June 12, 2023
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CANADALAND
#892 The Rise and Fall of BuzzFeed News
In the mid-2010s, BuzzFeed News seemed like the most exciting place in media: an almost cloyingly whimsical carnival of abundance where journalists were actually happy. At a time when everything else appeared to be crumbling, it burst with hope and possibility. Last month, after just a few years of layoffs and withering, it shut down for good.
Jonathan Goldsbie
News Editor
Bruce Thorson
Senior Producer
Tristan Capacchione
Audio Editor & Technical Producer
Noor Azrieh
Producer

In the mid-2010s, BuzzFeed News seemed like the most exciting place in media: an almost cloyingly whimsical carnival of abundance where journalists were actually happy. At a time when everything else appeared to be crumbling, it burst with hope and possibility.

Last month, after just a few years of layoffs and withering, it shut down for good.

And if the quick life and death of BuzzFeed News represented the whole past, present, and future of media collapsed into a single decade, then BuzzFeed Canada was a microcosm of that, living fast and dying young in just a fraction of the time.

Today, BuzzFeed Canada founding editor Craig Silverman (now with ProPublica) and longtime writer Elamin Abdelmahmoud (now with CBC Radio) sit down with Canadaland news editor Jonathan Goldsbie to look at how this strange thing got built up so fast, and what it was like on the inside as it rapidly slipped away.

 

Host: Jonathan Goldsbie

Credits: Tristan Capacchione (Audio Editor and Technical Producer), Bruce Thorson (Senior Producer), Annette Ejiofor (Managing Editor), Noor Azrieh (Associate Producer)

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The Rise and Fall of BuzzFeed Transcript
Canadaland’s transcripts are edited to the best of our ability to ensure accuracy from audio to text. Please contact editor@canadaland.com should you have a correction. 

Intro:
Jonathan Goldsbie: The last time I talked to John Tory was December 11th, 2017, at the annual holiday party held by the Toronto City Hall Press Gallery. At that point I’d been at Canadaland for not quite a year, having left the municipal beat to cover the glamorous world of Canadian media instead. Tory asked if I was enjoying it and I responded with something to the effect of I don’t think anyone in media is enjoying themselves these days. Well, except for the folks at BuzzFeed. And even more than the blank look on the mayor’s face, I recall what it was like to look in from the outside on BuzzFeed at the time. It was the one place in the news industry where people seemed genuinely happy and deeply proud of themselves, their work, their colleagues and their brand. Think of like Vice at its peak, but more wholesome and better paying. Buzzfeed’s Canadian unit, based in Toronto on the next block over from Canadaland, was no exception. I mean, they once did a live stream from the office of something they called a capybara pool party.

Capybara Pool Party Clip: Okay. Hi everyone. We have- this is Willow Capybara, who is in our office today. So we have a nice little pool for her. We have a beach ball. We got some snacks. This is the best day of our lives.

Jonathan Goldsbie: Buzzfeed is still around. Buzzfeed. Canada is even still technically around with lists, quizzes, generic lifestyle content, sponsored posts from the Ottawa Tourism Authority, et cetera. But at the start of May, BuzzFeed News closed for good. Publishing as its final article and ultimate oral history of itself. When I first clicked through to that piece, I was really happy to see the collage at the top included pics of a number of the Canadians who made a name for themselves there, like Craig Silverman, Elamin Abdelmahmoud and Scaachi Koul. 

But the piece itself, despite running nearly 12,000 words, offered just passing mentions of Canada. Because, you know, I figure that if the bright, brief life of BuzzFeed News was a microcosm of the whole past, present and future of media collapsed into the span of like a single supercharged decade, then their Canadian offshoot was a microcosm of that, blazing through a similar rise and fall in just a fraction of the time. 

Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that a news outlet that was strapped on to a business model premised on catching trends and riding waves would itself crest and crash in quick succession. But still, I wanted to know how did something so seemingly wonderful get built up so fast? And what was it like for those in the inside watching it slip away? So I found two people who were there at the beginning and almost at the end. Wait for it.
(Canadaland theme plays)

This episode is brought to you by Jeffrey Nordstrom, Alex Kordellas, Nancy Bell, Shawn Heinz, Sue Morra, Matthew Rafuse, Kat Cantor and Nicole.

Patron Supporter Nicole: My name is Nicole. I live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. While talking with a friend from Calgary, I realized how stereotypically unaware we as U.S. Citizens are of anything that happens outside of our country. I’ve been attempting to broaden my sources and knowledge. Canadaland provides an interesting, entertaining and informative way to do just that. I love learning about what’s happening with their neighbour and appreciate what Jesse and his team provide, and that is why I support Canadaland.
(Patron Sting Plays)

Part 1:
Jonathan Goldsbie: So I guess could you each start by introducing yourself?

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Hello, my name is Elamin Abdelmahmoud. I’m the number one Craig Silverman fan. That’s my main job.

Craig Silverman: I’m Craig Silverman and my job is pleasing Elamin Abdelmahmoud. And when I don’t do that, I work as a reporter at ProPublica and I’m the former founding editor of BuzzFeed Canada, I should have said that part.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Hey, I used to work at BuzzFeed, Canada first as a social media editor and then a news curation editor and then lastly as a culture writer. So I moved through a few different roles at BuzzFeed News. Now I host a show on CBC.

Jonathan Goldsbie: So, Craig, you started in the spring of 2015 as BuzzFeed Canada’s founding editor. Tell me, how was it founded?

Craig Silverman: First of all, BuzzFeed Canada was different from any other international edition that BuzzFeed had ever done. They were already in Brazil, they were in the UK, they were in Australia. All of those places started with what internally we refer to as Buzz, which is lists and quizzes. Nothing to do with news, just like viral content people can relate to and want to share. Every other international place started with that in Canada because BuzzFeed was already, I think, a top ten news media site in Canada-

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Without having a presence here.

Craig Silverman: -without having any editorial people here. We had sales people here already. The idea was, Well, maybe we should launch with news in Canada as well as hiring some dedicated Canada Buzz people. And so we were really unique in that respect. Everything about BuzzFeed Canada was different from other internationals because there was already revenue, never had happened in any other place. We were already a top ten site. We were going to start with news. And so all of that made it a very different kind of experiment. 

And so we were going to hire some dedicated Buzz people. You know, one really to start. And then we were going to hire some news people. And because Ben Smith was a news guy and because we had a federal election coming in Canada in the fall of 2015, Ben was of The view, Let’s hire some political reporters-. 

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Get some scoops!

