A scant month into the launch of BuzzFeed’s business section and its editor Peter Lauria is stoked. The news establishment from whence he hails has already taken notice. Out of the gate, The New York Times, the Financial Times, and CNBC, among others, have followed scoops by Lauria and his young team. For example, after news surfaced that Bloomberg reporters were using the financial services giant’s terminals to report on clients, BuzzFeed uncovered that higher-ups at the company knew about the unsavory practice for more than a year.
At first glance, it seems folly for BuzzFeed—best known for cute animals and celebrity-focused, GIF-padded list stories—to invest in business news, an area that gets carpet-bomb coverage. Even Lauria readily admits much business reportage has become a “commodity.” Still, there’s a savvy method to BuzzFeed’s mad dive into business news. Opportunity exists where digital style meets journalistic substance that can grab a millennial audience already engaged in BuzzFeed’s ecosystem. “It’s like how we cover retail,” says Lauria. “Knowing the BuzzFeed audience, we’re more likely to do enterprise pieces on Urban Outfitters or Abercrombie than we might be on Walmart.”
Lauria learned well about covering business with a bit of tabloid vigor and sass at the New York Post, followed by a short stint at The Daily Beast. He knows how biz news giants churn it out too, having been at Reuters before being lured away to BuzzFeed last March. Once ensconced at BuzzFeed, Lauria assembled a group of four young journalists, refugees from The Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, Bloomberg, Reuters, and elsewhere, all with chops in key areas such as retail, technology, and finance. As Lauria was exiting Reuters, all were eager to come aboard a news operation with scant bureaucracy and a start-up ethos.
BuzzFeed founder and mastermind Jonah Peretti has seen the opportunity for the expansion into hard news for quite some time. He brought in Politico marquee reporter Ben Smith in 2011 as his top editor and launched a politics vertical in time to cover the 2012 White House Race. Other top-flight journalists were added, including Michael Hastings, a renowned investigative reporter, who died tragically in a car accident on June 18th. On the heels of launching BuzzFeed Business and in the wake of the NSA scandal, Peretti hired The Guardian’s Moscow Bureau Chief Miriam Elder to be BuzzFeed’s first Foreign/National Security Editor and launch a section in that arena. (Not surprisingly, Elder was the first Western reporter to cover the uproar over the Russian punk band Pussy Riot and its members’ subsequent arrest.) A co-founder of The Huffington Post, Perreti knows how to build a general news site where a Kanye and a Kardashian can engage a digital-native audience, while also serving a significant slice of that audience’s appetite for an NSA scandal update or which big media giant will buy Hulu. Emerging out of BuzzFeed is a blueprint on how a broad-based news outfit can engage a digital-native audience, something legacy media brands are struggling to get right. It’s also an audience that advertisers love.
Lauria has “no delusions” that BuzzFeed Business will replace The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, or Bloomberg as the C-suite executive’s first read. Still, there’s a fertile audience to draw on from the 60 million uniques that visit BuzzFeed on a monthly basis. An essential part of the plan is to free his team from the perpetual pressure beat reporters have to be the first to post a rewritten press release or earnings report. Lauria says the focus is on “quality not quantity.” That translates into a steady mix of enterprise stories, such as a Lauria post on how hedge funds were going long on CBS stocks, and Matthew Lynley’s scoop on the “implosion” of Zynga’s New York operation. A heady dose of humor is also essential to the mix, such as “Why Short-selling a Stock is A Lot Like Mean Girls.”
Some critiques of BuzzFeed’s meteoric growth deride it as being solely about cleverly repackaging easily sharable content from elsewhere. A recent TechCrunch post noted that BuzzFeed stories are shared far more than those published by blue chip news organizations as The Times and The Journal. Yet TechCrunch damns BuzzFeed with faint praise as “a superbly engineered machine for turning animals, animated GIFs, and repackaged Reddit threads into pageviews,” and concludes that BuzzFeed is “almost pure sugar water.” It’s an opinion echoed by many a Fourth Estate Brahman.
That is a short-sighted appraisal for anyone seeking business models to support substantive reporting, especially that engage a young audience. Sure, does a smart analysis of Marissa Mayer’s talk about makeover plans for Yahoo in the wake of her Tumblr acquisition get the same kind of traffic as “The Ten Ways That Men Text Women?” Well, no. Yet, undeniably, in a handful of weeks in existence, BuzzFeed Business has posted a steady stream of exclusives and savvy analysis, exploiting a “superbly engineered machine,” about everyone from Abercrombie to Zynga. Naturally, there have been laughs along the way that reveal plenty about how the business world works, like the quiz “Hedge Fund Handbook or Kinky Sex Advice.” Says Lauria: “In this media environment, if you want to stand out you have to adapt and report in new ways. Otherwise you might as well get out of the business.”
You can follow J. Max Robins on Twitter @jmaxrobins.