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How BuzzFeed's Jonah Peretti Is Building A 100-Year Media Company

Ask BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti about his influences, and his answer sounds like, well, a BuzzFeed post—one titled "The Three Historical References That Explain BuzzFeed Will Make You Say WTF."

Peretti first points to a company that started more than 100 years ago, Paramount Pictures, which owned a film production studio, its own cast of talent, and its own distribution channel in the form of theaters. "That allowed them to adapt and change as the market changed," says Peretti.

Peretti’s second fascination is with CNN—how founder Ted Turner ran a 24-hour news operation at a fraction of the cost of what the networks spent, due in part to prescient use of satellite and cable technology.

And then there’s Jay Z. In the early 1990s, Peretti, who grew up in Oakland, California, attended public school where, he says, "The only music was black music." The lyrics were full of boasts—selling more albums, earning more money, amassing more bling. Later in life when Peretti, now 42, made friends with people who loved indie rock bands, he noticed "this weird thing where it’s like, the band that they love, they go to all their shows, but as soon as they have a record deal, ‘I don’t like them anymore.’ " There was a similar attitude among bloggers, he says, who had a "deeply tortured relationship with popularity. The mainstream media is somehow evil, bad, or selling out." Peretti didn’t share this angst. "With BuzzFeed, I always felt like, let’s have as big an impact as we can. Let’s grow this into something giant."

Or, as Hova himself once rapped, "I’m so far ahead of my time, I’m bout to start another life / Look behind you, I’m bout to pass you twice." BuzzFeed has built its success, like Paramount a century ago, by owning all the elements of a modern media business: a global news team, its own video pro­duction studio, a sophisticated data operation, and an in-house creative ad agency. Just as Ted Turner embraced cable before cable was cool, Peretti has pushed BuzzFeed to tailor its content to each emerging social channel, from Snapchat to Pinterest. And BuzzFeed is expanding globally, from the U.K. to Brazil, India to Mexico, Germany to Australia.

Much of this transformation has taken place within the past two years. The "bored-at-work network," as Peretti himself once called it, was merely a single U.S. website. In late 2014, he foresaw that people wouldn’t want to leave their social apps, so Peretti drastically shifted his company’s strategy: Instead of trying to lure eyeballs to its own website, the way most publishers do, Buzz-Feed would publish original text, images, and video directly to where its audience already spent its time, some 30 different global platforms, from Facebook to the Russian social networks VK and Telegram. Rather than write one definitive article and publish it on every platform (the de facto standard in the media business), BuzzFeed would tailor content specifically for the network and audience where it’s being viewed.

How’d that turn out? Across all the platforms where it now publishes content, the company generates 5 billion monthly views—half from video, a business that effectively did not exist two years ago. Traffic to the website has remained steady—80 million people in the U.S. every month, putting it ahead of The New York Times—even though as much as 75% of BuzzFeed’s content is now published somewhere else.

This move also creates new revenue opportunities as services like Facebook, YouTube, and Snapchat seek to prove they can funnel money to partners who publish directly to their platforms. In the fourth quarter of 2014, "15% of our revenue was derived from video," says BuzzFeed president Greg Coleman. "Fourth quarter of [2015], 35% of our total revenue is video." The privately held BuzzFeed does not detail its financials, but leaked documents last summer revealed that the company was growing at about 200% annually, on pace to generate $100 million in 2014, and was the rarest of things for an Internet startup: profitable.

BuzzFeed has become the envy of the media world for its seemingly magical ability to engineer stories and ads that are shared widely—whether it’s a dress that looks to be either white and gold or blue and black, an investigation into taxpayer-funded "ghost schools" in Afghanistan, or an older cat imparting wisdom to a kitten on behalf of Purina. Rivals in the insular media world carp that BuzzFeed is gaming Facebook’s algorithm, or buying ads to pump up its content, and both are unsustainable; viral smashes like the dress are mere luck; even traditional brands such as The Washington Post can beat BuzzFeed with their own traffic-oriented gambits.

What’s lost here is a true understanding of what Peretti, one of the world’s most astute observers of Internet behavior, has built. The company’s success is rooted in a dynamic, learning-driven culture; BuzzFeed is a continuous feedback loop where all of its articles and videos are the input for its sophisticated data operation, which then informs how BuzzFeed creates and distributes the advertising it produces. In a diagram showing how the system works, Peretti synthesized it down to "data, learning, dollars."