Craig Silverman: Let’s get some scoops. And also because one of the reasons Ben even took the job at BuzzFeed is because he was told that, look, every US presidential election cycle can birth a new news organization. And you guys, he was told back then, you have a chance to break BuzzFeed and social political reporting in that. And so Ben took that lesson and said, you know, we have a chance to break BuzzFeed Canada in the course of this federal election. So when I was initially saying, I don’t know if we should hire politics right away, why don’t we start slow and see and go from there? They were like, no, no, no. We got to have people in Ottawa. We got to be there for the election. And so we had a mix of news, we had a mix of buzz, and we were sort of kicking off with that unlike any other place BuzzFeed had done.

Jonathan Goldsbie: For each of you, what was the first occasion you can recall hearing about BuzzFeed?

Craig Silverman: I think really the first time I cared about it and noticed it was probably when they hired Ben Smith as editor-in-chief. So I probably wasn’t paying attention to BuzzFeed when it was the sort of content lab being run by Jonah Peretti. But when they hired Ben Smith, who had been a political blogger at Politico, because I had come from this sort of old school blogging world, I was like, Oh, what is Ben Smith doing at this place that does weird lists and quizzes and internet ephemera? They’re going to try to do news sort of thing, which was a lot of people’s reaction at the time.

Jonathan Goldsbie: What about for you? But at the same probably, or?

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Or probably the same era, I don’t know if it was the same necessarily same instigator, but like my job before BuzzFeed was, I worked as a social media producer at TVO. And just in terms of looking in that universe of like, okay, there’s this whole new world of social media, of every newsroom is hiring a bunch of people who will try to make their news work on social media. And that’s a different skill set than making it work on your website, whatever that might be. And BuzzFeed was kind of the best in class at the time. And he was it was this very specific moment of, Hey, the news is migrating to social media soon time, we’re not going to be going to websites. We’re going to be getting all of our news entirely directly on the feed. And BuzzFeed was the place I was sort of doing the most experimentation with that. And so to me, like, that’s how they came across my radar the first time.

Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah, I mean, BuzzFeed started as like as Ben Smith describes in his new book as like a skunkworks for HuffPost, kind of like Jonah Peretti did this as like a side project to figure out what what is trending, but originally what was trending on Google and then later what was trending on Facebook. And after they finally sort of got that figured out in 2011, they hired Ben Smith at the end of the year. End of 2011 started what was then BuzzFeed politics and became BuzzFeed News.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Realistically, most people heard about BuzzFeed through the immortal words, what colours are this dress?

Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah. Was it black and blue or white and gold? Like the internet was tearing itself apart trying to reach a conclusion.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Like that was like kind of the moment where, okay, this company is doing things beyond its very specific sort of internet corner scope. It just kind of felt like it graduated to a new level of okay, now everybody kind of knows about this.

Jonathan Goldsbie: Okay, yeah I guess, I guess so. Yeah. That was early 2015, January, February 2015, I believe.

Craig Silverman: And I remember I was in New York on the day of not just the dress day, but that was also the day I believe it was llamas were somewhere loose in the United States. And it’s been memorialized as like, you know, the best day on the Internet or whatever. And I was in New York and was running like a research project around virility and veracity at the time and was like walking around. I like visited some journalism profs at CUNY and other places. And I remember just talking to one journalism prof at CUNY, who was we were looking at the llama stuff being like, oh my God, this is so hilarious, this is such great content. And it was BuzzFeed was at the centre of all that. 

And I do remember also meeting with, I think, Jay Rosen from NYU, another sort of like future of journalism blogging guru. And we talked about how BuzzFeed seemed to have a bundle. And what we meant by that was newspapers were amazing businesses because they had a bundle where you was like, yeah, there was news, but also you had classified ads and you had listings, and then there was, you know, all of these sort of cultural reporting. There were crosswords, there were comics. That was a bundle that came in one package that lots of different people liked for different reasons and we’re all willing to pay for. 

And the Internet splintered the bundle in a lot of ways. You know, Craigslist became a classified place and took that business away. But BuzzFeed, it seemed like they were building a bundle where they had these lists and these quizzes and those things people wanted. Then they were bundling in news, and then they had, you know, a business model around creating sort of viral content for brands. And it’s sort of that conversation that day was it looks like BuzzFeed may actually have a viable business model for media and whoops, were we wrong? (Elamin and Craig laughing)

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Turns out you shouldn’t base the entirety of the future of media on some llamas and a dress. (Craig chuckles)

Craig Silverman: Yeah, yeah, my bad. (Elamin guffaws)

Jonathan Goldsbie: I mean, one thing that I’ve been thinking about is how it was almost like the entire history of most news organizations or most media organizations, all compressed into the span of about a decade, right? Instead of having growing up over decades and then withering away over decades. This all happened over the span of pretty much over ten years. And BuzzFeed, Canada, over maybe like the middle portion of that, which is even more compressed.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: I should also be careful, I guess, about like doing a full eulogy here, like BuzzFeed, Canada as an entity still exists.

Craig Silverman: Do they do news? Absolutely not. But yeah, they’re producing the classic BuzzFeed content. And so the thing that was the flash in the pan was the BuzzFeed Canada as a news entity.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: That is willing to report on things that are happening here.

Craig Silverman: Yes.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Whether it’s, you know, you had Paul and Emma in Ottawa or Craig doing the tribute to Conrad, the raccoon who died RIP

Craig Silverman: Highlight of my life. (Elamin brays) Obviously, I’ll never, never reach that apex again.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: What was that? 4 million people?

Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah, actually-. 

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: 3 million people? 

Craig Silverman: Well, I remember that first, Day when that story came out. I remember at one point, Jonathan-

you want to tell people what the story was?

Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah, tell, can you tell the-

Craig Silverman: Everyone knows what the story is. Okay, excuse me.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: So there was this raccoon who died, got run over by a car.

Craig Silverman: This is the thing is, if you describe it, it’s absolutely nothing. So it was one evening when I was editor of BuzzFeed, Canada. I would look for sort of stories after my kids went to bed that maybe we could start reporting on and finish the next day or that I could quickly do that night.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Yeah.

Craig Silverman: And so I just noticed on Twitter that people were talking about this dead raccoon on the street in Toronto, and it had somebody had called the city to pick it up, but it had taken hours and hours and hours. And at a certain point, people started putting flowers out there and, you know, memorializing-

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: A makeshift memorial, yeah.

Craig Silverman: -for this dead raccoon. And then at one point, as we found out later, some office workers from a nearby building printed off a photo of a raccoon, put it in a frame, (Elamin chortles) brought that down, brought some candles, made a whole nice thing of it. And so I just did what was, you know, a quick sort of easy post that we would do at the time was, you know, just round it up the the memorial to a dead raccoon.

Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah, people in Toronto created a memorial to a dead raccoon after the city forgot to pick it up RIP #deadraccoonTO. That was it.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Was Conrad, right?

