Jonah Peretti has been on the front line of the revolution in the global media industry for more than a decade. He was a co-founder of the Huffington Post but is best known as CEO and founder of BuzzFeed, a brand that has evolved rapidly from its viral pop content roots to a point where it now finds itself on end of lawsuits from Russian bankers following its publication of the explosive dossier containing unverified claims about links between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
Peretti was in Sydney recently for some speaking engagements and to spend time at the BuzzFeed operation in Australia, which launched three years ago and now has some 30 staff. He took some time to speak with BI about the global expansion, how machine learning will transform media and other industries, and the rise of populist political movements around the world that have been, to varying extents, fuelled by a force that has long fascinated Peretti — the sharing of content and ideas through digital platforms.
The transcript below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Paul Colgan: Let’s start with the main things you’ve learned in the process of taking the business beyond the United States to a whole bunch of different markets.
Jonah Peretti: One thing we’ve learned is that certain things are the same everywhere in the world. People care about connecting with other people in their lives. People care about expressing their identity in an authentic way. People use content as a way of connecting — and that we’ve seen in every market. The way they do it and the nuances and the quirks of it is different in different places. To take an extreme example, in Brazil people will share exuberantly, and in Japan, people share judiciously and more carefully. But the underlying element of how you represent yourself in the world and the value of connecting with people exists in every market.
Colgan: Are there certain types of stories, for example, that will only work in individual markets and just won’t break out of that particular area?
Peretti: Yeah, for sure, we have a global adaptations desk that takes everything that we publish and then evaluates it based on whether we should translate into other languages, and whether we should adapt it for a different market. Sometimes it might be as simple as translating, but other times it might be transforming it, or even recreating it but for a different market.
One example, I just mentioned Brazil. There’s certain celebrities that are huge in Brazil that people don’t know outside of Brazil. That’s true in other markets as well.
We have also been using more machine learning and AI to start to study this, where you can look at out of the hundreds of things we publish every day, look at which things have the most potential to move into other markets if we translate them or adapt them.
Colgan: You’ve always been very vocal about the fact that a creative person can come in on top of a piece of content and frame it in a way that they think will give it a broader appeal. We add in a machine learning component to that. Can you tell me about how you’re investing and how much is involved? How large is that project?
Peretti: It’s very important to everything we do, and I think that there’s a continuum between things that are analytics and then simple statistics and then a lightweight machine learning approach, then things like neural nets and deep learning and things that are more cutting edge. We are working on, in all those areas, and sometimes a very simple approach. For example, showing editors things that are in the 90th percentile or 99th percentile and then having them brainstorm and debate, “Why did that do well? What can we learn from it?” It’s pretty simple.
Other times, there’s so much data that it’s hard for a human to get an instinct about what matters. Analysing all of the data and doing things like smart clustering or other ways of making sense of the data that are machine-based, then lets humans take over later and figure out the next step. The idea of international growth being driven by some data science is pretty natural, because we’re publishing so many things and translating so many things that over time you can start to see which things have better potential.
Colgan: This is a broader business question – in all sorts of sectors … the potential for machine learning to improve decision-making and help inform decision-making is something that all sorts of people are wrestling with. Your specialty with this is in content and in story-telling, but do you think there are fundamental principles that businesses broadly should be thinking about as they wrestle with the question of, “How is this going to affect my business and what can I do about it?”
Peretti: There are a lot of general approaches that being applied to many different businesses. Any time you have a huge data set that is hard for a human to comprehend, machine learning is pretty powerful. I think it can be used in a lot of ways people might not anticipate. It can be used for optimization problems. For a while, people thought it won’t be very useful for things like recognising what’s in a photograph, or something like that. Now that’s gotten incredibly advanced, where AI-based approaches can identify objects in images better than humans can.
I think in creative fields, there’s going to be a lot of applications as well. It’s not replacing human creativity — it’s structuring it. If you study creativity, a lot of what you learn is that constraints often create creativity. Part of the creativity on Twitter is the limited character length. Part of the creativity of a filmmaker is the format of film. These things create lots of constraints. Then you develop a lot of creative solutions within it.
I think that we’re going to see, and we’re already seeing at BuzzFeed, that looking at large amounts of data and then using that to find interesting avenues and constraints and then showing that to creative people and saying, “Can you achieve this challenge?” is going to be pretty powerful.
Colgan: Going back to content, one of the massive worldwide cultural phenomena over the last few years has been this rise of what can broadly be described as populism. It’s very visible in what’s happening in the United States, but it’s to varying degrees in different countries, particularly in advanced democracies. A factor in this has been the content being shared and ideas being shared between not just individual communities at a domestic, national level, but globally. There are common themes between France, the Netherlands, Britain, and the United States, and to some extent, Australia.
You’ve long been fascinated by the whole sharing of information between communities and why things become popular and why others don’t. How you think about everything that we’ve seen over the past, say, 12-18 months on the political side?
