Inside the Buzz-Fueled Media Startups Battling for Your Attention
It's like a parody, spending time in a well-funded startup's office, with exposed brick walls and Great Big Screens Showing User Numbers and Pie Charts, just down the street from a food truck pavilion, sipping on a cup of roasted-one-block-away designer coffee while debating iPhone 6 versus iPhone 6 Plus. But that's the scene at Circa, which makes a just-the-facts app aimed at displacing the way you get breaking news. Which is just hard to do when there's no news to break. And on this September afternoon in San Francisco, not much is happening in the world.
This is reflected on the Great Big Screens. When lots of people use the Circa News app, the Great Big Screens are full of exciting charts and graphs with big numbers and fever lines that go up, up, up. But today the world is very boring, so the Great Big Screens have lines on them that are going down, down, down. And with them, the pulse of the office.
The only excitement was early in the day, when Circa CEO Matt Galligan and president John Maloney were on Bloomberg TV. They were pitching a brand-new, prettier, functionier version of Circa News' app. But Bloomberg ran the wrong footage, and instead of showing the redesigned Circa News 3, it displayed some old crap from Circa News 1. Everyone groaned. The anchor asked Maloney—formerly president of Tumblr—if Circa was an acquisition target. A few people yelled, "Yes!"
But that was hours ago. Then suddenly: Ebola! From across the room, the Android developer, who is scrolling through Twitter, sees a retweet from a Dallas TV station and shouts, "Ebola in the United States!" It's 1:43 pm Pacific and instantaneously all of the most powerful news organizations in the world want your attention.
The media has always been at war for your attention—and has always come up with new ways to win it. When sensational headlines screaming in 72-point type weren't effective enough, it hired newsies to stand in the street and holler at passersby. William Randolph Hearst used his press to launch a war with Spain in the pursuit of selling more papers. (Blood makes the best clickbait of all—to use the industry jargon, "if it bleeds it leads.") The network news interrupted regularly scheduled programming. CNN went wall to wall with O.J. Matt Drudge fired up his siren. Geraldo took off his shirt.
Over the past couple of decades, this war for eyeballs has been fought across an ever-expanding territory. With the advent of the modern web, online publications and blogs competed to dominate your laptop screen. But with the rise of mobile, the battleground has become infinite. No matter where you are or what you're doing—eating, drinking, watching a movie—the news has access to you. Stories roll in on push notifications and social media streams in a nonstop look-at-me barrage, all of them lighting up the same small screen. There is only one true channel now, and it's probably in your pocket (or hand) at this very moment.
What's more, everyone has access to it. Everyone can program it. The media has been so completely flattened and democratized that your little sister can use the same distribution methods as the world's most powerful publishers. She has instant access to you—potentially to everyone—and she doesn't need to invest in broadcast towers or a printing press, satellites or coaxial cable. Neither does anyone else. That little vibration in your pocket could mean that we are bombing Iraq again or that a massive typhoon is headed for the Gulf of Thailand or that your father has tagged a photo of you on Facebook. (Nice Boy Scouts uniform.) Even Hearst never had to compete with corgi videos.
But the thing is, the media isn't just competing with your little sister—it's co-opting her, using her as a vector to spread its content. She is the new delivery mechanism. We don't learn about the world from The New York Times, we learn about it from the Times stories that our family and friends share or that show up as push notifications four minutes before one from The Guardian does. Thirty percent of American adults get news from Facebook, according to the Pew Research Center, and more than half of Americans got news from a smartphone within the past week, according to the American Press Institute. And these metrics are just going up, up, up. The question for news publishers is no longer how to draw an audience to their sites, it's how to implant themselves into their audience's lives.
These dynamics have unleashed a new breed of media company that is racing to master these cutting-edge distribution systems. Much as Hearst, Henry Luce, and Ted Turner figured out how to amass huge audiences using newspapers, magazines, and television, the latest would-be kingpins are learning what kinds of stories resonate with readers on phones and Facebook. Instead of hiring newsies to scream at you in the streets, they are enlisting social media experts to scream at you on Twitter. Instead of investing in satellite trucks or paying for prime placement at the corner newsstand, they are reverse-engineering Facebook's algorithm to ensure their stories dominate your News Feed.
