Jonah Peretti co-founded The Huffington Post, then left to start BuzzFeed. Now he runs both companies: BuzzFeed picks up HuffPost from Verizon, the phone company that thought it wanted to be in the media business and then changed its mind.
I spoke to Peretti about the rationale for the deal (ladder, ladder, ladder), if he can guarantee that all HuffPost employees will keep their jobs (no), how much Verizon paid him to get the HuffPost out of his hands (he won’t say it), and if he wants to buy more stuff (yes, probably). You can hear it all in our Recode the media Podcast.
But I was struck by something we talked about at the end of our discussion when I asked him about the success of The New York Times, which has thrived in recent years, as BuzzFeed, like many companies in digital media, had to cut off.
The irony, as Peretti is well aware, is that in 2014, The Times executives were terrified that the newspaper was about to be overtaken by BuzzFeed and HuffPost. The paper created a 96-page “Innovation Report” to help defend themselves.
The Times, Peretti admitted, has since refined a very good subscription business model, which has enabled it to do better journalism by hiring more and better talent. It is not a controversial opinion.
But the next part may be: The New York Times, Peretti argued, can’t really be called “the official journal” – because of that same subscription model.
“A subscription business model leads to becoming a paper for a particular group and a particular audience and not for the larger audience,” said Peretti. It alludes, in part, to the theory that The Times subscriber base wants to read some type of news and opinion – middle / left of center, critic of Donald Trump, etc. – and that moving away from that can cost him subscribers. But he also simply argues that requiring readers to pay to read cuts the Times off to a large audience.
Turns out Peretti’s solution to this problem looks a lot like a combined BuzzFeed / HuffPost – widely distributed, ad-supported, and free posts *:
“Will a subscription newspaper read by a subset of society have as big an impact as possible on voters, the general public, young people, the more diverse rising generation of Gen Y and Gen Z?” ? ” he argued. “I think there is a huge opportunity to serve these consumers. And not all will be subscribed to a publication. “
I can’t argue with Peretti on one front: The Times, with 7 million subscribers and an ambition to reach 10 million soon, is certainly not reaching everyone. And there is a dangerous gap between the people who have the time, the money, and the inclination to get to know The Times and everyone else. And if he wants to fill it up with free news from his newly expanded media empire, I wish him good luck. It certainly won’t solve the problem on its own. But if along the way he makes more good journalism accessible to more people, I will applaud him.