BuzzFeed’s latest: Is this the future of magazines?

What happens if you cross the editorial precision of a magazine with the latest bells and whistles of web publishing? Viral site BuzzFeed hopes the answer looks like the long-form feature it published last week on the history of video games.

For BuzzFeed, best know for viral fluff like “50 photos of cat heaven,” the new story is its most ambitious plunge yet into the rarified world of New Yorker or Atlantic-style essays. At a deeper level, BuzzFeed’s initiatives will test whether digital upstarts can replace the literary pleasure and cultural power of established print titles.

Turning to the story itself, “Atari Teenage Riot: The inside story of Pong and the video game industry’s big bang” is a spry, deeply researched account of how a group of maverick computer types installed Pong games in TV sets and placed them in bars around San Francisco. The gaming pioneers earned millions in quarters and gave video games a permanent place in America’s cultural landscape.

The story is a good read but is more remarkable for the way it’s presented: in white on black letters and with vibrant pictures and animation that conjure up the era of Pong. It looks like this (in the story, the image is animated):

BuzzFeed screen shot

The Pong tale is not the site’s first long-form story, but it is the deepest that BuzzFeed has reached into its technical bag of tricks. The result is a new and distinct form of storytelling that strives to offer up the same depth and beauty of print magazines. It’s unclear, though, if BuzzFeed can also match the output of those publications.

“We are not a ‘GIF of the day’ or ‘one longform story per week’ kind of place, so it’s impossible to really set expectations on quantity here. We’re very much focused on the quality,” said Executive Editor Doree Shafrir, a former Rolling Stone editor who is one of several high profile hires BuzzFeed brought in this year.

Despite the lofty goals, there are still two wild cards here. One is whether BuzzFeed (or anyone else) can duplicate the aesthetic escapism of a print magazine; the Pong story, which I read on both a tablet and computer, was smart and the layout was beautiful, but it didn’t feel as relaxing as reading the New Yorker on the couch.

Second, there is the business question. It’s terrific news that BuzzFeed’s ambitions stretch beyond cats and OMG, but can they pay for them? After all, the state of online advertising means BuzzFeed can’t (for now, at least) fund its essays with high-priced Tiffany’s or Cartier spreads. At the same time, the site may be hard-pressed to apply its “native advertising” approach to long-form stories.

In the bigger picture, BuzzFeed is one of several disruptive publishers helping to define what long form will look like in the digital age. Others include The Verge and Gawker which are likewise offering free, quality essays. Meanwhile, platforms like Byliner and Atavist are providing new ways for authors to charge for long-form content. For now, it’s too soon to say if these companies will come to displace the New Yorker as a new form of magazine — or if, instead, there will be room for all to flourish.

(Image by alphaspirit via Shutterstock)