Your attention is a finite property and everyone wants it. The only way to move the fever lines on those Great Big Screens up and to the right is to get you to move your hand down and into your pocket, reaching for the One True Screen that drives and terrifies the entirety of the media business today. So what will you mash your ugly thumb down on? (God, I hope it's something from WIRED.) The must-see publication of the 21st century is the first vibration in your pocket. It's the thing all your friends liked when you shared it. It's OK, OK, I'll read it. o_O O_O O_o
A wave of new media money is flooding in
The media sector is overflowing with capital—as of September 2014 it was the second-largest VC-funded area of the year, after software. Bad boy Vice Media is suddenly nouveau riche, everyone wants a piece of BuzzFeed, and while First Look may only have one funder—the founder—it sure is one with deep pockets. (Plus he's promised $200 million more.) But you don't have to win the VC lottery to get noticed: Bleacher Report and HuffPo were both acquired before they hit the $50 million investment mark. —JULIA GREENBERG
Sources: National Venture Capital Association, First Look Media, Circa, Atavist
"Pass me the source!" David Cohn, Circa's news director, shouts across the room at the developer who first picked up the Ebola news. Even at a fast-paced shop like Circa, the old maxim applies: "Get it first, but get it right." There have already been a lot of false alarms: Ebola scares in California and New York turned out to be nothing more than garden-variety illnesses. But this time things are different—there's a CDC confirmation—and so the Circa team starts to scramble.
Circa was founded in 2011 by Galligan, Arsenio Santos, and Ben Huh, who made his fortune in cat photos at Cheezburger.com. After Galligan saw Huh speak at a conference and lament how news in the mobile era had not moved past the long-form article format, he set out to fix it.
Circa's entire operation is oriented around mobile speed—both in terms of how long it will take you to consume a story and how quickly it can pump one out and send it wide. Instead of drawn-out articles—and in Circa's world, seven paragraphs is long—it publishes something it calls points: bursts of facts written in such a way as to be independent of what comes before or after and that can be rearranged based on what someone has previously seen. When readers come to a story for the first time, they may need a bunch of bursts. But as they follow its development, they'll probably only want to see the latest. This means that, unlike most breaking-news operations, Circa doesn't have to report and write a complete story before it publishes. It can simply send out the components that it has at the time, then update later with further information.
That speed is important because Circa is competing for the gold coast real estate of today's news—the notifications screen of its readers' phones. If you can make someone's phone rattle in their pocket, and do it first (you only come in first or last in breaking news), you can get a story in front of a reader before they have a chance to learn about it from another source. And doing that can have huge rewards. "Anytime we push our news directly to a user's mobile, we see clicks and swipes skyrocket," explains Tyson Evans, The New York Times' editor for newsroom strategy.
While news apps have to be fast, they also have to practice restraint. Vibrate a pocket too often and people will delete your app for being annoying. Gone from the homescreen! And good luck getting someone to try it again.
This means Circa has to navigate a tricky balance—it has to notify people without bugging them. It sometimes goes a week or more without sending a single notification. More commonly, one goes out every three to five days. "We always ask ourselves, would you be willing to interrupt someone's dinner for this?" Galligan says. It's a judgment call, and Circa sometimes gets it wrong, which leads to weird moments like the editor in chief tweeting an apology for pushing an alert about Toronto mayor Rob Ford's cancer diagnosis. That update annoyed enough people that some took to Twitter to complain.
But the Ebola report is a clear push, and every news organization out there will pounce. So it's important for Circa to get out in front. It publishes a story at 1:47 pm Pacific: a headline along with a few newly written sentences about the diagnosis in Texas. Thanks to its ability to rapidly compile Ebola-related points, Circa pushes its story wide within four minutes of discovering it. But only the first sentence is newly written; the rest is just pulled from its previously existing material. "We don't have to write a new Ebola story and explain the history of what's happening again and again," Cohn says. "It makes us more efficient in telling a story." (Cohn has since left for AJ+, a new Al Jazeera news app.)
By 1:49, traffic is starting to roll in. Everyone runs to the stats boards, which are suddenly exciting. "Holy shit!" Galligan shouts, bouncing on his toes and grinning wildly. "Has anyone pushed faster than us?"
As far as Circa can tell, no one has beaten them. The payoff is a massive spike in users opening its app. Ten minutes in and the application is getting 1,200 requests per second—each representing a person who saw the notification and responded. It's their biggest push to date.
Meanwhile, editors are backfilling the story with more points—new details and additional information from existing stories about Ebola. At 2:03 pm, the app updates with a built-out story that includes everything the Centers for Disease Control has announced, information on how previous Ebola patients were treated in the US, and background on the outbreak in Africa. It's 2:07 before the team sees The Washington Post's Ebola push. The New York Times' doesn't cross until 2:57—more than an hour after Circa's first post. A technology writer for the Daily Dot tweets that "Circa gave me the notification on Ebola about 30 minutes before CNN." It's a win for Circa.