Craig Silverman: I believe they named him. Yeah, and so I think I noticed it because the hashtag was starting to trend deadracconTO. And it was also a beautiful story because, you know, you had the early photos of it and then it starts to grow and it starts to have this sort of viral moment where people are adding more. And so like somebody buys a rose and puts it next to him, there’s the photo. Then at one point they print off like a condolences card and left a Sharpie so people could sign. And so and then, of course, and I posted it and it was doing well. And I went to bed. It was doing really well. And I woke up and all shit had fucking-

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: The entire internet was talking this dead raccoon.

Craig Silverman: It was crazy! They were like, because we had a newsroom in Toronto and our global news director, Lisa Tozzi, or we had a newsroom in London, I should say, and our global news director from New York was in London that day. And when I woke up, somebody had already printed off a a photo. For her of a raccoon and framed it and put it on her desk in London. And so I woke up to that. And at that point, it’s like over a million views or whatever a day.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: It’s a perfect example of the kind of story that like Global would never do that, you know what I mean? Like, they would just not touch the story- even if it was gaining traction as like, here’s like a little memorial to this raccoon that died. The threshold is different. Whereas, like, you were like, why not?

Craig Silverman: This is obvious for us.

Jonathan Goldsbie: And this is so this was like the second month of BuzzFeed Canada, and this was like just a few months after you were hired and just before you were hired. So just going back a few months, how were you first brought into BuzzFeed, Craig, and how did they decide to set up? What were you told about them?

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: How did you get the final rose?

Craig Silverman: Um, yes, it was- I’m Getting Kissed on the Lips by Ben Smith. (Elamin clucks) It’s a moment I will never forget. So my connection with BuzzFeed starts years before 2015. I was somebody who was blogging about journalistic accuracy, corrections, ethics, boring stuff for the Poynter Institute, which is a journalism kind of training nonprofit. And I was seen as the most knowledgeable person about this obscure area of corrections. How do you correct your errors and journalists? And so BuzzFeed had gone through a bit of a journalistic scandal or issue. And so at one point, Ben and Shani, who I think was executive editor or managing editor, had sort of talked to me about if we are going to do corrections, how do we do them or that kind of thing.

And so I had given them some advice and then ended up finding out that they had integrated some corrections things into the actual like content management system that you type your articles in. And I was like, Oh, that’s cool. So I written a post and that’s how I sort of met Ben and Shani and Ben. And I didn’t had never met before, but I started blogging in 2004 he started blogging for Politico early on; it was a small world, so we sort of knew of each other a little bit. And then we get to about 2014. And I was running a research project looking at the virility of rumours and falsehoods was called Emergent Info as a website.

And I was doing a research fellowship at the Tow Center at Columbia, living in Montreal, and was researching how rumours, whether they turn out to be true or false spread and how news organizations cover them. My concern was that they were kind of buying the rumour like writing up the rumour really quickly to get that traffic. And then whether it turned out to be true or false, they just like, don’t care. I got the traffic. So really looking at viral news and some of the negative incentives of that and uh- and I’m one of the things I started doing was I started to do a weekly quiz of like the false stuff that we saw because we were tracking falsehoods. 

And people at BuzzFeed, I noticed, were like retweeting these quizzes and like Ben was mentioning it. And Lisa Tozzi, the Global News director, was mentioning. And I was like, Oh, that’s kind of cool. Buzzfeed folks are because as far as I’m concerned, if I can help people understand about false information through a quiz format, that’s a great appealing way to do it. And all that being said, I mean, at a certain point, you know, Ben reached out, said he thought the project I was running was cool. He said, if you’re ever in New York, you know, come by, I’d love to talk to you.

And so I was like, Oh, I’m in New York next week. I wasn’t booked to be in New York next week. Okay. And so I booked a flight and went to New York and met with Ben and Lisa and these other people. And we started talking about me doing this kind of debunking of viral stuff for BuzzFeed, which would have involved me probably moving to New York. And this is early 2015. And as we’re talking about that and it’s starting to get serious and I’m starting to like the idea because it’s like, well, if you’re going to debunk viral garbage being inside BuzzFeed to see viral stuff early on is a good idea. But at a certain point, Ben said, Oh, by the way, we’re probably launching in Canada and we’ll need an editor. Do you like do you want to throw your hat in for that? And that really appealed to me because the idea was like, Wait, I could build a news organization in Canada and hire people and be part of this crazy engine of BuzzFeed because, you know, it’s early 2015 and BuzzFeed is one of the hottest things in media at the time.

Absolutely.

So that’s sort of where it started. And I ended up applying and getting the job. And how were.

Jonathan Goldsbie: And how were you brought in Elamin?

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: I love to tell you the story before we do, I think Craig was being overly humble about his description of working on rumours and viral news, because-

Craig Silverman: This isn’t going to make the pocket.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: This is got to make the podcast. And the reason it does is like there’s what, three people who started the phrase fake news, you know, like you’re the Steve Wozniak of fake news dude.

Craig Silverman: Thank you I mean-

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: You want to be Steve Jobs. You can be Steve Jobs if you want to be.

Craig Silverman: If I have to pick.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Sure.

Jonathan Goldsbie: Oh, I was going to get I mean-

Craig Silverman: I have less of the prick factor, I think, than Steve Jobs.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Maybe. But I just mean that we’re not a lot of people doing this work. And so, like, kudos to not just you for doing it before everybody else was like, This is going to become the problem of modern news, but also for to Ben for recognizing like, oh, this is going to be an issue and investing in that.

Craig Silverman: You know, I definitely think it is amazing that Ben and Lisa and senior people at BuzzFeed kind of looked at what I was doing because to your point, I was just a niche weirdo running a small website based on a research project. There were very few people interested in virality and falsehoods.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Is it weird you out now that like it’s you’ve birthed a complex?

Craig Silverman: The one one thing I will say about that is, you know, Ben recognized there was something interesting. About it in late 2014, early 2015, when nobody else really cared about it. And then a year or so later, in the spring of 2016, when I had been running BuzzFeed, Canada, I’ve been very focused on Canada. Ben came back to me and said, you should really go back on your debunking beat. And so this was before really the crazy, true craziness-

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Barely announced at that point, right?

Craig Silverman: I mean, he yeah, he was in-. 

Jonathan Goldsbie: He was in 2015.

Craig Silverman: Exactly. He’d been in since 2015. But you know it was picking up and falsehoods were not the main issue. Like everybody knew he was lying, but it wasn’t a broader issue. And so I’ll give Ben credit is like he looks like a pretty smart guy in retrospect of, you know, sort of pulling me away from Canada and saying, listen, man, you need to go back to what you were doing before because it’s really important.
(Canadaland chapter music plays)

Part 2:
Jonathan Goldsbie: What was it the first time you walked into the office? Sure.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Well, okay. So let me tell you, I was at their party. I genuinely don’t know how I ended up at your party. This launch party that BuzzFeed News had where all of the people that we’ve mentioned so far were at that party and I knew none of them. I was there mostly for the drinks.

