October 27, 2013

BuzzFeed expanding in a serious way

The popular website will add hard news coverage and other language versions, as well as original videos.

By Andrea Chang
Los Angeles Times

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

BuzzFeed staffers edit video in the newsroom of the website’s Los Angeles headquarters. “Video was a huge missing piece,” CEO Jonah Peretti said. “We wanted to do for video what we did with other kinds of content.”

Photos by Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times

click image to enlarge

BuzzFeed Editor-In-Chief Ben Smith, left, President and Chief Operating Officer Jon Steinberg, center, and founder and CEO Jonah Peretti appear in their offices in Los Angeles.

The company is predicting that its core audience of 18- to 34-year-olds will binge watch and share its videos with the same fervor with which they spread BuzzFeed lists such as 30 Signs You’re Almost 30 (7.9 million views, 111,000 Facebook shares, 10,000 tweets).

It’s also a slick advertising move, media watchers say.

“The easiest money to be made in content is pre-roll ads in front of videos,” said Gabriel Kahn, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. “There’s been kind of a stampede into video.”

Not that BuzzFeed needs help generating money. The social news site gets all its revenue from so-called native advertising – shareable ads that look like BuzzFeed editorial content. Its revenue grew from zero four years ago to $20 million in 2012, and the company is on track to do $60 million this year.

BuzzFeed is also profitable, although the privately held company declined to say how much it earns.

BuzzFeed, which has raised $46.3 million to date, has been on a hiring spree and now has more than 340 employees; most are younger than 35.

The L.A. office officially opened Wednesday, but a team of BuzzFeed videographers has been filming and editing content around the city in the last year. They’ve already churned out more than 700 videos, 123 of them amassing 1 million views or more, said Ze Frank, who was hired last year to lead the team.

The videos vary in content and tone. Some are silly, such as “Sad Cat Diary,” a compilation of the thoughts of supposedly depressed felines (10.4 million views). Others are somber, including “The Time You Have (In Jelly Beans),” a look at how the average human spends the finite amount of time in his or her life (2.4 million views).

BuzzFeed’s entire video operation, currently numbering 30 people, is based in L.A., along with a handful of ad sales reps and 10 editorial staffers who focus on entertainment coverage.

The 12,000-square-foot, two-level office, decorated with red foam letters that spell out “BuzzFeed,” red Ikea bookshelves and red chairs, is BuzzFeed’s largest after its headquarters. The company also has offices in Washington, Chicago, San Francisco and London and is opening a bureau in Australia.

In New York, BuzzFeed’s meeting rooms are named after famous Internet cats such as Grumpy Cat, Lil Bub and Henri, Le Chat Noir. In sunny, laid-back L.A., its rooms pay homage to well-known dogs.

Company executives say they are looking to build the same kind of influence in L.A. that the brand has in New York. And they’d like to dispel the notion that BuzzFeed is, as its detractors say, a hub for superficiality and so-called click candy.

That reputation shouldn’t be a big concern, USC’s Kahn said.

“BuzzFeed’s whole nature is that it takes its cue from the audience,” he said. “So people who want to knock it are knocking what the audience says it wants.”

BuzzFeed is just one of several websites – including the Huffington Post, Politico and even TMZ – that are redefining the news industry through “bite-sized chunks of information,” said Sree Sreenivasan, a professor of social and digital media at Columbia University.

“These new players are born on the Internet, they’re of the Internet, they’re for the Internet,” he said. “They go places where a more careful publication may not go.”

Despite its push for more substantive, hard-hitting content, BuzzFeed remains a company that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Staffers don red BuzzFeed hoodies and thick-rimmed hipster glasses and say the collaborative environment feels more like a startup than a rapidly growing media company.

Videographers are divided into three teams – red, blue and yellow – that playfully trash-talk one another and hold separate weekly meetings to generate ideas. Each person aims to make two videos a week.

During Team Yellow’s brainstorming session on a recent Monday, eight video producers toss around ideas that they can film in the next few days: cute animals that are actually creepy, best roommate pranks, ways to annoy a barista.

As the hourlong meeting winds down, video producer Andrew Gauthier proposes a follow-up to “Drunk vs. Stoned”: “Drunk vs. Baby.”

The idea catches on immediately.

“Like who could crawl faster, or who could eat spaghetti more neatly,” fellow producer Micaela Mielniczenko suggests, eliciting raucous laughter. “ ‘Drunk vs. Baby’ I think needs to happen, honestly.”

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