The vibe at BuzzFeed headquarters in lower Manhattan is young and antiseptic. Everything looks too brand-new. The walls are white. Great Big Screens are mounted everywhere. Where the data team sits they show charts and numbers. And at each of the editors' desks, dashboards display the ebb and flow of its stories' popularity on BuzzFeed itself as well as across social media. And those numbers are moving relentlessly, inevitably, always and forever up.
BuzzFeed is best known for its lists and quizzes— many of which are gauche little trifles designed to shock, like "29 Things Everyone With a Vagina Definitely Should Know"—or those too-cute compilations of cat pictures and corgi GIFs. But over the years it has muscled into other genres: breaking and investigative news, service-oriented lifestyle stories, long-form narrative, and video. It's growing like a well-fed toddler, building out bureaus both domestically and internationally, and has launched a motion picture studio in Los Angeles. It's also creating a new division, BFF, that will make content that lives only in the apps where kids are, like Vine and Snapchat and Imgur. Noted VC firm Andreessen Horowitz just invested $50 million in the company, giving it a reported valuation of $850 million, which it is using to extend its reach even farther. The much larger New York Times Company is worth $1.9 billion. But with profits declining, the Times is slashing its workforce yet again, while BuzzFeed is hiring. Dear God, yes, it's hiring!
"BuzzFeed News has the potential to become the leading news source for a generation of readers who will never subscribe to a print newspaper or watch a cable news show," explains the company's CEO, Jonah Peretti. It's not hard to see BuzzFeed as the next great media empire, something like Time Warner was in its prime, publishing news, entertainment, and even games. But unlike Time Warner, its growth doesn't come from lavish ad campaigns or newsstand placement but from social media. Its stories—be they quizzes, listicles, or investigative news—are engineered to come to you. They exist as free-floating agents, cruising along as links in social media streams and finding readers via shares and retweets and email forwards and pins. To do that effectively, BuzzFeed's staff has to understand why people share things. They have to understand what makes a story go viral and then try to apply that understanding to all sorts of media.
For the past few years, that's been the job of Dao Nguyen, BuzzFeed's publisher. Nguyen is 41 years old, slight, and soft-spoken. She doesn't look out of place among all the twenty-somethings swarming about, especially when she smiles. Nguyen has a really warm and genuine, if reluctant, smile—the kind that makes you feel like you're being let in on a secret. Born in Vietnam, she's a Harvard graduate. She came to the US with her family when she was still a baby and grew up first in Florida, then Southern California. She has also run other media companies—including a stint as CEO of Le Monde online, the website of one of the biggest newspapers in the world.
Nguyen is tasked with growing BuzzFeed's audience. For a traditional media company, that would mean promoting the brand to draw in new readers. But Nguyen sees BuzzFeed as a technology company as much as a media company, and that means investing in data and software. "When media companies think of growth, they tend to think of it as a marketing function," Nguyen says. "We talk about growth as a technology function—building tools and products, and making changes in your platform. That's more lasting than a marketing campaign. Marketing campaigns end after you run out of money."
It's true. Marketing is for losers. It must be, because BuzzFeed is winning everything, and much of that is due to Nguyen, who has more than doubled traffic since she began over two years ago as director of growth. In October, BuzzFeed had 175 million unique visitors, up globally from 130 million in May (and a mere 80 million the previous October). Its newly created BuzzFeed Motion Pictures department, which already accounts for more than 500 million views per month, is a full-scale studio focused on increasing its video production.
What We're Getting Paid for You to Read This Story
For most publishers, ads are what keep the lights on, and that means your eyeballs are worth money. That value partially depends on your degree of "engagement" with the content. Translation: Do you read WIRED religiously, or are you just here as a onetime thing? Here's an (estimated) breakdown of what you're earning for us right now. —J.G.
If you are reading this…
It can do that because unlike, well, pretty much everyone else, it isn't struggling with how to make advertising work online. Most online publications sell advertising next to their stories and charge advertisers a fee for each person who is expected to see it. But BuzzFeed's ads don't depend on being attached to a story. They are so-called native ads, and just like BuzzFeed's stories they live and spread on their own via social media. Consider: Scott paper can run a list of the top 10 creative ways to say you're out of toilet paper; Charmin can sponsor a post on the 10 stages of running out of toilet paper; and BuzzFeed itself, in an editorial post, can list the 36 weird things you never knew about toilet paper. The branded posts from Charmin and Scott, produced by BuzzFeed's in-house creative team, are just as clickable and sharable and readable—indeed, practically indistinguishable—from BuzzFeed's editorial content. And nobody is better at generating clicks and shares than BuzzFeed.