Craig Silverman: He was being scouted. Is what I can tell you now.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Go to this party, I meet some of these people, and then in the party there’s like these whispers. I’m like, Oh, BuzzFeed is going to be hiring. They’re going to be hiring a few roles. One of them is another Buzz person. And then the other thing that they’re going to be hiring is a social media editor. 

And I was like, Well, I’m interested in that because that is what I do now, except I feel a little bit constrained using the TVO voice. TVO voice, and my voice doesn’t really mesh. I don’t really sound a lot like the agenda, you know. And so I apply and I got an interview right away and I bombed. And the reason I bombed is because I came into this interview. And among the list of many ideas that I had was, hey, you know, what we should do is maybe we should have a Facebook page and also a Twitter page. And they were like, Cool man. But they already had one. And I just simply had not sound. Imagine.

Craig Silverman: Imagine. Wow. You’re interviewing for the social media editor job at BuzzFeed. Yeah. And you somehow don’t see that they they first of all, you come to believe that they don’t have a Facebook page. How does that even happen?

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: You go, I Should go look at their social media presence. Don’t find it and then go. My brilliant idea is we should have one.

Craig Silverman: You guys should be on Facebook. (Elamin cackles) That’s what I’m talking about. So so we brought it was brought up politely in the interview. He looked mortified, obviously. But but you know, the the whole thing with BuzzFeed and social news is like the voice part is really important because the voice that BuzzFeed used, particularly on Twitter, was unlike any other sort of brand, let alone news account that ever existed out there in a lot of ways. And and it caused a lot of others to mimic it to to great disappointment and you know, and still and still try. And so-

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Which to say like you got to sound like a person. You got to sound sarcastic. You got to sound a little bit like what the platform already kind of sounds, not just.

Craig Silverman: This faceless goo of a of a, you know, corporate brand or whatever. And so we believe that Elamin sort of had the voice. And when he talked about social and the dynamics of social, he understood what was going on. He’d had a piece that you’d written that went viral and you spent a lot of time thinking about why it went viral. And so all those things, you know, seemed like a fit. And so we were able to overlook that he seemed to be really bad at finding Facebook pages.

Jonathan Goldsbie: So obviously this was the 2015 was the very much the era of peak BuzzFeed when you started there.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Hell yeah.

Jonathan Goldsbie: And right in between the first the announcement that BuzzFeed would be expanding into Canada when that became public and the announcement that you would be the editor, there was kind of like an epochal thing published on The Awl, which you may remember, which is The Awl was like a higher brow Gawker founded by ex-Gawker people. And there was this advice column published under the headline “I Hate Myself because I don’t work for BuzzFeed”. Now it reads like As God must have been satirical, but it wasn’t taken as satirical at the time. I don’t think it.

Craig Silverman: I don’t think it was satirical at the time, at all.

Jonathan Goldsbie: Could you read this excerpt from it?

Craig Silverman: Sure. Buzzfeed is the most successful media company of our time. Buzzfeed is the future of the media business. Buzzfeed is the most widely recognized media brand among young people and will inevitably eclipse the major media organizations and one day become a super hegemonic media power, the likes of which we’ve never seen. They’re past being just a website slash media organization. They’re a cultural institution, and BuzzFeed is in perpetual growth mode. They hardly ever fire anyone, save for an unlucky few, and are always making huge hires. It seems like every time I check an awesome person’s Twitter bio, it’s changed to staff writer at BuzzFeed or editor at BuzzFeed or whatever.

Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah and the person continued, You know, I mean, this business is so fucked, this person essentially- this was an advice call. And the person was really distraught because they weren’t working for BuzzFeed and they said, you know, this business is so fucked up and I don’t understand how anyone could say otherwise unless they work at BuzzFeed where literally everything is perfect and the industry is in great shape because you get free shit, never get fired, traffic is always going up and the money never ends. What was it like going into a place that had that reputation and was that reputation justified to some extent?

Craig Silverman: Look, it looked like at that point BuzzFeed had a lot figured out. Obviously, this is very over the top. But  it looked like it had it had a viable business model. It was growing internationally. It had something to go with news, because news itself is typically not a great business. You got to bolt on some other things. And so yeah, it felt tremendously exciting. It felt like those stock options I got might actually be worth something, you know, which is you’re never supposed to think that. And that was wrong to think of. Now we know. 

So yeah, it felt like the classic, you know, it was a rocket ship. It was taking off. And I can tell you when I first got there and saw the traffic of what we would get in Canada and at the time. What we were able to do was this thing where we could target a post that we had just published to all of the Canadians who had liked the main BuzzFeed page, the main BuzzFeed Facebook page. And I remember the first time I saw us do that, the analytics you could watch in real time just exploded in a way I’d never seen before, I had run websites before, I had worked at places before. I’d never worked anywhere with that level of traffic, and I made some kind of sound that made the people in the office next to ours concerned for my health when I saw it happen. 

And so it just seemed like, yeah, this just massive machine and everything was going well and you were getting in on something that was going in the right direction. It felt good on all of those levels. And especially the thing I identified with that excerpt is, yeah, you look around and it just seemed like it was carnage in the media business. And this was one of the places that you could go and and not only maybe be safe, but also you could have a level of freedom and do some fun and ambitious stuff that you probably couldn’t do anywhere else, so it seemed great.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: It’s not just a freedom. It’s also like there was kind of a built in cultural capital in the sense of telling people you worked at. Buzzfeed seems to buy you a certain amount of goodwill at the time. Seemed to buy you like just the ability to be like trust your judgment in some kind of way because you are a part of this machine that has something else figured out that we don’t understand. And so other places would turn to you and be like, hey, will you speak to us about how we should do social media-

Craig Silverman: Right.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: And because all we want is to figure out how to do this thing, or will you speak to us on how how we should do news? Because everyone was like, will we all become what BuzzFeed is doing?

Craig Silverman: I think I was a few months into the job and I got asked to come talk to a managers retreat for Rogers Media. Wow. So, yes, it felt like it was a bit of a magical time. And the weird thing for me is, is, you know, that’s 2015 when I joined.

Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah.

Craig Silverman: And I had been really blogging about the media and reporting on the media at that point for more than a decade. And so I felt like I had seen a lot come and go in somewhat cynical, but also could see what was real. And there’s no question like I got swept up in the BuzzFeed mania at the time as well. There’s no question of it, yeah.

Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah. I mean, one thing that struck me from reading BuzzFeed News, culminating oral history of itself published on the final day was how it seemed like. I didn’t realize how, at least in the States, how bacchanalian it had been. Like it was like not like it wasn’t like a more wholesome Vice Yeah, but it was still a lot of excess.

Craig Silverman: Fucking oysters and lobster from the UK office. We didn’t have that in Canada.

Jonathan Goldsbie: That’s what I was wondering- 

Craig Silverman: I read some of that stuff and I was like, What?

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Yeah, it’s pretty wild.

Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah. I mean uh-. 

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Like we just had a regular office, but also too cool and fun job, but that’s pretty.

Craig Silverman: Wild. When I was out recruiting people to join BuzzFeed, Canada for the news side, I could offer competitive pay, I could offer full benefits, I could offer stock options and health. And in so many other cases, the only other jobs that were maybe available to them would have been contract gigs for a year or whatever. And so that alone elevated us way above a lot of competing things.

Jonathan Goldsbie: I mean, you did have a capybara pool party.

Craig Silverman: Right? Like we did, but I don’t think we paid for that.

Jonathan Goldsbie: No, I mean, probably not. I imagine it was a promotional thing for (unclear). I mean, I imagine every day was not capybara pool party day, right?

Craig Silverman: No, it wasn’t. 

Jonathan Goldsbie: This sort of thing kind of captured, like-

Craig Silverman: This also captures that moment in time when everybody was trying to do Facebook lives. You know, Facebook announced like live as a big thing. They were incentivizing meaning paying certain media organizations to do Facebook lives, BuzzFeed, not the news part, I think, but BuzzFeed proper was paid for that.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Yeah.

Craig Silverman: And so we were doing lives all the time. You and I also did. Do you remember the Facebook Live? Yeah, you and I did together. Do you remember that one?

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: I do.

Craig Silverman: What was it? Tell the people we had?

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Well, did we apply makeup on each other or did someone else? Yes. Right. Yes, exactly.

Craig Silverman: Right. Yes, we we were we good at makeup on each other while talking about toxic masculinity in the Facebook. It’s a great time. Yeah. But, I mean, this is the crazy thing and it was so much fun is we published serious journalism. We published investigative pieces. We had pieces that were finalists for awards. We had a silver medal winning in the investigative category for National Magazine Awards from our first year, not even our first year. That was like the first eight months or six months.

And also the editor in chief was getting makeup put on him on a Facebook Live talking about toxic masculinity and would write a piece about a dead raccoon in the street. And so you could just indulge whatever you wanted and we could go high and we could go low. And yes, some people absolutely didn’t like that and mocked us for it and whatever, but we were all super prepared for that. We knew-

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: I never understood what they were mocking like were they were mocking our ability to just like get people to pay attention to something. Because that’s what was confusing to me is like, is this newsworthy? I guess if you’re sort of working in an environment where the only thing that is newsworthy is when an institution is like, Hey, we’ve done this thing and you go, okay, I’ll go report this out very seriously. 

But for us, I think we were just sort of in the business of gaining and keeping people’s attention. And sometimes that involved being like, hey, do you want to put makeup on each other and talk about masculinity for a minute? And it was great because people did stick with us for that.

Craig Silverman: People liked that, there’s people who would read the serious stuff. That was, I think, one of the defining sort of views of it is that the people who love the lists and quizzes would also read a serious news article. We all contain multitudes, and at any given moment we may want the news article, we may want the quiz, we may be comfortable going from one or the other, or we may just want one or the other in that moment. But if you’re offering all of that, then yes, your chances of holding someone’s attention and keeping them coming back and maybe informing them or delighting them is is there is the opportunity.

Jonathan Goldsbie: What were some of the like in terms of actually the more news news stories? What are some of the proudest things you published in that first year?

Craig Silverman: I’m very proud of the piece that Emma Loop did about the trauma suffered by drone operators in the Canadian military, which was was an-

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Incredible piece.

Craig Silverman: Finalist for a CAJ award and really difficult to talk to people who’ve gone through that. And I’m proud of, you know, the investigative piece that we also published that was originally supposed to appear in the Toronto Star, but was a huge media dust up where, you know, the Pulitzer Prize winning photographer left the star because he wanted to tell this story about the discovery of the shipwreck.

Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah, that was Paul Watson’s The Wreck of HMS Erebus, how a landmark discovery triggered a fight for Canada’s history.

Craig Silverman: You know, we worked on that story really hard. I got support from our long form editors in the US also worked on it with me. And I ended up winning a, you know, a silver in the investigative category at National Magazine Awards during the election. And I’ll tell you, I mean, I’m also proud of Lauren did a lot of great reporting and visibility stuff around LGBTQ stories. Also, I thought Emma’s piece of MPs who look like Pokemon was extremely well executed. I’m not even joking like-. 

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: It was perfect.

Craig Silverman: It really looked like them. And I was also proud of it because like Emma, look at what she was doing. She was doing all these different types of things and if people thought that was a ridiculous story, then they couldn’t ignore the next story. She wrote about something serious and political. And so, like, I was happy when we were able to hit those different notes and to bring something different. And so, yeah, there’s a lot, certainly a lot I’m proud of that time and some of it is the fun and ridiculous stuff and some of it is the serious news and I’m just happy we did both because that was the mission.

Jonathan Goldsbie: And my recollection of the Ottawa coverage is that it really made politics accessible in a different way or political writing accessible in a different way, that it’s so I mean, it’s so rare. And the fact that, yeah, just being able to use the BuzzFeed format to tell an actual news story and any mention of like politicians looked at Pokemon, like somehow that beyond just being fun, I don’t know, I really find that that’s the sort of thing that does draw people maybe if not into politics and certainly toward politics.

Craig Silverman: You know what of you had no idea who your MP was, and by reading that article, you suddenly realized your local MP, maybe that’s a good thing from it, right? Yeah.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: But also, I think just in general, you know, this idea of treating do yourself a favour and just like read literally any global mail politics story and try to think about the things that it assumes a reader knows, right? Just try to think about the assumptions that it makes in the opening graph. And by the time you get to the nut of that, how many things were assumed in terms of that, how much base knowledge you have. 

What I’m really proud of in terms of our political coverage was that we never assumed anything. And in doing so, it alienated, I think, a bunch of people who were like, well, I’m already in the politics world. I don’t need this explained to me. But it also conversely brought a bunch of people who were like, I’m kind of outside of this process and I don’t really speak the language that well. But, you know, when you do this Pokemon story, it allows me, it gives me an opening, it gives me a window so that I can actually engage with political coverage of my elections that matter to me because I can actually like talk about it. I can follow you doing these stories. 

