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BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti: Paywalls Are Bad for Democracy

News publishers who move their products behind paywalls and only serve paying audiences don’t serve democracy, argued BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti at the Wall Street Journal’s WSJ.D Live conference in Laguna Beach, Calif., Wednesday. “If you are thinking about an electorate, the subscription model in media doesn’t support the broad public,” he said.

Peretti admitted that subscription news content may be a good business model for newspapers like the Wall Street Journal. But he also outlined a dystopian view, painting a picture of a future in which only a wealthy elite would get access to good journalism from papers like the Journal and the New York Times, leaving the vast majority of the public with clickbait and fake news spreading on social platforms.

“It’s a big question for democracy: The business model of news is changing,” he said. “That’s a big challenge for the world.”

However, Peretti also said that he has also seen big tech companies stepping up to solve these problems through new revenue streams, and increased revenue for ad-supported content. For instance, BuzzFeed has seen big increases in revenue from Facebook Instant articles.

Peretti admitted that working with Facebook and the like also means having to quickly adapt if and when these companies change course, and emphasize certain features or phase out products. “For us, it’s great. The more change, the better,” he said.

At the same time, Peretti said that BuzzFeed doesn’t try to tweak its content based on each and every small change. “We try to not think too much about the algorithm,” he said. “The algorithm is always flawed, and it’s always changing.”

To prove his point, Peretti cited the videos BuzzFeed has been producing under its Tasty and Nifty brands, which are all about cooking and DIY projects, respectively. These videos may get the same amount of shares as a viral news clip, he said, but result in a deeper engagement.

“A large chunk of them will spend their entire weekend building that product,” he said. Algorithms would not know about this type of follow-up engagement. BuzzFeed is trying to track it through engaging with its audience, said Peretti: “We know that’s a deeper, more meaningful thing.”

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