For as long as there have been digital conferences, online conferences, or as they call it at SXSW, interactive conferences, a standard agenda item has been a discussion of the “future of the media.” And one of the most heard voices in that discussion has been Jonah Peretti, co-founder and CEO of Buzzfeed. Not that long ago, Peretti seemed to have all the answers. It was about digital content, about SEO, about social network distribution. That was what traditional media had failed to recognize and why they were struggling.
But things changed along the way. Earlier this year, Buzzfeed laid off 200 staffers. It hasn’t been a good year for digital media and what was once seen as the way forward it now viewed with a heavy dose of skepticism. So when Peretti stepped to the podium at this week’s SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, he was taking on more than just how to save the media. His talk was about how to save the internet.
We have, in Perretti’s words, “never been more connected but never felt more divided.” And the source of the problem is what he called the internet’s ‘dumpster fire.” That is the racists, the anti-vaxxers, the trolls and scammers and pedophiles who have overwhelmed the internet platforms with dangerous, dishonest and generally mean-spirited content.
The approach of the platforms has been to try to police the content, at Facebook for example, that means hiring as many of 20,000 people to try to keep a clean feed. Peretti sees this as a Sisyphean task that will never achieve success.
His suggestion is that rather than focusing on the bad content, focus on good content. He called on platforms and digital media to join together to accomplish this. How? By having platforms pay digital media to produce the kind of high quality content that will keep the internet “weird and magical.” Funny how this might also be the answer to Buzzfeed’s financial woes.
Peretti claims Buzzfeed received $84 million in revenue from platforms last year. While that in itself does not support the kind of news operation that his company has put in place, he talked about other revenue streams that digital media need to develop. Examples he pointed to that are being used at Buzzfeed are a brand safe advertising network (presumably to keep your ad for men’s underwear from showing up on toxic sites like Infowars), product showcases that drive traffic straight to Amazon, and the launch of consumer products with brand partners.
Peretti also talked about making the kind of quality content that takes advantage of the internet as a medium. In his words, “make good internet content, not shitty TV.” Among his Buzzfeed examples is a morning show where the hosts and guests connect directly with the audience during the show.
“We need more joy and truth on the internet,” says Peretti. Will that drive away the trolls and the scammers? Probably not. But who can argue against good content and I think we have all come to value what digital media companies can provide.