The reason is clear: BuzzFeed knows things. For instance, "Did you know that women share more than men?" Nguyen asks, head cocked and smirking. No? Well. Once you realize that, you start to think about social networks that have lots of women. You start to think about Pinterest.
When Nguyen showed up, one of the first things she did was target Pinterest. She focused on how BuzzFeed could improve Pinterest users' experience, by adding Pinterest share buttons to BuzzFeed stories on mobile and optimizing the site for Pinterest sharing. Then BuzzFeed launched sections like Food, Parents, and Style and eventually incorporated them into a Life category to collect the kinds of stories—largely about home and hearth—that work well on Pinterest. If you think of BuzzFeed as a newspaper, this is its Lifestyle section. And BuzzFeed realized that readers who come to the site from Pinterest aren't looking to share on other social sites. So they quit showing Twitter share buttons to people who came to its stories from Pinterest. And as BuzzFeed began to understand how people on Pinterest behaved, it started to plan its publishing schedule accordingly. For example, because stories have a slow burn time on Pinterest, BuzzFeed began publishing Halloween-themed content in September so people had plenty of time to organize it into a holiday ideas folder. Pinterest is now the site's second-largest social referrer (after Facebook and ahead of Twitter).
For every 10 people who click directly on a buzzfeed native ad, the site expects 3 of them will share it with friends via email or on a social network.
BuzzFeed also has tools like a headline optimizer. It can take a few different headline and thumbnail image configurations and test them in real time as a story goes live, then spit back the one that is most effective. Once a story goes up, an algorithm looks at the early traffic and social activity and predicts whether it is going to be a hit. Editors can then decide whether they should throw more social media resources behind the story to help promote it or just let it die on the vine.
BuzzFeed measures all this with something it calls social lift—an index of how a story spreads on social media, a quantification of its virality. This is subtly different from how many clicks it receives. Over the years, BuzzFeed has built a large core audience—readers who regularly come to its homepage, follow it on Facebook or Twitter, or use its app. They represent a valuable group, but BuzzFeed's growth depends on finding new readers—people who read BuzzFeed stories that pop up in their Facebook or Twitter feeds. Social lift helps determine whether a story is merely popular with BuzzFeed's core audience or if it is bringing in new readers. And it measures a story's success based not on the absolute number of readers it receives but on what portion of its potential audience it reaches. "If you write a story where the potential audience of that story is only 500,000 people in the world, and you get 250,000 views, you've had amazing success," Nguyen says. "If you write a story where 300 million people in the world are potentially interested in it and you only got 250,000 views, then you failed miserably."
Nguyen doesn't just preach. She also has her own swag. She's the author of one of BuzzFeed's more popular posts, "27 Signs You Were Raised by Asian Immigrant Parents" (2.2 million views). Not coincidentally, it was shared 224,000 times on social media. The post is a great example of something BuzzFeed does really, really well. Not just because the post is a little silly (which it is) or ultimately heartwarming (ditto) but because it overtly appeals to a narrow demographic.
Native Advertising, Explained
Going after thinly sliced demographics—like the children of Asian immigrants—is a prime BuzzFeed tactic. These audiences tend to have strong ties to one another and are more likely to pass something on that they think will be interesting to other members of the same group. "Traditionally you'd think focusing on a single-digit percentage of the population would result in something not being popular," Peretti says. "But actually it has the opposite effect. When media can spread through social networks, close personal connections are the distribution mechanism."
This idea of leaning on social networks for viral growth has itself gone viral. The second-most-shared Facebook publisher in September (after the Huffington Post and ahead of BuzzFeed) was PlayBuzz, a BuzzFeed quiz clone. A company called NewsWhip sells a suite of tools to help news organizations identify and promote stories with viral potential—essentially promising to let any publisher be a BuzzFeed. And another, Upworthy, has become famous for so-called curiosity gap headlines that seek to spur the reader into clicking to scratch the itch it creates. This leads to truly awful headlines like "This Kid Just Died. What He Left Behind is Wondtacular."