Everyone who’s ever shared a BuzzFeed post on Facebook thinks they understand the company. But to truly get it, one has to consider all of BuzzFeed, as I did during a months-long exploration of its video, data, editorial, and advertising operations. "If we actually learn what works on Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook," Peretti says, "and we actually learn what works in Brazil and the U.K., and we can figure out a way of sharing that knowledge, we should have a better understanding of how to make great content that people love." Peretti likens BuzzFeed’s secret to a fleet of self-driving cars: Each car learns from every other autonomous vehicle on the road, so eventually they’re all thousands of times smarter.

The other secret to BuzzFeed’s success is a culture that embraces constant change yet remains devoted to data-driven metrics. That’s a tricky combination, but essential for any company hoping to thrive in today’s tumultuous business climate.

Ironically, Frank, whose team publishes about 65 original videos every week—for YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat, as well as for brands—is saying this from inside a 52,000-square-foot production studio on Sunset Boulevard in the heart of Los Angeles. There’s a soundstage, a test kitchen, a prop room as large as a vintage store, two bungalows with rooms that serve as reusable indoor sets, and a clear view of the Hollywood sign from the roof. In short, the new digs have everything one would expect in a traditional movie studio.

But Frank, a performer whose rubber-faced, staccato monologues on The Show back in 2006 created the aesthetic for the first wave of YouTube stars, runs a decidedly non-Hollywood shop. There’s a refreshing lack of pretension, in part because he’s avoided the hyperspecialized model used in traditional video production where a writer might never see a gaffer or even understand what that person does. (It’s the chief electrician on set, in case you’re wondering.) Everyone at BuzzFeed Motion Pictures is "multihyphenated," says Ella Mielniczenko, 25, a writer-producer-performer for the series You Do You, an all-female scripted comedy that you could binge-watch along with Girls. "I can write better because I understand how I’m going to execute it and make it," she tells me. "I can direct better because I know what it’s like to be in front of the camera."

Frank’s multihyphenates are organized into teams—often color-coded—of no more than seven people, each devoted to a type of video, such as those that promote racial equality ("If Latinos Said the Stuff White People Say") and "franchise" formats such as Reaction videos ("Celebs Watch Animal Births") and Moments ("Awkward Moments You Know Too Well"). To ensure that no one gets complacent, the entire staff is reorganized into different teams every three months. Frank believes that this keeps the creative process from becoming calcified and helps producers unlearn habits. "There’s this highly articulated way of making video that started 100 years ago," says Frank, who has overseen the making of more than 7,000 videos in the three years since Peretti got him to join BuzzFeed by acquiring his startup. "The modern opportunity necessarily means that you have to question almost every one of those decisions. Things like, ‘Should we be talking about story as the prime vehicle for video versus a moment or a character?’ "

Mielniczenko’s series epitomizes BuzzFeed’s updated approach. You Do You focuses on the interplay among the main characters, Ashly, Ella, Quinta, and Sara, as they explore particular moments in their lives. The narrative arc that’s woven through the episodes—going to a friend’s wedding together—is secondary at best. Last fall, BuzzFeed decided to bundle the 12 episodes of You Do You for $2.99 on iTunes, the first time it sold its content directly to the public. The series hit No. 1 on the Top TV Seasons chart the week after its release, beating The Walking Dead and Fargo.

BuzzFeed’s video plans also include a partnership with Comcast’s NBCUniversal (which invested $200 million last summer) around the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. While NBC works on its traditional (and arguably calcified) "up close and personal" TV segments on prospective American Olympians, BuzzFeed was invited to film its own interviews. They asked the athletes goofy questions, such as, "Have you ever seen a live turkey?"—and then unleashed a turkey on set to capture athletes’ reactions. The result is "a video that they think is going to go mega-vi," says NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke. That’s shorthand for "mega-viral," by the way—and no, Burke had never heard the term before either.

Peretti’s management philosophy stems from his early career as a teacher—and, he contends, from watching his younger sister Chelsea bloom into a top stand-up comedian. "The best teachers don’t just say, ‘I have a good way of communicating or connecting with the students.’ They also change what they’re communicating. They think of a new curriculum that they know the student will be excited about." As for his sister, who is now a regular on the Fox series Brooklyn Nine-Nine and of whom he’s clearly very proud: "What I learned from Chelsea and watching the way comics work is that they would tell a joke, and then the joke doesn’t quite connect, so they try and tell the joke a different way."