I think something that was really remarkable and that kind of continued across all of the political coverage that BuzzFeed did, whether in the U.K. Or in the U.S. For any election, is that it just never assumed this like deeply sophisticated sort of knowledge of politics, because politics tends to be this kind of cumulative field in terms of you covering it. So you’re building a lot of stories. You’re kind of like assuming a pretty base level of working knowledge. We never saw it as shameful to not assume that. I sort of really admired that about her approach.

Jonathan Goldsbie: So at the end of the first year, there was an anniversary party at the Burroughs building, and I think it was maybe the same day you both had presentations at Social Media Week Toronto and yours was called A Year of Wins and Fails at BuzzFeed, Canada. And this was the summary from your slide. Could you just read this out?

Craig Silverman: Okay. To recap, social is not about pushing out links and or your message. Relatability is king. Be Canadian, but appreciate the nuances. Realize that the world has interests in Canada and finally understand your boundaries and find ways to experiment within them.

Jonathan Goldsbie: How do you feel about-

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Good advice man.

Craig Silverman: It’s like vague enough that I could, like, riff on it right now without not knowing what I was saying at the time.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Relatability is king though.

Craig Silverman: Relatability is king.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: That’s still true. That’s still true.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: That is a core foundational BuzzFeed thing. We did experience stories that got attention far outside Canada, and we could see the traffic coming from Canada versus coming from outside Canada or what have you. And so like that was definitely a thing where we felt we were showing that there was something to make the argument for being in Canada. Little did we know that it would not last.

Jonathan Goldsbie: Well that’s hat I was wondering. I mean, because I mean, you were you were doing things that were making undoubtedly, and you continue to make waves across the world with your coverage, but less and less. It became about Canada, I think it was. So you wanted your points there was realize the world’s interest in Canada. 

And it was just a few weeks later that-

Craig Silverman: Yeah-

Jonathan Goldsbie: There was just yeah, there was a decision at BuzzFeed to cease Canadian political coverage. And the two reporters in Ottawa, Emma and Paul, they were reassigned or they were given opportunities, they were given the choice. They went to DC, Washington, D.C. that fall. So what can you talk about that like that turning point that where that decision came from or what you know about it?

Craig Silverman: Well I think, you know, one of the things to talk about sort of why the decision came down to basically stop doing Canadian news was really around. My first hiring came in with some advantages where they let us hire news right away. We already had revenue and we thought these were things that would be bulwarks. We thought these would be defensible to like keep a Canadian business in operation. But it ended up in some ways working against us because one already a top ten site in Canada in our category. So even though we hired in the end we had like ten people, the traffic didn’t really change that much. So it’s not like you could be-

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Like you went from 10 to 1, you know, because you’re already pulling a fair bit of traffic.

Craig Silverman: Already, you know, it’s like to have a huge incremental difference, to be bigger than like all of Bell Media’s sites, you need to have a lot more than ten people was the thing that I started to realize later in the year and that we were not going to be able to say yes. We doubled traffic after the first year, and as much as I never received a single traffic goal or metric, of course, traffic mattered at BuzzFeed, right? 

And so the advantage of coming in and already having a big audience worked against us because we didn’t get to say after a year and you hiring ten people here, we doubled, we tripled your traffic. The other one was revenue, I think, which is we already had revenue and revenue absolutely grew in that first year. But I don’t think the money people felt that it grew to the extent of like, oh, we need it to have lots of these people here in order for this money to grow. I think they felt we could have a much more marginal investment and we’d still rake in lots of-

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Would it kept growing whether we had seven BuzzFeed Canada people or two.

Craig Silverman: Yes. And news is never a good argument for revenue, right? So news was like that was a decision by Ben to want to put news in and I wouldn’t have been the editor if he hadn’t. So I’m grateful for it. And so some of our advantages, I think, worked against us. And then I also often I mean, look, when you have an American company and they look at us up here and they say, well, they speak the same language, they have a lot of the same cultural references. Do we really need to be doing Canadian news? I think there was just like an American boss thing. 

Now our saving grace, because before any of the changes became known publicly, I was in New York and I sat down with Scott Lamb, who was the head of BuzzFeed International, and Ben the editor in chief. And they basically told me like, we love the people you’ve hired, but we just don’t think we can continue to invest in Canadian stuff like this. They’re like, there just isn’t the support for us to be having this many people doing only Canadian stuff. So we have to we have to change this in order for all of you to like keep your jobs and for us to keep you here.

Jonathan Goldsbie: One of the comments in the culminating oral history from Joel Anderson, former sports national reporter, was everyone seemed to understand that the ride was going to be fun but short. I guess at the end of 2016 you move from being the editor of BuzzFeed Canada to becoming the first media editor of BuzzFeed in the wake of a couple more than a couple, but particularly a couple hugely successful stories. Bookend one were the week before Trump’s election, one the week after about fake news and the the sense of like deliberately manufactured false information for clicks. And what what were you what were the next couple of years like as the shift away from Canada happened.

Craig Silverman: No one really knew how long they had to sort of figure out this new mix and would BuzzFeed actually keep them around. And so it was very nerve wracking and it went from a very high great first year or so together for some of us and you know, or 6 or 7 months to. Yeah. What is going to happen? And to be honest with you, I disagree with Joel’s sentiment because I didn’t think it was going to be that short. You know, maybe I drank too much of the Kool aid. I thought I could foresee us being there for a while. Even after BuzzFeed, Canada had sort of the news ripped out of it for all intents and purposes.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Yeah, my experience of that time is not particularly tenuous like it didn’t. It kind of felt like the balance of 20 to 30% of your time is spent on Canada stuff. 70 to 80% of your time is spent doing something with like one of your US teams really felt sustainable. Like it sort of felt like this could go on for like a little while. My duties on the curation team were like a little in flux for a bit. 

First I was, you know, they were like, hey, we’re going to get you to make videos. And I was like, I’m not very good at this, but okay, go off. But then that got changed a couple times over, became the Twitter person and became the Facebook person. Then I became the newsletter person and the newsletter person, I did that for like three and a half years.

That was your shit. You were the guy. 

That was my entire shit. That always felt sustainable for me to be able to like, we will do both. We’re not going to do Canada the same way we were doing it for that magical sort of year period, but there were still moments where Lauren Strapagiel had had left at this point, but like whether it was Lauren or Sarah Aspler or Kat Angus, they would just jump on a Canada thing and be like, This is quick to do. We’re not making every day like this, you know. But we were still kind of doing that. We could do.

Craig Silverman: We could do a little, a little taste, a little-

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Canada snack.

