BuzzFeed v CNN: How One Snarky Comment Ignited a Fight Over the Future of News

CNN’s Jeff Zucker said BuzzFeed is not a “legitimate” news organization. BuzzFeed didn’t like that

BuzzFeed v CNN
Graphic: Evan Solano

When CNN chief Jeff Zucker told a reporter earlier this month he didn’t think BuzzFeed and Vice were “legitimate news organizations,” BuzzFeed had a spiky rebuttal: If BuzzFeed is so bad, why is CNN always lifting its scoops?

This isn’t just the usual fight between two news outlets battling over stories. It’s about the future of news. BuzzFeed is a young site that balances listicles and cat videos with political news breaks. CNN is a decades-old goliath that almost singlehandedly created the 24-hour news cycle. Now they’re fighting over the coveted millennials who will decide, through page views, clicks and swipes, what will become of journalism.

CNN says BuzzFeed is abdicating basic news principles by catering to advertisers. BuzzFeed claims CNN abdicated basic news principles by desperately chasing Donald Trump.

“The power shifted from the networks to the campaigns,” BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith told theWrap. “Trump was able to essentially offer the syndicated ‘Donald Trump Show’ to TV for free for ratings and networks, to varying degrees, have turned their platforms over to him.”

The feud blew up when Zucker told Variety with “a mischievous grin” that BuzzFeed and Vice are nothing more than “native advertising shops” — companies that use content to sell slick ads, rather than to inform.

“We crush both of them. They are not even in our same class,” he said.

Perhaps Zucker was just brimming with confidence that the older-skewing CNN had broken through with younger audiences. In July, CNN grew 226 percent to win prime time in the key demographic of adults age 25-54.

But the bragging may have been a bad move.

“It instantly legitimized BuzzFeed as a peer of one of world’s most respected players in news,” marketing expert and founder of the Los Angeles-based The Brand Identity Center, Chad Kawalec, told TheWrap. “It would be like Michael Phelps challenging a high school swimmer from the neighborhood. The winner would be the high school swimmer no matter who won.”

Every news outlet is figuring out how to adjust to a media age when Snapchat jousts with cable news and ancient newspapers to deliver information. Just as they did in newspaper wars 200 years ago, outlets both insult and keep one another in check.

In a May interview with Digiday, Vice’s Shane Smith took a crude shot at CNN as he bragged about his latest hire, Bloomberg veteran Josh Tyrangiel, taking on CNN and other broadcasters: “Josh is that guy. Josh is a f—ing angry young man who wants to shove it in their a–es.”

Meanwhile, BuzzFeed has not been shy about criticizing Zucker for his seemingly cozy relationship with Trump. Many — including TheWrap — have questioned whether Zucker helped create the Trump phenomenon when he was still running NBC and Trump’s “The Apprentice” became a hit for the once-struggling network.

“Zucker is responding to something that’s out there in the industry,” Andrew Morse, general manager of CNN Digital Worldwide, told TheWrap. “We’re not looking to engage in a fight with these news organizations but it is important to tell the real story.” (Vice declined TheWrap’s repeated request for comment).

Whatever the reason for his comments, Zucker clearly touched a nerve. BuzzFeed’s publicist was able to provide a list of all the site’s scoops CNN has pursued. It is essentially a compilation of BuzzFeed’s greatest hits, covered by CNN’s biggest talents, and could be a BuzzFeed listicle: 23 Times CNN Bit BuzzFeed Stories.

The list stars Anderson Cooper challenging Trump during the network’s February town hall on the candidate’s claim that he was against the Iraq war. Cooper referred to a recording of an interview Trump did with “The Howard Stern Show” in 2002, in which Trump said he was in favor of the invasion.

The interview was dug up by BuzzFeed, just hours before the town hall.

BuzzFeed also points to the time Don Lemon confronted Hillary Clinton about old footage of the then-first lady using the term “super predators.” Again, a BuzzFeed find. And remember Ashleigh Banfield’s powerful on-air reading of a Stanford University student’s open letter to her rapist? BuzzFeed published it first.

The feud is far from over. On Tuesday, Zucker made clear his initial comments were no slip of the tongue.

“There’s a lot of talk out there about BuzzFeed and Vice and Vox, and they are all good,” he said at Nomura’s Media & Internet conference, before citing a recent report that showed CNN beating digital companies among millennials.

“The place that owns millennials in this space is CNN,” he said.

BuzzFeed didn’t like that. Smith quickly tweeted: “The median age for CNN viewers this year was 61.”

CNN then shot back, again on Twitter, with the report Zucker mentioned in his speech, along with highlights of CNN’s top ranking. And just to be sure BuzzFeed got the message, the network tagged Smith.

CNN then fired another shot: a press release with a subhead in all-caps that read: “BUZZFEED SHOWS DECLINES ACROSS THE BOARD; DOWN IN VISITORS, VIEWS, MINUTES, MOBILE.” The release included numbers for the month of July which showed CNN’s 115 million unique visitors compared to to BuzzFeed’s 72 million.

BuzzFeed scoffed at the data, dismissing it — and the network touting it — as antiquated.

“It’s an old-school television-style press release,” Smith said. “That’s not how people typically analyze digital traffic.” He said the release failed to include mobile measures, a sweet spot for BuzzFeed.

But that’s not how CNN sees it.

“They’ve essentially created their own measurements,” said Morse. “But while they’ve been able to convince marketers that that’s an effective way to measure… they have no choice but to measure themselves differently,” adding, “the numbers we publish are numbers that are accepted by industry standards.”

Asked whether CNN is being hypocritical for blasting BuzzFeed while at the same time repeatedly using its reporting, Smith played it coy, telling TheWrap, “That’s for you to decide, not me.”

CNN argues it never said BuzzFeed’s reporting is bad — just that BuzzFeed is no CNN.

“They’re a really successful entertainment and social media brand and they’re really good at doing buzz,” said Morse, who also oversees CNN’s domestic TV news gathering. “But I think there’s a long, long way from doing some good reporting and being a global relevant news brand.”

Perhaps compounding the frustration in and around the BuzzFeed newsroom is the feeling among some in the media world that CNN should be the last to point fingers when it comes to news standards.

Back in 2014, the network came under fire for its incessant wall-to-wall coverage of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. More recently, CNN took heat for hiring Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, after he was fired for allegedly roughing up a female reporter. The network suffered another PR hit after it was forced to acknowledge on the air that Lewandowski was still receiving severance payments from the Trump campaign when he stated working as a contributor for CNN.

BuzzFeed, meanwhile, is doing a careful dance by balancing hard news with highly clickable posts about the color of a certain dress.

Smith said he hasn’t spoken to Zucker and has no plans to call him anytime soon.

“It’s about the stories you tell, the stories you break,” he said. “We’re really focused on that.”