In the span of just a few weeks, the top editors of two leading digital-news outfits called it quits. Ben Smith, who ran BuzzFeed News for eight years, took a job writing a column at the New York Times; Lydia Polgreen is leaving HuffPost to oversee a podcast company.
Two does not make a trend, but it does raise a question: Do their departures — smack in the middle of the busiest news cycle in years — say something about the troubled state of the digital news media?
Both editors answer with a firm no. They say their decisions were personal, not an extension of some larger industry malaise. Nevertheless, it’s impossible not to notice the context.
HuffPost and BuzzFeed were once the shooting stars of the new-media galaxy, innovators that showed “legacy” media organizations how news could be edited and packaged for the young and digitally savvy. The former pioneered high-volume commentary, almost entirely liberal, and eventually coupled it with some first-class reporting, becoming one of the first digital-only news organizations to win a Pulitzer Prize. The latter began as a purveyor of “listicles,” quizzes and other clickbaity content but under Smith developed into a newsroom that broke several important stories but also famously flopped in its reporting about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of President Trump.
These days, however, the sky no longer seems the limit, not just for BuzzFeed and HuffPost but for the entire field of digital-news sites that had once seemed to be journalism’s future.
Digital publishers face the same issues that have beset, and decimated, whole swaths of the traditional media, particularly local newspapers. Digital ad rates have fallen steadily for years amid an unending supply of competitors and slow-growing demand from sponsors. Looming over the entire business are the twin colossi, Facebook and Google, which collect about 60 percent of every dollar spent by digital advertisers.
Video streaming, once thought to be a savior, turned out to be a high-cost investment with mixed returns. And few digital publishers have been able to convert their visitors into regular subscribers, which seem to be a key to long-term financial stability.
The result has been a pullback by venture capital firms that once showered start-up dollars on the likes of BuzzFeed, Vice, Vox, Business Insider and other digi-news ingenues. There’s also been shrinkage within: Over a few days in January last year, BuzzFeed, AOL, Yahoo and HuffPost — the latter three all owned by Verizon Media — collectively laid off more than a thousand employees. Smaller sites, such as Mic, Refinery29, the Outline and PopSugar, have sought financial stability by selling to larger sites.
None of the major digital players has undergone as radical a transformation as HuffPost did under Polgreen. The site once emphasized “user-generated content” — a hodgepodge of political opinion and personal essays by celebrities, quasi-celebrities and random writers. Polgreen, a former editor at the New York Times, moved HuffPost toward more original journalism.
The upshot has been that far fewer people now visit HuffPost, although those who do stay longer — the kind of increased “engagement” that advertisers like. Figures compiled by the ComScore tracking firm show that HuffPost’s monthly traffic plunged by nearly half, from 66.5 million in January 2018 to 34.9 million in January while the time-per-visit grew from 8.8 minutes to 11.3 minutes, a 28 percent increase. (HuffPost disputes the January 2020 number, which would also mark an unusual drop from ComScore’s records of HuffPost’s traffic through the final months of 2019.)
What this means for HuffPost’s overall financial condition is unclear. Verizon Media said it doesn’t comment on its financial performance; Polgreen herself said the answer is a bit of a mystery.
“I wouldn’t even know how to answer that,” she said in an interview. “I’ve asked that question myself.”
Polgreen, who is joining the podcast company Gimlet Media as head of content, said it’s a fluke that she and Smith departed their companies around the same time and that neither departure tells a larger story. “This [new job] was just an opportunity that sparked my imagination,” she said.
Smith, in a brief interview, made a similar comment, saying his decision to leave BuzzFeed was “very much a personal choice.” He said he wanted to return to writing, though he didn’t explain why he couldn’t do so at BuzzFeed. He said he remains “optimistic” about the company’s future.
Yet Smith himself hinted at the trouble underlying the digital-news sector in his first column for the New York Times, in which he noted that the Times had regained its financial footing at a time when others are struggling.
Smith wrote that the Times has poached “many of the [digital journalists] who once threatened it,” including the former top editors of sites such as Gawker, Recode, Quartz and now BuzzFeed. The newspaper has also stocked its newsroom with star journalists from another digital start-up, Politico, where Smith himself used to work, including White House correspondent Maggie Haberman and political reporter Jonathan Martin.
More ominously, he quoted Josh Tyrangiel, a former senior vice president at Vice, as describing the gulf between the Times and other publications as a “moat . . . so wide that I can’t see anyone getting into it. There’s no new thing coming.”
Smith’s former boss, BuzzFeed chief executive Jonah Peretti, says his company turned a profit in the second half of last year, and is on track to make 2020 its first full-year profit since 2013. “We’re in a better spot than we’ve ever been,” he said. “The past two to three years were tough, but now we’re on the other side of it. Ben left us in good shape.”
But others won’t be so lucky, Peretti thinks, as the eager venture money of years past evaporates. “The smaller companies need to find a home with the bigger companies in the digital-media space,” he said. “There could be more consolidation in this industry. We’re fortunate to be at a scale where we can stand alone. We’re able to operate without having to consolidate.”
Even so, the digital survivors “are unlikely to turn into the high-margin businesses that newspapers once were,” said Jim Brady, the chief executive of Spirited Media, which formerly operated local-news sites in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Denver.
Brady, the former executive editor of washingtonpost.com, says there’s a simple reason for Smith and Polgreen’s abdications.
“Running digital news sites are grueling jobs,” he says. “You’re running 24/7. Huffpo and BuzzFeed are constantly under the microscope. You’re managing huge staffs. And you have to be active participants in discussions about the business.”
He added, “We’re at the point where anyone running a site covering this election needs to either buckle up and get ready for the ride or get out of the car now so that there’s time to get someone new in place and up to speed.”
5 p.m. This story has been updated to note HuffPost’s dispute over the validity of ComScore’s traffic numbers.