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14 May, 2020 18:30

You mean outrage clickbait isn't sustainable? Strapped-for-cash BuzzFeed shutters UK & Australian operations

You mean outrage clickbait isn't sustainable? Strapped-for-cash BuzzFeed shutters UK & Australian operations

Notorious clickbait outlet BuzzFeed has shuttered its UK and Australian operations in what must be the end of an era, having learned the hard way that even the biggest orgy of rage-clicks doesn’t translate to profits.

BuzzFeed announced it had furloughed 14 journalists in both countries on Wednesday, declaring it would no longer cover local news in the UK and Australia in favor of “news that hits big in the United States.” The writers aren’t expected to come back, and they join a total of 82 BuzzFeed employees who’ve “temporarily” lost their jobs during the last two weeks. The remaining staff have had to tighten their belts and swallow pay cuts.

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In what now looks like a cry for help, BuzzFeed published an article back in March calling the coronavirus pandemic a “media extinction event,” lamenting that ad revenues were falling off a cliff and journalism was struggling to survive. The company's financial troubles clearly extend outside the UK and Australia. But the virus is just the coup de grace – the clickbait-driven business model that has come to define even “serious” news outlets has been circling the drain for years.

BuzzFeed was largely known for fluffy listicles and celebrity fodder before it splashed into the “serious news” arena in 2017 with its decision to publish the infamous Steele dossier (better known as the “peepee dossier”) that launched a thousand Russiagate conspiracy theories. Unlike the New York Times and other mainstream publications that also received the dossier, Buzzfeed opted to publish it without trying to verify its salacious claims. Its news division topped themselves with more poorly-sourced Russiagate “scoops,” forcing the special counsel’s office to issue rare public denials. But the facts didn’t matter – they were getting clicks and being taken seriously by the media establishment.

The news-coverage model of “outrage first, facts later” quickly seeped into the ‘legacy media’ establishment, literally and figuratively. BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith was hired by the New York Times in 2018 and announced his arrival with a cringe-inducing op-ed titled ‘I’m proud we published the Trump-Russia dossier’. The Times and other once-“respectable” papers have scrambled to join BuzzFeed, Vox, Vice, and the other woke-clickbait-merchants in publishing divisive, politically-slanted content in order to maximize ad dollars and shares, figuring the money would just keep coming.

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But with Google and Facebook slurping up the lion’s share of a dwindling pool of ad revenue, that model is undeniably extinct. BuzzFeed is hardly the only ‘woke clickbait’ purveyor to fall on hard times. Some, like Mic, have gone out of business entirely, while others, like Vice and Refinery 29, have been forced into mergers; still others, like Vox Media, have climbed into bed with Google or Facebook’s “news” initiatives. But like its peers, BuzzFeed’s misfortunes began before the pandemic. The outlet laid off some two hundred of its employees last year, despite a desperate round of venture-capital fundraising, and was said to be frantically hunting for ‘diversified’ sources of revenue.

Returning to a fact-based news model minus the emotional manipulation won’t translate to immediate financial salvation, of course. However, it may build a loyal audience willing to step in with donations when outlets fall on hard times. One thing is certain: the BuzzFeed-style model of outrage-clickbait “journalism” – facts optional – can’t disappear soon enough.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.