On Sunday, the New York Times published two pieces illustrating the dichotomy in media today. First up, a story on Harper’s Magazine’s publisher, who still uses floppy disk drives and WordPerfect. The article included this quote from the 58-year-old John R. MacArthur: “I’ve got nothing against people getting on their weblogs, on the Internet and blowing off steam,” he said. “If they want to do that, that’s fine. But it doesn’t pass, in my opinion, for writing and journalism.”
The other New York Times piece had word that BuzzFeed, a Web site best known for listicles and quizzes that go viral, had received $50 million in funding from arguable the country’s leading venture capital fund.
There’s the old media world, where people such as MacArthur use outdated technologies such as 3.5-inch floppy disks. And instead of using Google for quick queries, he shouts at a staff member for an answer, according to the story. Then there’s the new media world, in which organizations such as BuzzFeed and Vox use the latest digital tools and software to elevate their craft to new heights.
BuzzFeed is receiving $50 million from Andreessen Horowitz, a firm with a history of betting on winning ideas such as Airbnb and Pinterest. Some write off Buzzfeed as only a collection of GIFs and cute animals photos, but it is actually a classic example of a disruptive technology with a bright future.
Disruptive technologies initially are inferior, so they appear unimpressive and nonthreatening to average observer. Remember slow, dial-up Internet in the 90’s? But disruptive technologies grow steadily better, and eventually supplant incumbents.
BuzzFeed appears set on such a trajectory. First it mastered listicles that were widely shared on social media, drawing it a huge audience. It’s taken a forward-thinking look at advertising, and offered sponsored content. More recently BuzzFeed crafted software that allowed it to pump out quizzes that often go viral. The Web site is said to reach more than 150 million people a month, and to generate “triple digit millions in revenues this year.”
BuzzFeed’s quizzes are a fine example of a product other media competitors can’t compete with. You won’t find any viral, digital quizzes from Harper’s. While the New York Times struck gold with a dialogue quiz late last year, it isn’t pumping out viral quizzes at the rate of BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed is using its mastery of technology to create content that will thrive in an era of social networks, smartphones and tablets. Because it’s so serious about using technology, its ceiling is remarkable high.
Many of today’s great media companies were built on top of emerging technologies. Examples include Time Inc. which was built on color printing, CBS which was built on radio, and Viacom which was built on cable TV. We’re presently in the midst of a major technological shift in which, increasingly, news and entertainment are being distributed on social networks and consumed on mobile devices. We believe BuzzFeed will emerge from this period as a preeminent media company.
BuzzFeed has branched into traditional, serious journalism, but if it’s going to validate its $850 million valuation, it will likely need to do even more. According to the Times piece, BuzzFeed may produce feature-length movies or shows alongside Hollywood studios.
Right now it’s difficult to predict exactly how big BuzzFeed will grow. But given its commitment to superior digital tools for its employees, and creating an innovative product that’s built for the modern media landscape, this looks like $50 million well spent.