It might take more than a couple of carefully curated cat gifs to solve BuzzFeed’s current PR problems. For a site that receives similar levels of traffic as The New York Times, it has rather astoundingly underestimated the reaction it would get from loyal readers after it deleted scores of articles from its back catalogue.
Last week, Gawker reported that over 4,000 BuzzFeed articles had simply vanished from the web, prompting a statement from BuzzFeed to clarify what was going on: “In a review of our most updated policies and standards, we revisited all posts from earlier years,” says BuzzFeed’s Ashley McCollum. “Certain items published no longer met our editorial standards and we want all content our readers see to meet our current policies and practices. We edited some posts, removed certain posts and left other posts as is.”
BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti stands by the decision to remove certain content that didn’t make the grade, although he concedes that “we probably could have communicated better, or handled it better.” He is keen to remind critics, however, that BuzzFeed started out as an experiment in viral media, not a news outlet in its own right. He stretches this logic to maintain that BuzzFeed is not necessarily in breach of journalistic ethics by retracting huge volumes of articles, despite stating last year that serious journalism was an increasingly important part of the site’s offering. Moving forward, journalistic ethics will be a more central concern for BuzzFeed, which aims to be “a global media company for a world where social and mobile are the biggest ways people consume media.”
But deleting old posts is the least of BuzzFeed’s image problems. The site has been hit by numerous complaints from bloggers and journalists who feel that their work has been mimicked or downright copied. And while BuzzFeed has been known to take inspiration from Reddit discussion threads in the past, it draws the line at out-and-out plagiarism; politics editor Benny Johnson was fired last month after more than forty instances of passing other peoples’ words off as his own. “Plagiarism, much less copying unchecked facts from Wikipedia or other sources, is an act of disrespect to the reader,” said editor Ben Smith. “We are deeply embarrassed and sorry to have misled you.”
And then there’s the revenue BuzzFeed generates through native content marketing pieces such as “What Should You Do Before The Summer Ends? (Promoted by Pepsi)”, which John Constine at TechCrunch deems unsustainable. “Try as it may, BuzzFeed’s native ad posts are drivel,” he says, “and I don’t think this quality level will scale… this stuff is dreck compared to much of BuzzFeed’s organic content.” This isn’t an issue exclusive to BuzzFeed, obviously. Banner ads are on the edge of extinction and marketers are desperate to find an easy alternative – but the weak sauce on offer at the moment is definitely not the answer.