Craig Silverman: A little treat. A little treat for you.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Yeah. And so that kind of felt pretty sustainable. But also in general, in terms of the idea of BuzzFeed feeling sustainable, for the most part it did until it didn’t, you know, kind of went away really quickly.

Craig Silverman: And look change- One of the things about the experience of BuzzFeed is things change all the time, and that was one of the frustrations you could have is like, All right, everybody, we’re doing Facebook Live. And then three months later, I’d be like, okay, do this. And so there was that going on, which I’ve worked at start-ups before, so it wasn’t that uncommon to me. But that’s not that common in newsrooms, I suppose. So that was one of the things that at times, you know, you felt like you were careening in one direction or the next, and you did start to see at a certain point where things like they had a great podcast team and then they killed that team and they had great podcast and they killed those. And you’re like, Why are you doing that? That’s a really dumb decision?

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Made no fucking sense.

Craig Silverman: And so, you know, it seemed like everything was going fine, but then you started to notice more and more as you get to like 2017, 2018, 2019, eventually we start to have our first layoffs-. 

Jonathan Goldsbie: In January 2019.

Craig Silverman: Yeah. And it starts to feel like, Oh yeah, this is like what newsrooms are like, you know? But you still thought, okay, so we’re smaller, we’re maybe less ambitious, but we can still do a lot. And you know, for me, it was the experience of when I first came in, we were the talent magnet. We were hiring people, we were getting amazing people. We were poaching. 

And then as things had definitely shifted, by the time we get to, I think 2018, but definitely into 2019, where BuzzFeed is getting poached. Buzzfeed News, our, you know, talent is getting stripped away. And so it sort of feels it feels like we’ve hit the high point. And now it’s like, okay, so where do we end up? What is our new baseline? And unfortunately, it just kept declining and going down until recently. They just killed the whole thing.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: But can I just say like very early on, I want to say maybe one of the all hands in 2015 or 2016, someone asked Jonah Peretti in one of these all hands, he was like, Jonah, where do we spend our philanthropy money? And he made this joke. He was like, our largest philanthropic donation is news. And it stuck with me, It was like even then I was like, This guy doesn’t necessarily think of news as a thing that is crucial or even like a sustainable part of this business in the sense that, like everything else is making money, the newsroom is not making money. And you get to this period of time in the last couple of years where it’s like, okay, I don’t need news to make money. I just need it to sort of break even. And it couldn’t quite get there. Like, that’s and that’s that’s why we’re here now.

Craig Silverman: That was the original sin with with news at BuzzFeed is that the theory from Jonah and from the most senior ad sales people was hiring people to sell ads for news is a waste because we could add two people selling ads for news or we could add two more people selling ads for Tasty. We’re going to get more money selling ads on Tasty than news. So literally, we had no ads number one on the BuzzFeed site at all when we got there, which was turning away free money, they finally turned on banner ads and then eventually they started saying, okay, let’s do some business development on news. And that was years and years into there being a news division. And in the end they could never catch up to the point of was like.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: 2017 when they finally started doing that, you know, like it was much later.

Craig Silverman: So that was just it was- And Jonah has admitted that now, when BuzzFeed News shut down, that took too long to try and build a business out of news. And that’s true. That was the thing that I think ultimately killed it, because, you know, they also suffered from the high expectations. They believed that the business they were building outside of news was going to be so big and was going to have big money coming directly from platforms that it didn’t matter if news itself was making money. And that was totally wrong.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: But I should also say, like it is not a reasonable proposal to go to an advertiser and say, would you like to spend this money and have it be spent on news or is it going to be have it be spent on some of the Buzz content that gets, you know, three, four times the number of eyeballs and is just lighter content, you know what I mean?

Craig Silverman: But it can work if your demographics of news support the brand’s mission, right? But you’re 100% right that most brands would be like if they have a choice-

Put it in the fun thing. 

To be be beside news or the light thing. They take the light thing, there’s no question.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: And they took it every single time. They took it every single time. Like when we got when we got like a week sponsored by somebody like in news, I was like, Yeah, who are these fucking people?

Craig Silverman: You probably got thrown in. It’s like, I’ll tell you what, I’m going to put. 

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Five more dollars.

Craig Silverman: Yeah,

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: You can have news too.

Craig Silverman: Yeah. And (Elamin laughs) here you have a home page takeover for a week. Yeah, exactly. It’s like. I don’t want that. No, no, you’re taking it. Yeah. Please take someone.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Someone take news.

Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah. Okay. Yeah. And so when you left, like you left for ProPublica in the spring of 2021, was that a difficult decision?

Craig Silverman: It wasn’t hard in the sense that I really wanted to stay anymore. But I don’t mean it that negative. It’s just like I had been there since, you know, at six years. I had had a bunch of different roles. I had been a manager and I had only at that point spent roughly a year just as a reporter without having people reporting to me because, you know, I hired Jane Litvinenko at the end of 2016 and we worked together closely as a team. We hired people like Liza Hicks and others and a video team in the whole sort of debunking team that we had. 

And then I had the last close to a year where I was simply just a reporter. Nobody reported to me and I was able to sit and think for the first time what I wanted to do because I wasn’t responsible for people. I could never I could never felt I could leave when I had people reporting to me, especially in those precarious times where sort of Canada was shifting. If I had left, you know, would they have would they have laid off people because I was gone? And so I just had an opportunity to think about it and and just felt like there weren’t more roles for me or more for me to do at BuzzFeed. So I just went looking to find other places. And ProPublica was really the only place I wanted to go. And it it worked out. 

And in retrospect, obviously the team I was on at that time, the sort of tech business team at BuzzFeed News, it basically completely imploded in the coming months. You know, Jane left soon after Ryan Mac, my reporting partner on a lot of Facebook stuff, left soon after. And really the whole team almost sort of left and had a turnover. And so clearly it was it was time for for a change for a lot of people then.

Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah. And a lot of I mean, certainly in Toronto, I don’t know how much people were going to the office then, but certainly a lot of people were leaving. Like Lauren left that fall. Kat Angus left February of 2022. You stuck around till the end of last year Elamin.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: My last day at BuzzFeed officially was January 15th, 2023. So actually was this calendar year.

Jonathan Goldsbie: Oh, wow.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Three months before the whole thing happened.

Jonathan Goldsbie: Did it feel like, You know, I think we’ve all been into newsrooms that have had fewer people than they used to have, and you can sort of sense that emptiness. Was there anything like that?

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: No. Listen, I wanted to leave in 2020. My plan was to leave in 2020 because I had to go. I was going to go pursue a book leave. And before I could go on my book leave, I was like, I don’t know if I’m going to come back. The newsletter hours are honestly a little bit exhausting to me because I tend to like tended to write them early in the morning and I just wanted to be like, okay, what else can I explore? And Sarazin who just the greatest human being was like, Fuck, you’re leaving, You’re not leaving. You know, we’ll find something else that you want to do. What else do you want to do? 