Peretti: I would say that the rise of populism has been very emotionally driven. It’s tied to real issues, but there hasn’t been a massive shift or slowdown to globalisation or policies that are essentially tied to global capitalism and global exchange of ideas and things like that. I think there’s a sense in which the larger trend is still towards people being more connected globally, but that that is causing a huge amount of frustration and is upsetting large percentages of the population, which is causing election results that would have been surprising five years ago.
I’m not an expert on this. I just think people are more connected than ever before, and that in general, young people, who are the main readers and consumers and viewers of BuzzFeed content, see themselves as more globally connected than ever before. The strongest nationalistic pushes have been older people who are feeling left behind. I think some of this is generational, and some of this is just the pace of change being so quick that it’s hard for people to adjust and it can be unsettling.
One note on this is these nationalist movements are very globalised in terms of where they’re getting their information. There’s an interesting paradox in it which is nationalistic movements learning from nationalist movements in other countries and coordinating.
Colgan: Buzzfeed’s original Millennial audience … they’re growing up. They’re running businesses. They’re raising families. You’ve obviously moved into the news space. Do you see Buzzfeed staying targeted toward a younger early adopter set, or do you think about progressively expand the offering as the audience’s interests and needs change over time?
Peretti: We really have built our audience fairly recently. We were a pretty small company, really a research lab, in the first few years of Buzzfeed. Really it was the last four, five years that we’ve built this audience. In some areas, our audience is getting younger, with things like Snapchat and Snapchat Discover. We have a lot younger audience there than we have on, say, Buzzfeed’s website.
We never really set out to build a Millennial media company or a young youth media company. We set out to lean into the ways people consume media in the modern world — so social and mobile becoming dominant, people sharing with each other becoming more powerful than broadcast. That digital approach isn’t tied to a particular age. It’s tied to a set of technologies for media distribution, a way of thinking that young people have adopted at a faster rate, but that everyone is starting to adopt.
I see our audience and our demographic growing, and really where we’re strong is with people who are digitally native, and that age of people who grew up with digital. That means we’re adding younger people who grew up with digital but also now there’s people in their early 40s who grew up with the Internet. Eventually there will be people in their 70s who grew up with the Internet. I think that will allow us to expand as the Internet-centric media becomes more the norm for everyone. That’s really how we think about it.
Colgan: Sharing is the core, but what are the other features of digital platforms that you think are important to story-telling and how people connect that will provide new areas for growth and discovery?
Peretti: Sharing is about not consuming media alone. People don’t want to go back being alone. When you see something great, you want to be able to share it with your friend and connect and have a conversation about it. People also will never go back to getting their news a day later or a week later in a news magazine or a newspaper. Instantaneousness is another quality of digital.
Another important thing is having access to the entire archive of content. It used to be, with broadcast, you would flip through the channels hoping something good was on at that moment. Now, with Netflix or YouTube or Buzzfeed, you can access the best stuff ever produced regardless of whether it was created a week ago, a year ago, five years ago. That’s something we’re not going to go back to only being able to see what’s in today’s newspaper or on TV right now.
I think the broadcast model also favoured broad content that was interesting to everyone, but didn’t speak that closely or intimately to any particular group. The Internet lets you have data about your audience back, so that will lead to and has led to more personalization, more content being made for a broader range of identity groups and a broader range of experiences and more diversity in media.
Then having content creators being aware of the audience because of this data feedback. It’s going to make media more like a live concert or a stand-up comedy show where you’re riffing with the audience, and less like a studio album or something that you make and put the same thing out to everyone. I think more improvisation, more audience-aware media is going to be something that just becomes the norm.
Colgan: One of the big questions that still exists is from a large-scale revenue generation. Buzzfeed’s been very big on native. Where does the future lie in building large businesses that capture significant amounts of dollars? How do you think about it?
Peretti: We started with native advertising that meant native to Buzzfeed’s site, which meant a branded list or quiz that felt at home on our site and that was actually interesting and engaging content, that didn’t interrupt you or distract from your experience and that in many cases actually added to your experience because the branded content was interesting or engaging or shareable. Then, we saw the Internet evolving and we evolved along with it to be much more distributed, where content was appearing on within the apps of many social services like Facebook or YouTube or Snapchat, Instagram. We started to push our content out to the edges. That led to branded content that became distributed, or distributed branded content.
I think that what we’re seeing is now our business has really followed that distributed content model. We have built a global cross-platform business where the branded content we’re making spreads on many platforms. It allows advertisers to reach consumers on all the major platforms with media and content that connects more deeply with the consumer.
Colgan: Do you think advertisers know what they are trying to achieve out of this? Is it the same as the traditional advertising model, which is, get a well-crafted message in front of as many people across as many platforms as possible and that will convert into sales? There’s data-targeting and all that kind of stuff, ads that follow you around not just from website to website but from street corner to street corner. Is this evolving in a way that there’s a clear path to sustainable media businesses in the future?
