CNN vs. BuzzFeed: A media spat for the digital age

Image via Pexels.

In one corner, a media powerhouse that catalyzed the 24-hour news cycle. In the other, a rambunctious upstart that made its name with catchy videos and listicles before diving into hard-news reporting. Two outlets battling for the attention of digital audiences, needling each other along the way.

In a time of journalistic solidarity and cross-newsroom cheerleading in the face of Trumpism, the rollicking feud between CNN and BuzzFeed is an entertaining throwback to media wars of the past. The running conflict—carried out on social media, in snarky interviews, and, occasionally, in serious editorial disagreements—has fueled a desire to outdo each other and in the process produce great journalism.

ICYMI: The term BuzzFeed now says is acceptable

“I think it’s actually good for both organizations,” says CNN Vice President of Communications Matt Dornic, the man behind a series of Twitter barbs directed at BuzzFeed. “We challenge them to be better journalists, and they challenge us to be better storytellers.”

Adds BuzzFeed Editor in Chief Ben Smith: “This is an intensely competitive business, and competition has always been great for journalism. In some way we’re flattered that CNN sees us as a rival and competitor.”

The genesis of the feud was a 2016 Variety story in which CNN president Jeff Zucker took a shot at two of his millennial-focused competitors. “I don’t think Vice and BuzzFeed are legitimate news organizations,” Zucker told Variety, adding “with a mischievous grin”: “They are native advertising shops. We crush both of them. They are not even in our same class.” Though he later walked back that claim, the train had left the station, and the feud was on.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

ICYMI: Breitbart’s “sinister” response to Washington Post’s recent bombshell

CNN’s October 2016 hiring of BuzzFeed’s multimedia scoop machine Andrew Kaczynski and his K-File team fanned the flames, and skirmishes over audience reach further fueled the fire. More recently, BuzzFeed mocked CNN’s new “Facts First” ad campaign with a parody video.

Beyond the feuding, the battle between CNN, the pioneer in the 24-hour news cycle that has invested heavily in digital, and BuzzFeed, a digital upstart that has quickly become an online powerhouse for young consumers, is one over the future of journalism. And the conflict isn’t all Twitter kayfabe. Though sources at both outlets spoke of mutual respect and admiration for counterparts at their respective competitor, real disagreements and anger exist. BuzzFeed still draws a lot of its revenue from viral videos and listicles, and CNN spends plenty of hours on  partisan talking heads shouting over each other and resolving nothing. Smith complains that CNN sometimes fails to credit BuzzFeed reporting during televised broadcasts, a courtesy that BuzzFeed Deputy News Director Tom Namako says his outlet always strives to provide.

The biggest substantive dispute between the two outlets came last January, when CNN reported on the existence of the now-infamous Trump dossier without revealing any of the information it contained. BuzzFeed responded by publishing the redacted document in full. Donald Trump, then the president-elect, conflated the two outlets’ work at a press conference, calling CNN “fake news” and BuzzFeed a “failing pile of garbage.” Minutes after those statements, CNN’s Jake Tapper drew a distinction between what he saw as CNN’s own “legitimate, responsible attempts to report on this incoming administration” and BuzzFeed’s irresponsible journalism that hurts us all.”

ICYMI: Journalists hear a commotion. They discover woman dying on a sidewalk.

BuzzFeed’s Smith defended his decision to publish the dossier, while acknowledging the criticism from other outlets. He says that  disagreements, even contentious ones, are healthy: “I think solidarity is important on core issues of a free press, but I also think a core mission of journalism is to check each other’s work, to call each other out so the audience never gets the idea that we’re a cartel.”

The rivalry comes at a time when the industry is under assault from the president, right-wing insurgents want to burn the entire institution to the ground, and the public largely doesn’t trust the media. In response to these outside attacks, a collective circling of the wagons has taken hold. It’s a time of professional bonhomie that has seen journalists from ostensible rivals celebrating the work of their competitors. The top editors at the two heavyweight newspapers trading Trump scoops have a “not-so-bitter” rivalry, while their corporate social media accounts have engaged in a downright lovefest.

On the other hand, the CNN-BuzzFeed rivalry harkens back to earlier eras. “The history of American journalism writ small is feuds between publications and competing journalists on the same beat,” says Politico senior media writer Jack Shafer. Citing examples stretching from titanic battles between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer to fierce competition between Ben Bradlee’s Washington Post and James Bellow’s Washington Star, Shafer says that this sort of rivalry is “a healthy thing. It drives the best talent to the top.”

Reporters in the Trump era have no shortage of material to work with, says BuzzFeed’s head of US News, Shani Hilton. “The reality is, we’re living in a world where officials lie, powerful people abuse their influence, and fake news spreads rapidly across platforms, which means there’s no shortage of breaking news and exclusives to go around,” Hilton wrote in an email to CJR. “But that also means we have to compete. A number of outlets, CNN included, are doing incredible work, and we know our reporting has to be fair, aggressive, and swift if it’s going to break through. I’m glad our coverage has been able to do that in such a significant way with our readers, but also with other news [organizations] that have been chasing down stories we’ve broken and focusing on topics that we’ve been covering critically for some time.”

All newsrooms are competitive places. But having an open rival ratchets up the intensity. CNN boasts a 4,000-person operation around the globe that must feed multiple 24-hour networks as well as its digital domains, while BuzzFeed has built up its news division to more than 300 staffers. Dornic acknowledges BuzzFeed’s success, and the intra-outlet sniping, has pushed CNN to be better. “They forced us to not rest on our laurels,” he says. “I would credit them with pressuring us to focus on new audiences to the point that we now have the largest millennial reach.”

IYCMI: An interactive map of America’s news deserts

BuzzFeed, of course, disputes Dornic’s claim that CNN’s reaches more young consumers. “I have literally never seen that claim made outside of a CNN press release,” Smith says. “But it’s also clear that they’ve invested more seriously and successfully than most of their competitors, to their credit.”

CNN responded by citing comScore data that have consistently shown the company’s platforms reaching the largest audience among all digital news companies, and a story in The Hollywood Reporter that notes CNN’s dominance. A BuzzFeed spokesperson pointed out that that same THR story included the line, “Indeed, in January, BuzzFeed lured 44.5 million millennial unique visitors compared with 35.8 million for CNN.com.” ComScore does not measure content posted on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, where digital-native brands like BuzzFeed focus their efforts.

CJR’s subsequent conversations with representatives of each outlet devolved into a back-and-forth over metrics and conflicting measurements. Because what good is a feud without something to argue over?

“Competition is good,” BuzzFeed’s Smith says. “It is America after all.”

ICYMI: Heads up! Two dozen freelancers told CJR these are the best outlets to pitch

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.