”The place where I’m most excited about AI is not in news, but in entertainment,“ Jonah Peretti says
On a recent drive to BuzzFeed’s Los Angeles headquarters, I spied through the car window a delivery robot labeled “Ellen” toddling down Cahuenga Blvd. with the apparent goal of delivering lunch.
There was something oddly appropriate about encountering the labor-saving Ellen just before speaking to BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti, who has spent the last few weeks trying to explain to the public that BuzzFeed’s recently-announced foray into artificial intelligence doesn’t mean that his digital media company plans to replace its news reporters with robots.
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In December, BuzzFeed laid off 12% of its workforce, roughly 180 staffers out of an estimated 1,500. Followed so closely by the announcement of plans to deploy AI in its content production, which impressed Wall Street enough to more than double the price of BuzzFeed’s battered shares, some interpreted its plans as a financially troubled company’s desperate move to save money at the expense of journalistic integrity.
Were the likes of BuzzFeed to pursue that, it would “piss a lot of people off and the journalism will suck,” media analyst Evan Shapiro told TheWrap. “Robots cannot write emotion. They can’t… the fallibility of human beings and their emotions is what makes good writers.” And BuzzFeed, since its very earliest days, has been about finding viral content that taps deep into the audience’s psyche.
Peretti said defenders of capital-J Journalism are on the wrong soapbox when it comes to BuzzFeed’s AI intentions. In an interview with TheWrap, he pointed out that BuzzFeed News is just one part of a larger media company. And the December layoffs mostly didn’t affect employees of BuzzFeed News, HuffPost and the company’s food information site, Tasty.
BuzzFeed’s entertainment division, separate from the news unit since 2018, is the home for short- and long-form video, quizzes, lists and movie and TV production, and that’s where Peretti said he’s “most excited about AI.”
Though the company has been working on incorporating AI for a couple of years, Peretti said, the latest push started over the holidays. “What we’re actually doing is finding ways that the audience, our creative teams and the AI are collaborating to make new things that couldn’t have existed before,” he said.
“Being able to create new worlds, imagining things and make things that don’t actually exist, is a cornerstone of entertainment,” he added.
Some in the journalism community are pretty outspoken about fears that robot reporters will soon be gathering the news for BuzzFeed. But right now you are envisioning other applications, right?
Yes. You think back to the Hollywood movies like “Jurassic Park,” where you’re creating dinosaurs. And that was at the time very technologically advanced. I think that these new AI technologies are allowing us to create and imagine playful environments and playful worlds.
The first test of this was Buzzfeed Quizzes where you answer a few questions, and then it creates a completely personalized quiz result for you that could only be created with AI. Because if you had a human writer write quiz results, which is what we’ve done historically, you could maybe write 12 possible results. And now we have an infinite number of results because the writer can write the best questions and create what is called a prompt where it tells the AI what you want. It takes a lot of creativity to write the prompt, and then [AI] can generate an infinite number of responses.
Do you envision any AI applications on the news side?
To your question about news and journalism, creating things that don’t exist is obviously a problem we already have with misinformation and people creating content that looks like news but it’s actually just fabricated. That’s been a problem on social platforms, and AI could make that problem worse by writing articles about events that never happened or things like that. It’s definitely not how we’re using AI. If we see others using AI that way, our journalists will write about it, and cover it as they have other kinds of misinformation on the Internet.
What is AI good for in news gathering?
A journalist could spend more time doing the things that the best journalists do, [interviewing] sources, getting scoops, figuring out information — and AI could help that journalism reach more people in a variety of different formats and styles. I think that’s going to be really powerful. [Imagine] all the reporting that’s done by TheWrap, [through AI] you could chat with it and get the full information from everything that every reporter in that organization has contributed over the years — I mean, cool things like that are coming really, really soon.
So, just to be clear, the December layoffs had nothing to do with AI taking over?
Totally unrelated. I think there have been unfortunately some headwinds in the digital media space, with some platform shifts driving a lot of audience time to platforms like TikTok where there is less news, and less audience for publications that have less monetization. There have been some challenges in that.
As soon as BuzzFeed’s AI news came out, the stock spiked — and major investor NBCUniversal’s parent company Comcast very quickly unloaded 18.5% of its BuzzFeed stock, netting almost $15.7 million in sales of 5.7 million shares. It’s only a fraction of NBCU’s $400 million investment in two rounds in 2014 and 2015. Does NBCUniversal’s sale signal a lack of confidence in BuzzFeed’s ability to bounce back?
I probably don’t need to say this, but we are incredibly small compared to Comcast. [NBCU’s] investment in us was not primarily a financial investment, it was to do interesting partnerships, to learn about the digital space, learn about the platforms. [Former NBCU Chairman] Steve Burke’s strategy was making these kinds of investments as a way of getting exposure to interesting new spaces. They also invested in Snap and Peloton. Obviously they’re no longer doing that… they have new leadership and they’re not really making minority equity investments in startups and things like that. For us, it’s welcome to have our shares rotate into the hands of institutional investors and retail investors who are long-term holders of our stock and who want to invest in the future of our company as opposed to a strategic [investor] that was not investing for that reason.
Almost concurrently with NBCU’s BuzzFeed stock sale, media mogul Jay Penske made a $100 million investment in Vox Media, a similar diversified media company of about the same vintage [founded in 2011 to BuzzFeed’s 2006]. Do you think Penske’s move signifies a renewed interest in investing in legacy digital media companies? And… does he want to buy you?
I haven’t talked to him. [Laughs]. I don’t know what he wants.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Senior Entertainment Business Reporter • firstname.lastname@example.org • @dhaithman