Yesterday a most damning, yet in my opinion poorly sourced, story appeared in the Financial Times. The story claimed BuzzFeed had missed its revenue target for 2015 and slashed internal projections for 2016 by about half. The FT claimed these alleged figures raised questions about whether the online news and entertainment network can meet the sky-high valuations put on new-media groups by investors.
BuzzFeed denied the figures in the story to FT but declined to give specifics about its performance, which is exactly what you do if you’re a privately held company.
What’s most bogus to me about the story is that the Financial Times does not have one person on the record, instead relying on three people with knowledge of the situation, to back the claim that BuzzFeed had allegedly projected $250 million in revenues for 2015, but generated less than $170 million.
Legions of media critics jumped on the beat-the-shit-out-of-BuzzFeed bandwagon. Everybody seemed to pick up the headline as if it were as valid as your typical campaign attack ad — and CNN’s Dylan Byers, citing another anonymous source, even went so far as to claim confirmation of the numbers in the story.
The echo chamber on social media started to draw lines to recent layoffs at other new-news-order sites, such as Mashable. Predictably, the prognosticating class called into question the soaring multibillion-dollar valuations of not only BuzzFeed, Vice and Vox Media, but the legacy media companies that have invested hundreds of millions into their respective futures.
Bloomberg’s Joe Weisenthal took to Twitter and wrote that he could sense shock, sadness and some schadenfreude in the reactions of colleagues to a supposed BuzzFeed bottom-line shortfall.
Of course, this is what people in my line of work do, too often. We are much too quick to pull the trigger on a provocative, but irresponsible, clickbait story.
The late great media critic Danny the News Dissector Schechter used to say there’s always the story, but then there’s how the media covered the story.
I read the FT BuzzFeed hit job and heard Danny, who passed away a year ago, whispering to me from a kinder, gentler place that this was an orchestrated hit. The real story is what’s happened to the FT, a newspaper that can move markets. Why would they would go with such thin gruel?
I wonder: Do the new proprietors of the FT -- the Japanese financial media firm Nikkei -- plan to let this kind of thing pass?
The FT story does have some well-sourced facts in it. It does speak of the innovative, ground-breaking efforts BuzzFeed has made in mobile, video and native advertising, as well as its increasing investment in substantive journalism to go along with the wildly popular listicles and other pop culture goodies. It refers to an interview the FT did last month with BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti, where he talked about how the proliferation of smartphones had made BuzzFeed prime time, in that it could compete for the same number of viewers as the television set in the corner of the living room.
Certainly, there’s a reasoned argument to be made that we are in a new-news-media-order bubble, the product of Silicon Valley and legacy media’s infatuation with the cool media kids on the block. Part of what we critics are paid to do is look at the media landscape with a jaundiced eye. And there is a place for pointed, reported opinion and analysis of that current landscape. But it needs to be delineated as such. The FT piece was not some Michael Wolff rant in USA Today or Hollywood Reporter.
If you haven’t already surmised by now, this is an opinion column you’re reading. An extremely good source of mine, who doesn’t have a dog in this hunt, called me this morning to say the numbers in the FT story are patently false. Do the three FT anonymous sources outclass my one? Again, if my source had an agenda, I’d let you know.
But the Financial Times took three anonymous sources whose agenda we simply don’t know and made its damning claims about BuzzFeed that, at least in the first 24-hour news cycle, have cast a cloud over the fates of news organizations that have brought much innovation and new life to the news ecosystem.
In the long run, however, it may be the FT whose reputation takes the hit. If it does, please feel free to quote me directly on that.