Books, Arts & Manners

Death Spiral for BuzzFeed, the Millennial Reader’s Digest

Buzzfeed employees work at the company’s headquarters in New York, January 9, 2014. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
Which Pandering And Meretricious Yet Doomed Advertorial Dungbot Are You? Take The Quiz!

At its peak in the 1970s, Reader’s Digest pleased America like no other publication ever, selling 17 million copies a month while leaving no footprint whatsoever. It was invisible yet ubiquitous. Sure, it carried (often condensed) versions of real news stories written by fancy reporters for respected outlets, but that wasn’t why America adored it. Mainly it was defined by its periphery, its ephemera. Reader’s Digest was the mild, studiously inoffensive little nuggets of japery that readers sent in. The heartwarming stories about men in uniform, pets, kids. The “service journalism” — tips for soothing your aches or bringing harmony to your bank account. The patriotism, the Christmas miracles, the ironclad Frank Capra optimism. You’d see desiccated copies in your dentist’s waiting room or on Grandma’s coffee table. The product wasn’t quite junk food, merely the gentlest possible level of mental stimulation for the lowest common denominator. It was literary meatloaf.

Now picture the Reader’s Digest ethos reborn in 2006. What if you were willing to endure any amount of ridicule, contempt, dismissal, and eye-rolling in pursuit of the largest conceivable audience? What if your highest aspiration was the lowest common denominator? Keep in mind that the public had lost interest in paying for even moderately high-quality journalism, must less replacement-level journalism, much less the LCD variety. And all of the Gladyses were gone.

Yet! A superabundance of Gemmas had come along to replace them. The new source of profits would be to drill into America’s secret untapped strategic reserve of stupidity. They were there, just begging to be exploited: oceans of partially educated 24-year-old girls willing to spend vast amounts of the office time their employers were purchasing from them poking around the Internet.

So was born BuzzFeed.

What BuzzFeed does is often referred to as “clickbait,” tantalizing headlines that overwhelm you with desire to find out more. This isn’t quite right; what it does is more like “providing imaginary friends for girl simpletons bored at their desks.” Go ahead, check for yourself. Assuming you are not a mentally inert unripe female intent on wasting time, see if any of the following headlines impart you with any desire whatsoever to learn more: “Which Type Of Pizza Are You Based On Your Favorite 2018 Movies?” “The Romantic Movie Marathon You Plan Will Reveal What Percent Sexy You Are,” “It’s Time You Found Out Which Sandra Bullock Character You Are,” “Each And Every One Of Us Is A Queen, But This Quiz Will Reveal What Kind You Are,” and (this one is a bit on the nose) “If You’re Super Bored, Check Out These 17 Really Amazing Quizzes.”

A deranged fixation on Disney princesses is assumed. “Pretend To Live at Hogwarts And We’ll Tell You Which Disney Princess You Are.” “Which Disney Prince Do You Truly Belong With?” “Buy 6 Things At Urban Outfitters And We’ll Tell You Which Disney Princess You Really Are.” “Your Breakfast Preferences Will Reveal Which Disney Princess You Are.”

All of these headlines have run just this month. Go back a few more weeks and you’ll find “Shop At Forever 21 And We’ll Guess Who Your Favorite Disney Princess Is.” “Tell Us Your Cupcake Preferences And We’ll Tell You Which ‘Incredibles’ Character And Disney Princess You’d Be A Combo Of.” “The School Supplies You Buy Will Reveal Which Disney Princess You’re Most Like.” “Which Disney Princess Are You Based on the Sportswear You Choose?” “You’re Either a Disney Princess Or a Marvel Hero — But WHICH ONE?” And my favorite, “The Dystopian Movie You Create Will Reveal Which Disney Princess You’re Most Like.” There are hundreds more of these. Or as a BuzzFeed headline writer would say, “There Are LITERALLY Hundreds More Of These.”

The comments beneath such stories are sad: “I got Mulan from Mulan,” posted one reader. That was all she had to say. Not Mulan from Cinderella? Think of how bored you’d have to be to log in and type the letters that form the words, “I got Mulan from Mulan.”

After Robert Mueller shot down BuzzFeed’s report about how the special counsel had supposedly been presented with a trove of evidence about how Michael Cohen alleged Donald Trump had suborned perjury, BuzzFeed stumbled upon the means to change the reason why people were talking about it: It would be laying off 15 percent of its staffers. Hey, it’s something. Failure is less embarrassing than ineptitude. But it raised the question of whether BuzzFeed could ever work.

Much of BuzzFeed’s daily offering is, I need hardly inform you, barely disguised advertising. And a lot comes from unpaid “contributors” whose “content” BuzzFeed is happy to profit from. Except BuzzFeed, notoriously, is not profitable. This bears reflection.

Reader’s Digest once built such Himalayas of lucre that its halls were lined with Picassos, van Goghs, Monets. Ever been to the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art? It’s 110,000 square feet and fairly spiffy. That’s the Reader’s Digest wing. When Mrs. Wallace died she held 100 percent of the voting stock in the Reader’s Digest company, which she and her husband DeWitt Wallace co-founded. She used to sip martinis from a 4,000-year-old golden cup from Egypt. Her obituary made the front page of the Times, mainly because she had given away far more than $60 million.

Don’t hold your breath waiting to see how many Cezannes will be purchased with BuzzFeed profits. Today, with the economy in full bloom, BuzzFeed has used every trick, dodge, and wheeze to maximize its audience. Meanwhile, it doesn’t cater to advertisers so much as it flings itself on the bed and begs them to ravish it every which way they can. And it still loses money. Despite bringing in $300 million last year, BuzzFeed remained steadfastly in the red.

Founded in 2006, BuzzFeed is, as of this year, a teenager, and as is true of many teens it has an unrealistic view of its own likely future. BuzzFeed dreams of landing the Disney prince of profitability by dolling itself up in two ways. One is to cut costs. Unload most of the journalists producing the kinds of pieces that could in theory appear in an actual newspaper because this stuff loses money. Dozens of people have been laid off already, with more to come. Yet BuzzFeed is at the same time advertising for “editorial fellows” (journalistic lingo for “low-paid employees”) to apply for jobs. Clear out all those 28-year-olds whose salaries have soared worryingly into the mid-five figures and replace them with 23-year-olds willing to work for Starbucks wages. Hey, being a journalista beats being a barista, right? And as hinted above, it’s not like BuzzFeed has any hangups about the quality of its content. If you can make a latte, you can probably make a listicle.

The second part of the BuzzFeed makeover, coming soon, is to grow. BuzzFeed has hinted that it intends to hoover up many other similar sites, all those fourth-rate imitators of a third-rate product that also seek to provide micro-dopamine infusions to cupcake-scarfing arrested-development cubicle prisoners as they daydream of shopping at Forever 21 and wonder if Jafar is kind of hot. If 17 bajillion dollops of extreme-low-quality content delivering 150 gajillion eyeballs doesn’t work, double down! If gigantic scale doesn’t work, activate ludicrous scale!

By the time all of these mergers and acquisitions are complete, the next recession will be nigh, the first thing that always happens in recessions will happen first again (America’s great companies will slash ad budgets) and low- and medium-quality media companies reliant on advertising are going to segue from creating dystopian movie plots to experiencing them. Say, BuzzFeed, Which Pandering And Meretricious Yet Doomed Advertorial Dungbot Are You? Take The Quiz!

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