Traffic in Traffic — BuzzMachine – News Block

Ben Smith chose the right title for his BuzzFeed, Gawker, and Huffington Post saga: Traffic (Although in the end, he credits the choice to skilled tabloid Michael Wolff.) Because what Ben recounts is both the apotheosis and the end of the media age and its obsessive pursuit of audience attention, scale, circulation, ratings, page views, unique users, eyeballs, and engagement.

Almost everything I write these days: my next books. Gutenberg’s parenthesis in June and a forthcoming book, an elegy to the magazine in November, and another one I’m working on over the internet, is at the end about the death of the mass, a death that I celebrate. I write in Gutenberg’s parenthesis:

The mass is the child and creation of media, a descendant of Gutenberg, the latest extension of treating the public as an object, as an audience rather than a participant. It was the mechanization and industrialization of the printing press with the steam press and Linotype, which exploded the circulation of daily newspapers from an average of 4,000 at the end of the 19th century to hundreds of thousands and millions in the next, that brought scale to the media. With the broadcast, the mass went global. Mass is the defining business model of pre-internet capitalism: make as many identical devices to sell to as many identical people as possible. Content is commoditized to attract the attention of the audience, which in turn is sold as a commodity. In the mass, everything and everyone is commodified.

Ben and the anti-heroes of his story: BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti, Gawker Media founder Nick Denton, HuffPost founder Arianna Huffington, investor Kenny Lerer, and a complete dramatis personae early players in pure digital media—really no different from the Hearst, Pulitzer, Newhouse, Luces, Greeley, Bennett, Sarnoff, Paley, and, yes, Murdoch, the moguls of the mechanized, industrialized, corporate age of mass media who built their empires on traffic. The only difference, really, was that digital moguls had new ways to hunt down their prey: social media, SEO, clickbait, data, lists, and sarcasm.

Ben tells the story very well; he is an admirable writer and reporter. His narrative whizzes by like a local train on the express tracks. And it rings true. I myself had a seat on this ride. I was a friend of Nick Denton and a board member of his company before Gawker, too; president of the online division of Advance (Condé Nast + Newhouse Newspapers); board member of another pure game, Plastic (a combination of Suck et al); a protoblogger; a HuffPost writer; and a media critic who occasionally gets invited to Nick’s parties and argues with Elizabeth Spiers at her kitchen table that he needs to open up to comments (maybe it’s all our fault). So I quite enjoyed Traffic. Because memories.

Traffic worthwhile as a landmark document of a brief chapter in media history and as Ben’s own memoir of his rise from Politico blogger to BuzzFeed News editor to New York Times from media critic to co-founder of Semafor. I find it interesting that Ben doesn’t try to separate his newsroom job from the click mill next door. Reference is made in passing to the prestige he and Jonah wanted the news to bring to the brand, but Ben doesn’t shy away from association with the viral side of the house.

I saw a much greater separation between the two BuzzFeed divisions, not just in terms of reputation, but also business models. It took me years to understand the basics of the BuzzFeed business. My fellow media pranksters often scolded me: “You don’t get it, Jeff,” said one, “BuzzFeed is the first data-driven newsroom.” So what? Every newsroom and news organization since the 1850s measured itself on its traffic, whether they call it circulation or reach or MAU.

No, what separated BuzzFeed’s business from the rest was that it didn’t sell space or time or even audience. He sold a skill: We know how to make our stuff go viral, they told advertisers. We can make your stuff go viral. As a business, (like Vice) it was an advertising agency with a giant proof of concept attached to it.

There were two problems. The first was that BuzzFeed relied for four-fifths of its distribution on other platforms: BuzzFeed’s own audience brought its content to the largest audience where they were, primarily on Facebook, but also on YouTube and Twitter. That worked fine until he stopped doing it, until other less talented imitators screwed it up for him. The same thing happened years earlier with, where The New York Times Company took me to check out after its purchase. had answers to the questions people were asking on Google search, so Google sent them to, where Google sold the ads. It was a beautiful thing, until bullshit content farms like Demand Media came along and ruined it for them. In a first major ranking overhaul, Google had to demote everything that looked like a content farm, including About. Oh good. (After learning SEO skills and waiting too long, The Times Company eventually sold; its remnants work at Barry Diller’s content farm, DotDash, where the last survivors of Time Inc. and Meredith work, mostly postprint.)

The same phenomenon hit BuzzFeed, as social media was overwhelmed with viral junk because, to use Silicon Valley slang, there was no barrier to entry to clickbait. In Traffic, Ben runs through the story of Upworthy, Eli Pariser’s well-meaning but ultimately corrupt start-up company, who ruined the internet and all media with his invention, the following headline: you won’t believe what happened. The experience of being bombarded with manipulative tactics to get attention was bad for users and social networks had to demote it. Plus, as Ben reports, they found that many people were more likely to share hate-filled rants and lies than cute kitties. Enter Breitbart.

