work that he was happy to subsidize. But that has changed in recent years. In 2019, BuzzFeed had major layoffs in that group for the first time, and now Peretti says he wants BuzzFeed News to lose less money. Hence contract negotiations that have run more than two years.
“I’m still comfortable [with BuzzFeed News losing money]. To a point. But it’s not the same point it was in the past,” Peretti told me on Friday, in an interview for the Recode Media podcast. “And so I think that people have this expectation that, what we’ve done in the past in terms of massive subsidies of news, is something that we will continue to do at that same level. And we can do it to a point. But we have to make sure that we build a sustainable, profitable, growing business so that we can do this journalism for years to come and have this great important impact.” You can listen to the entire interview at this link, or below.
But even a scaled-down BuzzFeed is a good thing, because we need more publishers, not less — even though Peretti’s ultimate goal in going public is to consolidate other digital publishers under BuzzFeed. More options are better for you, the person who looks to media outlets to help them understand the world around you. It’s also good for existing publishers, who can use a recurring competitive kick in the pants. It’s also good to have business models for publishers that don’t depend on having an international subscriber base of 10 million people, or a benevolent billionaire backer.
That’s the big picture. Now let’s zoom in, and talk about what a public BuzzFeed means for different constituencies:
For people who work at BuzzFeed:
Some of them are going to make some money. BuzzFeed’s offering means their shares or options in the formerly private company can now be traded in the public market. Peretti’s stake in the company he founded, for instance, will be worth millions.
Some lower-level employees, who received options after BuzzFeed’s last funding round in 2016, may not see any upside, for the time being: Public investors would have to decide that the company is worth at least $1.7 billion before those financial instruments would be worth anything. Meanwhile some ex-employees — particularly those who got in early — may have a nice bit of cash, but not a windfall: “This isn’t going to be a down payment on a house, but maybe it will get the house painted,” a former BuzzFeed editorial staffer told me.
For people who manage BuzzFeed:
Peretti has said for years that he’d like digital publishers to consolidate. In theory, the fact that BuzzFeed is public makes it easier for him to consolidate them, since he can sell shares in the company to public investors or find other ways to access capital. The transaction that brought BuzzFeed public has already started that process, by giving them the cash to acquire Complex, a lifestyle publisher best known for its hip-hop-inflected culture stories and conferences, as well as Hot Ones, a video series about famous people eating very spicy chicken wings. But BuzzFeed’s ability to buy other companies will depend on its performance as a public company, so Peretti’s plans are very much TBD.
For people who manage publishers not named BuzzFeed:
Privately, digital publishers who compete with BuzzFeed like to complain about BuzzFeed: They carp that Peretti has constantly pivoted from story to story when describing BuzzFeed’s strategy and tactics. The latest: It is going to make a lot of money from “commerce,” which for the time being primarily means adding affiliate links into stories (which Vox Media does as well). Publicly, they wish him well. But all of them are aware that their story is also BuzzFeed’s story: If it does well, maybe they can, too.
“Rightly or wrongly, fair or not fair, all digital media companies will be significantly tethered to BuzzFeed,” says Bryan Goldberg, the CEO of Bustle Digital Group, which would like to go public as well. “The fate of BuzzFeed is going to determine the fortunes of a lot of other companies.”
That doesn’t mean that BuzzFeed’s stock performance today is going to determine whether Goldberg — or companies like Vox Media — will go public in the very near future. But if over the next year or so, public investors determine that they’re not interested in BuzzFeed, then that’s going to make it a lot harder for the Goldbergs of the world to make their pitch. Which is why BuzzFeed going public can be, simultaneously, a very big deal and one that doesn’t matter at all. We won’t know the real answer for some time.