LOL, WIN, OMG: founder Jonah Peretti about Buzzfeed’s recipe for success

Is this what the future of journalism looks like? Cute animal pictures, funning listicles, with a few quick news stories in between – oh, and some serious coverage. That’s the exact recipe that took US media startup Buzzfeed to success. The site attracts 140 million visitors per month, founder Jonah Peretti said.

Peretti is the brains behind the website and was also involved in the beginnings of the Huffington Post in 2005. A year later, he began working on the side on a viral experiment: Buzzfeed Labs, which began as little more than a collection of links to popular internet content. When AOL bought the Huffington Post in 2011, Peretti could finally start fully concentrating on Buzzfeed.

Within a few years, Peretti, whom Business Insider once named “the web’s king of viral content”, was able to build a media empire out of this experiment – over 400 people work for the website. In 2012, Peretti was even able to hire recognised political journalist Ben Smith, who took charge of building up Buzzfeed’s more serious journalism. Today, the journalist reports from crisis areas, while the investigative section is allowed months to research a story.

Buzzfeed now has new offices in London and Sydney to serve the British and Australian audiences, while French, Portuguese and Spanish versions are already in the works. And, soon, a German Buzzfeed will be launched – a handful of journalists based in Berlin will be tasked with building a localised version, Peretti confirmed at the Online Marketing Rockstars conference in Hamburg last Friday. There, we caught up with him for an interview…

Where do you get your news from?

I get a lot of my news from Twitter and Facebook. Although they are only social platforms, not journalistic organisations, they’re great at connecting me to The New York Times, to The Atlantic or to various tech publications.

But you don’t have a subscription to a physical newspaper anymore?

I don’t know. For a while, my wife used to get The New York Times. I’d take the sports and business section with me and read it on the way to work. Now I read on my phone.

Let’s say you lived a few decades earlier, in the age of print. Then you wouldn’t have founded Buzzfeed, but would’ve done what? Something like Time Magazine, for example?

The interesting thing is that Time Magazine started out as a clipping service. At the time, there weren’t any journalists there, they just subscribed to a bunch of newspapers and synthesized them into short articles. It was only later that Time began to hire its own reporters and correspondents until it eventually had foreign bureaus all over the place and a whole lot of serious reporting. And now the magazine is struggling as things transition to digital. But the point is: it has evolved over the decades. People forget that even Time Magazine started as a modest operation.

You can see the parallels to Buzzfeed…

When Buzzfeed first started, we summarised trends on the web: this and that is happening at the moment. We didn’t have a team, we’d publish four things a day. Now, we publish 400 things a day. We have an investigative journalism team and correspondents reporting from Syria, Kiev and Nairobi.

We were able to expand because the model worked for our readers, because they love the brand, the site and the work we’re doing. You see that happening throughout the media industry: MTV started with music videos. Because people were turning the channels, they put these cartoon characters between the videos: Beavis and Butthead, introducing the videos and making fun of the videos. The viewers liked watching this, so a whole show was made with those characters. And then they started to do fewer music videos and eventually they had almost all original programming.

You see: people judge companies by the moment they’re looking at it. But if you’re part of a company like Buzzfeed – or MTV or Time Magazine – then you see it more as a trajectory or evolution.

That means the Buzzfeed of today is not at the end of its development?

We are continually evolving. A year ago, we didn’t have video operations. Now, we have 100m video views per month. We didn’t have foreign correspondents, or an investigative journalism team. In the course of a year, our traffic has grown from 40m unique visitors to over 140 million. We constantly ask ourselves “what can we do now that we’ve reached the next level?” We can now attract different types of talent. We can build certain kinds of tech. We can use data in new ways. We can offer new ad products.

When you’re a very small company and decide to start doing foreign reports, then it’s either arrogant or stupid or both. But when you’re at the scale we’re now, having an investigative journalism team that spends six months on a story, then that’s not only possible, but also a smart business decision. Why? Because it is only a small percentage of our overal budget, but it can have a big impact. So we always have to keep stopping and asking ourselves “what can we do now?”

What about your plans for Germany?

We’d love to come to Germany. We need to find the right people. As soon as we find someone who is the right person we’ll do it.

And you’ll stand by doing it by yourselves and not working with a publishing house from Germany?

We’d do it on our own, and fairly modest. That’s what we learned when we opened our London office – you should start with three or four people and then let them really invent what Buzzfeed should be for their audience. In Britain, it took a few months of them trying new things before they got a sense which things worked well for the British audience. Today we are one of the biggest sites in the UK now. It worked well. We are going to take a similar approach here, starting with a small number of people who we’ll let experiment. They would need to be very entrepreneurial and build something that has a lot of their own vision in it, not just carry out what is predefined in New York.

You were just in Berlin and apparently had talks with Axel Springer. But you still decided against a partnership?

Springer was just curious about what we’re doing with Buzzfeed. And I was curious about the German media market. So we just had a conversation as colleagues – talking about where the industry is heading, what sort of things they’re working on and so on.

The general prevailing feel you get from the Buzzfeed site is very positive, correct?

Of course. We sometimes use the phrase “no haters”. That doesn’t mean that we don’t do critical work. We just ran a profile of Donald Trump, which he was really upset with. He tweeted that Buzzfeed is a terrible, irrelevant site. But the piece was very fair. Or our piece about the terrible conditions in an Afghan military hospital that was in part run by the U.S. government. We ran that story with graphic pictures in it, exposing this terrible abuse. That’s not being a hater, that’s being a good journalist, that’s exposing corruption and wrongdoing. We do that as part of our mission.

Being a hater means writing a long thing about how a mediocre movie sucks. And in such a way that makes the author look cool. We don’t like that kind of stuff. There was a period on the internet in the mid-2000s when a lot of bloggers were very sarcastic and found everything shit. It was almost a lazy way of criticism. There’s lots of mediocre things in the world. Just ignore those things. We’re probably more generally positive than other publications. We do not think being critical in itself is a virtue. Being critical of a deserving target and exposing something real is a virtue. But we also think people are looking for things to enjoy and to celebrate. We want to show people things that are worth their time. We believe people are curious and want to discover new things.

You studied environmental science, fought against gun lobbyists and became famous for your email conversation with Nike in 2001. Do you see yourself as an idealist? Do you want to change the world? And does Buzzfeed make the world a better place?

I think that in anything you do, you want to do it in an ethical way. If you work as a journalist, you want to create high-quality journalism, advancing the field. If you are doing entertainment content, you want to make people laugh or cry. If you’re in advertising, you might want to go from banner ads that interrupt you and block the content to advertising that adds to the experience. I think you should look at things and ask yourself “how should they be?” And then work towards that direction. In a way, that makes the world a better place.