BuzzFeed executives and editors bristle when people lump it in with Upworthy and other viral content mills. Sure it has created one. OK. But it's a straightforward viral content mill. For example, it offers up the most literal headlines imaginable—a newsroom version of brutalism. ("16 Fall Outfit Ideas That Go Great With a Pumpkin Spice Latte" or "People Are Returning Birkin Bags Because They Smell Like Weed.") It isn't trying to trick anyone. It's trying to captivate.
This explains why BuzzFeed sends reporters into hot zones in Africa and the Ukraine to report on Ebola and Russian troop movements, and the reason it has hired so many beat reporters to try to break news in tech, politics, and culture. One-of-a-kind, exclusive stories are share-bait on networks like Twitter and Facebook. They're also less likely to be punished should Facebook suddenly decide to rewrite its algorithm—as it did in August when it cracked down on clickbait headlines and kneecapped traffic to Upworthy. "The algorithms are always changing," Peretti says. "We have a very long-term view, and the only way to succeed in the long run is to make content people love to share with their friends, tell stories that are meaningful to people's lives, and break news stories that have an impact on the world. The people who misunderstand our business usually have a very short-term perspective."
Peretti and Nguyen say they aren't afraid that Facebook or Twitter may one day penalize them—and in fact both social networks explicitly cite BuzzFeed as an example of a publisher doing the right things. Peretti even argues that BuzzFeed is good for Facebook. He says that Facebook needs great content to keep people coming back, and BuzzFeed is there to supply it. (Of course, now-struggling gamemaker Zynga said the same thing about its social games.) He cites the early days of cable, when companies like the Weather Channel had to pay for inclusion. But as cable companies realized they needed quality content, the power flipped, and soon it was Comcast paying the Weather Channel. The businesses couldn't grow without each other. That's how he sees BuzzFeed's relationship to social media platforms. "There's a lot of precedent of distribution companies and content companies building businesses together," Peretti says.
Time is Money
Your clicks are valuable, and your eyeballs are valuable, but to advertisers your time is the most precious commodity of all—and publishers say they want to sell ads based on the time readers spend on their sites, not mere pageviews. So, the logic goes, the more time you spent with a story, the more expensive the accompanying ads would be. In a world that values time over views, quality could trump clickbait—and, after all, isn't quality the thing we want in the first place? —J.G.
A long time ago, institutions lent authority to the people who worked there. Think of The New York Times or Harper's or The Atlantic or any number of other outlets. But as stories have become unbundled from their source, that equation has flipped. Thanks to Twitter and Facebook, it's much easier for a writer or video personality to bring along an audience anywhere they go. Audience portability is as easy as tweeting a link. Which means that today, it's often the star writer or video personality who lends cachet to an institution and attracts an audience. Or at least that's the idea First Look Media is basing its business on.
The startup's headquarters are just a few blocks away from BuzzFeed, but it's really a world apart. While everyone at BuzzFeed is young and fresh-faced, over at First Look everyone is older and, uh, not. There's no Great Big Screen with stats here. Just a whiteboard with story ideas scribbled on it, things like "dead animals that earn most," a listicle that will tackle which deceased famous animals enjoy the largest postmortem incomes. Both companies are well financed, but while BuzzFeed is raking it in with native ads, First Look is completely underwritten by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. He's promised to invest $250 million—the same amount Jeff Bezos paid for The Washington Post. First Look has already launched one venture, a daily news site called the Intercept, built upon NSA-secrets-exposers Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill and focused on national security and civil liberties issues.
Like everyone else, First Look needs to get your attention. It's just going about it a different way—by using voice, often driven by outrage. Its writers chase deep investigative scoops, then write about them in a tone that is loud, irreverent, and deeply human. That kind of personality engenders affiliation and trust. Just as people share stories because they're first (see: Circa) or because the stories are relatable items sent from a friend (see: BuzzFeed), so too do they share them because they're written by a person they feel they know and trust. And so Omidyar has been hiring personalities who have authority with its target audience—personalities like Glenn Greenwald.
There's a large oil painting of Greenwald on the wall at the Intercept, created by one of his fans. Greenwald has a lot of fans these days, thanks to the massive scoops about the NSA he published based on the leaks of Edward Snowden. But long before he became a whistle-blower, Snowden was a Greenwald follower and an admirer. The Snowden revelations made many other readers fans of Greenwald too. He has managed to jump from Salon to The Guardian and now to First Look, building his stature every step of the way. And what's more, his audience has followed.
