Losing The Buzz, Keeping The Heat

BuzzFeed’s sale of Complex Networks (minus Hot Ones) shows how on the ropes the one-time media innovator really is. It feels reflective of the rest of the industry, too.

By Ernie Smith

As BuzzFeed goes, so goes digital media, apparently.

And it’s not going well. Far from it. As the vibes around digital media during the social media era have faded, no single company has seen its fortunes struggle in quite the way BuzzFeed’s has: specifically, with those struggles captured for all to see on the stock market.

About two years ago, the company went public via a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), which was intended to juice the company’s revenue picture. It did the opposite, dropping the stock to about 2 percent of its initial share price until earlier this week. The company has constantly struggled to maintain even a modest stock price, leading to aggressive moves that have failed to work out and the potential risk of delisting on the NASDAQ. They thought it was going to be a big hit. Now it looks like a penny stock.

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A few of the more notable moves the company has undertaken in the past few years:

  1. In 2020, the company acquired HuffPost from Verizon, which ultimately had the effect of making its own celebrated news outlet, BuzzFeed News, redundant.
  2. In 2021, BuzzFeed bought Complex Networks for about $300 million, a massive acquisition that seemed targeted at the idea of making BuzzFeed a player through its large size. To a layperson, it has often seemed like, beyond a desire to build a nicer showing in the stock market, BuzzFeed bought Complex simply to gain ownership of Hot Ones, a viral phenomenon produced by Complex video channel First We Feast.
  3. In December 2021, BuzzFeed filed for its SPAC, leaving a number of employees with equity in the company holding the bag as they were unable to sell the stock before it immediately began to tank.
  4. In 2023, BuzzFeed News—a publication that got past initial criticism to end its run with at least one Pulitzer on its shelf—shuttered amid a broader 15 percent trim in total staffing. CEO Jonah Peretti specifically blamed “the integration process of BuzzFeed and Complex” (i.e. not the fault of the BuzzFeed News staff) for leading to the shutdown.
  5. Last fall, the company sold off the worldwide rights to its library of content—more than 1,200 hours of shows like Hot Ones as well as a number of BuzzFeed originals—to FilmRise.

Meanwhile, some of its biggest stars have gone on to better things. Ryan Broderick, nailed by a plagiarism controversy, has bounced back (and then some) with Garbage Day; the Try Guys are (mostly) still trying things; and onetime BuzzFeed video producer Quinta Brunson has one of the most popular and award-garnering shows on television. (Shout-out to viral legend Matt Stopera, who is somehow still there.)

Screenshot from 2024 02 22 12 02 24

One of the most depressing showings in the history of stocks.

And this week, the company ended up selling Complex for $108.6 million, just a third of the site’s value two years prior. (It kept First We Feast, however.) That, combined with yet another round of layoffs, helped BuzzFeed’s stock rise above a quarter for the first time in more than a month, but given that it was around $1.75 a year ago, that isn’t exactly amazing news. The company is still at risk of an embarrassing delisting.

In many ways, these issues reflect a failure on the part of BuzzFeed to build a proper moat around its value proposition—by betting so strongly on social media, it was not protected from any declines in reach caused by companies whose decision-making it didn’t control. In other words, it’s a BuzzFeed-specific problem caused by BuzzFeed-specific decisions. (In fact, it would arguably be worse if it didn’t have HuffPost, whose model was built with better insulation to the very issues that ended up killing BuzzFeed News—but was initially acquired in an attempt to better improve BuzzFeed’s own scale.)

However, at a time when layoffs are affecting such huge swaths of the media landscape, one has to wonder if BuzzFeed is a harbinger of broader challenges facing the media, which is that companies that once seemed full of ideas and solutions for the digital era have seen those very ideas wilt under the light of day. After all these years, its most grounded and successful ideas in 2024 were acquired from elsewhere, not built in-house—which would have been surprising to consider even five years ago.

BuzzFeed, when it first scaled up, was a bet on virality and scale winning the day. But it turned out basic business fundamentals mattered, too. And unfortunately, a lot of companies looked up to that idea of what BuzzFeed represented—which, in retrospect, feels like a bad bet. I would be lying if I didn’t admit I wasn’t one of those people.

Well, at least they still have Hot Ones.

Buzzed Links

Remember back in 2011, when a viral campaign launched, based on a single tweet, to develop a bronze Robocop statue to display in downtown Detroit? Turns out, 13 years later, the statue is still not on display, and it took a decade to actually be built. Is the joke still funny anymore?

Recently, news emerged that Talking Heads turned down $80 million to reunite for a couple of festivals, including Coachella. I’m convinced that Talking Heads is simply too clever to be brought back to the fold by things like money, and this amazing video for “Love for Sale,” adapted from David Byrne’s 1986 film True Stories, highlights exactly why.

Is Warner Bros. Discovery trying to figure out a way to kill Last Week Tonight, its insanely popular (and deeply political) comedy franchise? Based on how they’re changing up the YouTube schedule, it kind of feels that way. (Hey John, I hear The Daily Show might be opening back up.)


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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