And I was like, well, you know, I’ve always kind of been a little bit interested in writing long form. And she kind of shepherded my transition from the curation team to the culture team. And so there I could do some more of the long form writing, some more of the reporting that I wanted to do, which was just the fucking delight of my life. And so stuck around from 2020 until 2023 until this opportunity with the CBC came up, it just kind of made sense to leave now. 

When I was leaving, I didn’t think that BuzzFeed News would die this quickly. I thought it was probably nearing its end. Right, Because last year when Karolina, who was my former boss, became the editor-in-chief, the vibe and the mood was, okay, we have a year to become profitable as a newsroom and if it doesn’t happen within that year, then it’s going to be like we’re in real trouble. But it didn’t last a year. No, it didn’t last a year from that year. Warning. It sort of lasted about eight months. Right. 8 or 9 months because.

Craig Silverman: Because the stock price is in the toilet. They went public. They shouldn’t have gone public and followed through with that stock price goes in the toilet. And then Jonah, who has to his own detriment, kept news going longer than any of his investors or board members, I think really wanted. At that point. He has no choice because he’s a CEO of a public company that is now in danger of being delisted from the stock exchange. And it’s a cost-centre. 

And even if BuzzFeed News was breaking even, it’s still a way to reduce costs overall. And so I think he at that point, he had no choice. He loved having news. He loved that it stirred up shit. Sure. But he also. It was mismanaged and he’s admitted it was mismanaged. It was done in a way that was not sustainable. It was done in a way that hastened its decline by not actually treating it seriously like a business and not just some, oh, great little thing that we do, you know?

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Yeah. So this is a business that won a fucking Pulitzer, man. Like, you know what I mean? Like, take it, take it with the seriousness that it deserves. You know.

Jonathan Goldsbie: One last comment from the oral history I want to quote was from Tom Warren, investigative reporter. He said, the experience of working here will sometimes frustrating and often stressful was a dream come true. The rest of the news business looks insipid and gray in comparison. I’m not asking you to diss your current employers or anything, but like, what is it? What does it all look like looking back at what it this bright red and yellow thing that this was? What are you-

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: I’ve never had that much freedom in a job to find out if a thing works or not. And sometimes I’m like, Craig, I have an insane idea. And you’re like, All right, why not just go try it? That ethos comes from not having anything to protect, right? Like when we call a legacy organization a legacy organization, what we’re talking about is the risk to their name is too high for them to be like, You know what? Sure. Take that risk. It doesn’t matter. That’s what a legacy is. There’s a real sense of like protectiveness around a name. There’s a real protectiveness around a history. So you’re like, We’re not going to try shit. 

But there was even to the very end, you know, really talking about a eulogy here, I don’t want to give a eulogy, but even to the very end, there was still the sense of like, I don’t know, I don’t know if that will work, but try it, like because it’s worth doing. I don’t know if there’s anything in that story, but let’s go find out. And I think it’s really easy to romanticize that freedom. I think you might also be worth noting maybe that freedom doesn’t continue to keep the lights on, you know, long term. But while you have it, it’s a dream come true.

Craig Silverman: I work with such wonderful people, but I’m also somebody who’s old enough now that I’ve probably written for more news organizations that do not exist than ones that still do. I have been involved in a few media startups, and so to me, the thing that I’ve always experienced is like, Sure, you go through things and you take them with you personally, but the thing that lasts because BuzzFeed News isn’t around and while BuzzFeed Canada is, it’s what happens is the people, it’s the people that we had. We had that team of ten. And so now everybody has sort of scattered to different places. 

But everything we got to do together and everything we learned, we get to bring to the new places that we go. And so that’s the thing that’s actually has lots of longevity. Like, sure, there’s articles we all wrote that we’re proud of and what have you, but the thing that has the longevity and that actually makes the most change is where the people go after they have this experience and what they bring to the new places. And that’s the exciting thing that actually changes Canadian media.

Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah, I guess in terms of what BuzzFeed was, all this whole history of media collapsed into a decade. Do you think there has lessons for where everything else is heading?

Craig Silverman: Well, look, I mean, some of the weird things about BuzzFeed that were kind of a contradiction is when I went there, I assumed that like everyone had said, oh, the home page is dead. But then I got there and I looked at the traffic and it’s like, no, actually the home page is our top place. People still go to the home page, and then a few years into it, everybody at BuzzFeed realized, Wow, we are doing things that not only aren’t optimized for search traffic like getting traffic from Google, but we’re actually doing things that are actively harming and hurting our chance of getting this audience there. 

And so there was, I think, a blind commitment that was harmful in the end to thinking, yes, everything is moving to social. And so that was a mantra and there were a lot of mistakes built into that. And so I think hopefully one of the lessons is, you know, the diversification and the closer you can be to your audience, get your business built from multiple revenue streams and be as close to your audience as you possibly can, get rid of the intermediary, whether it’s Facebook or whatever. Because Jonah believed that eventually Facebook and Google and others would pay BuzzFeed tons of money for its content. It never happened. And that was at the root of it and it was wrong. And so the media business today is going back, I think, hopefully to some fundamentals of realizing actually you need a relationship with your audience as close as possible. Do not let it be mediated by somebody else.

Jonathan Goldsbie: Thank you so much.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: Thank you.

Jonathan Goldsbie: Thank you. This is so great.

Craig Silverman: Thanks for having me.

Jonathan Goldsbie: I really appreciate this. I’m sorry. This is so hot in here.

Credits:
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Jonathan Goldsbie: That is your Canadaland. If you value this podcast, if you value anything we put out from this network, please support us. We rely on listeners like you paying for journalism. As a supporter, you’ll get premium access to all of our shows ad free, including early releases and bonus content. You will get our exclusive newsletter discounts on our merch invites and tickets to our live and virtual events. And more than anything, you’ll be a part of the solution to Canada’s journalism crisis. You’ll be keeping our work free and accessible for everybody. Come join us now. Click on the link in your show notes or go to canadaland.com/join. We are still on Twitter @Canadaland. Our website is canadaland.com. I’m Jonathan Goldsbie filling in for Jesse Brown. And much as you can email him at jesse@canadaland.com you can reach me at jonathan@canadaland.com and I will match his promise to at least read everything you send. Our senior producer is Bruce Thorson with additional production on this episode by Noor Azrieh and Editing by Tristan Capacchione. Our managing editor is Anita Ejiofor. Our theme music is by So-Called and syndication is handled by CFUV 101.9 FM in Victoria. You can visit them online at CFUV.ca. You can listen to Canadaland ad free on Amazon music included with Prime.

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