In October, the Intercept was doing pretty well and had even enjoyed an exclusive or two, thanks to a source in the intelligence community. First Look was plowing ahead to the launch of a second publication, Racket, a web magazine offering long-form reporting, commentary, pranks, games, maps, and cat videos to serve as escape hatches from its weightier stories.
The plan was to build Racket around Matt Taibbi, a former Rolling Stone columnist who was a leading voice in exposing corruption and shadowy practices in the financial services industry. (He's the guy who first called Goldman Sachs a "vampire squid.") Taibbi brought in a slew of great, voicey writers, all adept at breaking through the digital din, like Alex Pareene and Edith Zimmerman.
It sounded great. But then in late October, faster than an Ebola outbreak in Texas and before they even had a chance to buy a Great Big Screen, Taibbi abruptly left the publication. As it turns out, he had trouble integrating his loud, iconoclastic, human voice into First Look's spreadsheet-driven management culture. Imagine that.
Taibbi turned out to be bad at managing people, at least inside First Look's structure. And the First Look brass, who had never before managed media egos, turned out to not really understand the enterprise it had created. They tried to make Taibbi and his staff use project management software called Asana. They wanted him to have a responsibility assignment matrix, or RASCI, in place for all the projects he launched. Taibbi balked. First Look insisted. Taibbi said no. His bosses at First Look demanded he step into another role and let someone else run Racket. Instead of taking the deal, Taibbi walked, and First Look didn't have a plan B. As October turned into November, the Intercept's editor, John Cook, stepped down to return to Gawker, where he had previously been editor in chief. The staff at Racket was struggling to find a way forward, and despite assurances, even the Intercept looked vulnerable to failure.
The problem with building your organization around a person is that people can leave—and then you're screwed. Turns out that sometimes individuals don't give authority and audience to the place they work so much as they lend it. Taibbi and First Look aren't the only ones to contend with this precarious dynamic. Writer Andrew Sullivan successfully ported his traffic-monster blog, The Daily Dish (now The Dish), from Time to The Atlantic to The Daily Beast before finally striking out on his own in 2013. Last year Bill Simmons, the marquee personality around which ESPN built its new new media publication, Grantland, went off the reservation and publicly called the NFL commissioner a liar, daring ESPN to punish him. (Spoiler: It did! Simmons was suspended for three weeks.) Occasionally it turns out that the audience doesn't travel with the star talent. Consider Katie Couric, whose numbers never followed her from the Today show and CBS Evening News to her ill-fated ABC show, Katie, or apparently to her new role as Yahoo's global anchor. Nate Silver, who took his 538 political prediction machine away from The New York Times to start his own media empire, FiveThirty-Eight, failed to catch the public's attention during the last election cycle and by many accounts has posted unimpressive numbers.
First Look's dilemma with Taibbi points to the issue of control: He, not First Look, commanded the audience that Racket hoped to attract. He was, in effect, the distribution mechanism. Circa and BuzzFeed in their own ways have the same vulnerability: They, too, have ceded control. When the printing press or the broadcast signal or the web is the distribution mechanism, the publisher steers its own course. But when somebody else owns your distribution mechanism, bad things can happen.
BuzzFeed's Peretti likes to compare his site's relationship with Facebook to the kind of cozy deal cable broadcasters have with cable operators. But it was Time Warner Cable that yanked away the cord connecting 3 million of its customers to CBS (along with Showtime and the Movie Channel) when it refused to pay higher fees to air the network in 2013. When Facebook is the distribution mechanism, its whims dictate what your audience sees. A single decision about what kinds of content should appear in the News Feed could take away hundreds of millions of readers from BuzzFeed.
Likewise, what happens to Circa if Apple or Google fundamentally rethinks the way notifications work? Or if another, bigger media company decides to mimic its technology? When you rely on your novel content delivery system to beat The New York Times and CNN, it seems kind of obvious that they might just build something that lets them do the same thing—just as they did when we moved from printing presses and TV to the web.
Here is the big secret: Nobody has it figured out. Everyone's just hoping not to be totally fucked six months from now! There's no retreating from the unbundled story. We aren't going to start going back to the front pages of websites any more than we're going to go back in droves to print. Times will change, but they won't change back. Which means that, ultimately, the best and only way for publishers to win your attention is with really good stories. A good story, well told and suited for its audience, has always been the thing and always will be. But never more than now, when the story has to live on its own. A little boat in a rough sea, desperately rowing toward you.
It's all up to you. Only you can save it. Only you can move the lines on the Great Big Screens. The only way to do that is with your clicks. The only way to win is for you to share. This story right here, you have to share it.