BuzzFeed, which laid off 15% of its staff companywide earlier this year to get to profitability, has hired a new exec to drum up revenue for its news business.
Samantha Henig was executive producer of audio for The New York Times until May and was credited with helping build a new department from scratch. The flagship podcast "The Daily" just hit one billion downloads since it started in early 2017, and it's become a template for other podcasts.
At BuzzFeed News, Henig will be executive director of strategy, a new role, and report to editor in chief Ben Smith. She's charged with building revenue through initiatives that could include events, membership, podcasts, and ad sales. Publishers also see growing opportunity to make money from platforms with the likes of Facebook and Apple compensating publishers for their content.
Smith said as the news organization matured, he saw a big opportunity to build a business off it and that Henig was the right person to do it because of her combination of experience.
"She's a journalist first, but really understands the landscape of commercial projects that can draw from and expand the journalism," he told Business Insider.
BuzzFeed News plans to hire its first dedicated ad salesperson
BuzzFeed also is looking for a sales person specifically tied to news.
A job ad calls for someone to introduce ad products related to BuzzFeed News to brands and agencies; and sell products that span TV, digital, and social display ads.
BuzzFeed News launched its own site in July 2018 to bolster its identity, but only monetized it through programmatic advertising rather than the more lucrative but harder-to-sell native ads that was the bread and butter of the BuzzFeed.com parent site.
BuzzFeed has diversified its revenue away from the native ads that drove it initially, to areas like brand consulting, branded products, and video production. CEO Jonah Peretti has said BuzzFeed would be profitable for the second half of this year and the full year in 2020, and that BuzzFeed News wasn't profitable but that he was looking for it to be sustainable.
BuzzFeed raised nearly $500 million and of all digital publishers, seemed like it had the best chance of figuring out a profitable online business model by building a huge audience on the back of Facebook and helping advertisers reach young consumers.
But when it built a big, prestigious news arm, it expanded into an area of content that's costly and hard to monetize. BuzzFeed News' audience has doubled in the past year to 22.9 million unique visitors (Comscore) but is still dwarfed by more established news sites like CNN and Fox News.
BuzzFeed wants to explore memberships throughout the company
To trim costs and drum up new revenue, BuzzFeed News cut its podcast department, to the dismay of some in the newsroom. It also launched a $5-a-month membership program last year, which drew some criticism in light of the amount of capital the parent company had raised. Brianne O'Brien, the news employee who coordinated the program, recently left for Spotify. The company is looking to replace her.
Henig's hire signals that BuzzFeed News is interested in developing membership and podcasting further.
Beyond the news division, BuzzFeed is looking at ways to grow memberships more broadly. It recently threw an internal event where people from throughout the company brainstormed to come up with ideas for membership programs.