To thrive at BuzzFeed means learning to roll with it. "BuzzFeed is this insane morphing rocket ship," Emily Fleischaker, a creative director overseeing one of the company’s most popular properties, Food, tells me during a trip to her lower Manhattan test kitchen, which was previously located inside her apartment. "Every three months you have to be ready for someone to come in and be like, ‘You’re going to report to this person now, and your desk isn’t where it used to be.’ "

"And we’re moving houses tomorrow," chuckles Peggy Wang, the editorial director of the Lifestyle group, who was also a student of Peretti’s in the 1990s. (BuzzFeed’s New York headquarters moved five blocks south in early 2016.)

"And you have to be like," Fleischaker chimes in, snapping her fingers, " ‘All right, let’s do this!’ "

Adaptability is a particularly useful trait in the digital media world right now. (Peretti himself relocated to L.A. in January, ostensibly because his wife prefers the West Coast, though he acknowledged in a staff email announcing the move, "BuzzFeed’s second-largest and fastest-growing team is based in L.A.") As he points out, the medium is still in its infancy: In the decade since BuzzFeed was founded, our computer usage has migrated from desktop to mobile; we’ve shifted from browsing the web to using apps; and still images are being usurped by live video streams that include chat. Peretti’s ability to frame the tech shifts that are upending content creation and consumption is why venture capitalists love him. "When he [Peretti] hangs out with us, he speaks tech natively and media with an accent," says Chris Dixon of Andreessen Horowitz, who led a $50 million investment in BuzzFeed in 2014.

BuzzFeed is Peretti’s vision, shaped by his restless curiosity. In high school, he saved his money from doing yard work to buy a Macintosh computer. He discovered the Netscape browser as a sophomore in college, and upon graduation from the University of California, Santa Cruz, interviewed at a tech startup but decided that a $24,000-per-year job teaching computers at a private school in New Orleans was more interesting. He landed at the MIT Media Lab, where his thesis was a software authoring tool for the classroom. Cofounding The Huffington Post in 2005 was Peretti’s introduction to startups and business, but a year later, he wanted to go off and experiment again. HuffPo’s investors gave him a little seed capital because "they wanted me to be able to keep doing Huffington Post," he says. "It was like, ‘Oh, Jonah’s doing his little R&D lab.’ " He stayed on until 2011, when AOL acquired HuffPo for $315 million. Only then did BuzzFeed become Peretti’s sole focus.

Although BuzzFeed currently employs approximately 1,200 people and is valued at $1.5 billion, Peretti still largely thinks of it as his teaching workshop. Now, as the company is reaching a size where it has to act like a real business, Peretti is finding ways to harness the chaos, just enough, to cross-pollinate ideas across departments. "A lot of what we are working on organizationally is, How do we create structures where there’s lots of local autonomy plus some global coordination?"   It’s a crisp fall afternoon in October and Matt Stopera, a 28-year-old BuzzFeed senior editor, is discussing hoverboards—"a good, funny recent example of something where we were a little too soon," he tells me. "A couple of weeks ago, we did a post on people failing. They’re falling." When I tell Stopera that I saw the piece everywhere on Twitter, he’s dismissive. "In our Twitter world," meaning media and tech professionals, "everyone was talking about it, but in the real world, people aren’t really talking about it."

Stopera, an Internet savant so steeped in pop culture that he appeared on an episode of MTV’s Fanography as a teenager for his "psychotic" love of Britney Spears, is explaining how he and his 500-plus peers in the editorial department define success. They rely on an internal proprietary metric, known as "viral lift," that quantifies how much and how quickly a piece of content is shared. "If something has a 1.5 viral lift and 100,000 views and above, that was worth doing," he tells me. "It’s a failure if you have 400,000 views and a 1.1 or 1.2 lift. That’s a flop."

Most publishers would perceive the post with 400,000 views to be the success, but at BuzzFeed sharing is paramount. As Stopera explains, "It wasn’t shared. It was all seed. The fun in the game is getting people to share something. I click on shit all the time. ‘Oh, let’s look at what this person posted on Instagram,’ and you saw their butt cheek. It’s like, click, but I’m not going to share it."

"I take no responsibility for what these insane reporters cover," says Dao Nguyen, the data maven whom Peretti named publisher in October 2014. (Editor-in-chief Ben Smith manages the journalists.) She is, however, entrusted with figuring out how articles and videos travel across all the platforms where BuzzFeed plays. "Traditionally, publishing meant owning a printing press and dealing with delivery trucks and newsstands," says Nguyen, 42, who in fourth grade was caught debugging software code instead of doing class work (her punishment was to program a state capitals quiz for the entire class). "With digital media, getting your content to the public is all about your technical platform and your distribution plans on social networks."