BuzzFeed’s second problem was that BuzzFeed News had no sustainable business model beyond the unsustainable business model of the rest of the news. The news is not, despite the best efforts of headline writers, terribly accessible. In the early days, BuzzFeed didn’t sell banner ads on its own content and even if it had, advertisers don’t want to be anywhere near the news because it’s not “brand safe.” Therein lies a terrible comment about marketing and media, but I’ll leave that for another day.

Ben’s book comes out just as BuzzFeed killed News. In the ad, Jonah confessed to having “overinvested” in it, which is an admirably candid admission that news didn’t have a business model. Sooner or later, the real bosses of the company, owners of his capital, would demand his death. Ben writes, “I have come to regret encouraging Jonah to view our news division as a valuable enterprise that should not be evaluated solely as a business.” Isn’t that the problem with all newsrooms? The truth is, BuzzFeed News was a philanthropic gift to the information ecosystem from Jonah and Ben.

Just when Jonah and company thought Facebook and others had turned on them, so did Facebook, Google, and Twitter, joining the old media establishment in arguing that Silicon Valley somehow owed the news industry. So that? For sending them traffic all these years? Ben recounts that he met with the eminence grise of the veritable evil empire, News Corp., to discuss strategies for getting “protection money” (Ben’s words) from tech companies. That’s not a business model either.

Thus, the death of BuzzFeed news speaks volumes about the fate of journalism today. In Traffic, Ben tells the story of the greatest single traffic driver in BuzzFeed history: The Dress. You know, this one:

At every journalism conference I took the stage after that, I would ask the journalists in attendance how many of their outlets wrote a story about The Dress. Every hand would go up. And what does that say about the state of journalism today? As we moan and mourn the loss of reporters and editors to greedy capitalists, we waste tremendous journalistic resources rewriting each other to traffic: Everyone had to have their own story to get their own Googlejuice and likes and links and ad impressions and pennies from them. No one added anything of value to BuzzFeed’s own story. The story, BuzzFeed would no doubt concede, had no particular social value; it did nothing to inform public discourse. It was fun. He got people talking. It caught their attention. gender traffic.

The virus Ben is writing about is one that BuzzFeed, and all Internet news organizations and the Internet in general, picked up from the old mainstream media: the insatiable hunger for traffic for your own good. In the book, Nick Denton plays the part of the inscrutable philosopher (oh, I can vouch for that). According to Ben, Nick believed that traffic was the key expression of value: “For Nick, traffic was pure. It was an art, not a science. The traffic meant that what you were doing was working.” However, Nick also knew where he could drive the traffic. Ben quotes him as telling a journalist in 2014: “It’s not Jonah I hate, it’s this stage of internet media that he’s so perfectly optimized for. I see a picture of his cynical smile — you clicked! — every time a stupid buzzfeed listing appears on Facebook.”

Nick also believed that transparency was the only ethic that really mattered, for the sake of democracy. Add these two premises, trafficking and transparency, and the sex tape that was the McGuffin that brought down Gawker and Nick at the hands of Peter Thiel was perhaps inevitable. Ben also credits (or blames?) Nick for his own decision to release the Trump dossier to the public on BuzzFeed. (I still think Ben has a credible case for doing so: it was talked about in government and the media, and we, the public, had a right to judge for ourselves. Or rather, it’s not our right to decide; it’s a responsibility, one that will fall more and more on all of us as our old institutions of trust and authority—editing and publishing—fail under the abundance of conversation the web enables.)

The problem in the end is that traffic it is a commodity; the goods do not have a unique value; and commodities in abundance will always fall in price, toward zero. “Even as traffic from BuzzFeed, Gawker Media, and other savvy digital publishers grew,” Ben writes, “their operators began to feel like they were running on a fast-paced treadmill, needing more and more traffic to keep the same dollars flowing.” Precisely

Traffic That’s not where the value of the Internet lies. No, as I write inGutenberg’s parenthesis(/plug), the real value of the Internet is that it begins to reverse the impact that print and mass media have had on public discourse. The Internet devalues ​​notions of content, audience, and traffic in favor of discourse. It’s just that it will take a long time for society to relearn the conversational skills it has lost, and, as with Gutenberg and the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and Thirty Years’ War that followed, things will be messy in between.

BuzzFeed, Gawker, The Huffington Post, etc. it wasn’t new media at all. They were the last gasp of old media, trying to keep the old ways alive with new tricks. What comes next, what is actually new, has not yet been invented. That is what matters to me. That’s why I teach.

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