Peretti: Yes. I think it is evolving very rapidly, which requires a lot of change and a lot nimbleness and adaptivity for media companies. I think the biggest challenge will be for pre-Internet media businesses that are generating massive revenue from broadcast and print, because it’s harder to be adaptable when you have so much of your business in legacy media. That’s what I think is the challenge. I think some of those businesses will figure it out. Because they’re creating in some cases really excellent content, and that content can live on other platforms and live on digital platforms, they’ll be able to bridge the gap.
I think there’ll be some new media companies that are born for the Internet, mobile, social, that will have a different cost structure and that will allow them to be more adaptive. Over the next three to five years as this industry continues to change and evolve very quickly, the more adaptive companies are the ones that build sustainable business models.
In general, though, I think people tend to look at a specific moment and they evaluate whether Facebook and Google are good, or the distributive model works, and it takes a longer view of how these things evolve. You look at the cable industry in the early years, people thought you could never have success as a content company on cable because only 23% of people had cable and it was really hard to install and the cable companies would make you pay them in order to put their shows on. The advertisers would be like, “Why would I advertise here when there’s all these other options?” A few years later, the cable operators were paying the content creators, and now they pay them billions of dollars a year.
These networks evolve. Content becomes a differentiator. Then the industry and the ecosystem finds ways to pay for the content not because of some philanthropic goal, like publishers asking Facebook and Google to donate money to them or something. It evolves because it is a differentiator and provides a competitive advantage and having better content actually helps a platform compete. I think you’re going to see that evolution happen, but there’s going to be a lot of bumps along the way.
Colgan: One of the things that you’ve done with the success has been to move into the news category, which has been, I think a few years ago, maybe Buzzfeed wasn’t associated with news. Certainly there has been an impact, I think particularly the last 12 months have been particularly interesting for Buzzfeed.
Let’s get into this lawsuit that this Russian businessman who was named in the Trump dossier. We saw what happened to Gawker. They had a very large lawsuit which resulted in a very large payout, and that didn’t end well for Gawker. Does it concern you that news coverage comes with these types of risks attached given the new economics of media businesses, even large ones?
Peretti: I think this goes back throughout the history of media. There was a time when the Church of Scientology would sue any media organisation that covered them. It did that as a way of trying to intimidate media, and using not even necessarily having a legitimate claim, but having the ability to rack up legal fees, and in the US it’s possible to have a spurious lawsuit that is still very expensive to defend. This goes back to the era of print. There are many examples of people who try to intimidate the press, intimidate the media through lawsuits.
This particular lawsuit you mentioned is an outrageous attempt to try to silence the American media. We are doing our job to inform the American public about something that the president, the president-elect, the senior members of Congress, the senior people in the intelligence community, senior people in media, were all talking about this document, and the American public didn’t know what was in it.
It was informing policy and having an impact on the country. We felt the public had a right to know what is it that they’re talking about. I can understand why someone might want to suppress that or intimidate us, but we have to do our job. We stand behind our decision to publish it because it was in the interest of our readers and the interest of the public.
Fortunately, we’re well-capitalized as a company, and we’re able to vigorously defend the lawsuit.
Colgan: There were some people who were critical of the decision to publish it, but you’re totally confident that it was the right choice?
Peretti: Yeah. When you look at the ongoing investigations and the ongoing reporting that’s happening around the Trump administration and connexions to Russia, I think that it’s important for the press to look at these things vigorously and figure out what’s going on.
Colgan: This is a broader social question. We’re seeing almost two separate types of conversations happening in densely populated areas compared to less populated areas beyond cities — the simple example is the Rust Belt in the US, where there was a decisive swing amongst voters. BuzzFeed’s big on culture. How do you think about those challenges, when you’re talking about communities being connected, making sure that the conversations are being monitored and that there’s some awareness of the split that there has been emerging in the political arena?
Peretti: I think that identity is very complex. You see the attention of the media sort of shift between different parameters of identity at different moments. Right now, this urban-rural one is something that people look at. There’s also generational differences. Young people, including young people who live in rural communities, are connected to the Internet and they’re connected to global culture in a way that they haven’t been before. Many of them are feeling that there’s new possibilities for them to live a life that they couldn’t have lived before. If they’re in a rural area and you’re an LGBT kid, you can realise that you’re not alone and you can connect with other people on the Internet and in media culture, and realise that it’s possible for you to live a full life, for example.
There’s different identities between men and women. That was another big split when you look at voting, huge differences between men and women in terms of how they vote and the issues that matter to them. That’s another really important divide that I think is as important as our urban-rural split.
At Buzzfeed, we really think of identity as being very complex, and trying to understand and have empathy for the broadest range of experience we can and trying to make media that allows people to have their own identity validated but also to have appreciation and understanding of other people’s identities. That, I think, is why we have done so much reporting on things like sexual assault on campuses or LGBT issues or why diversity in media is so important to us. Being able to be broadly empathetic and broadly sensitive to different people’s experiences I think is hugely important. I think that will lead to less polarisation if we do that well.