BuzzFeed’s choice of publisher says a lot about how the site looks at media

As Re/Code has reported, BuzzFeed named its vice-president of growth, Dao Nguyen, to the newly created position of publisher — but founder and CEO Jonah Peretti points out in an internal memo that this job is not at all like the traditional newspaper job with the same name. And the differences in the way most mainstream media outlets look at the position and the way BuzzFeed does say a lot about how the company thinks about media.

At most newspaper and magazine companies, the title of publisher either goes to a senior executive with a long career in publishing — in many cases, someone who has worked their way up over decades as an editor at smaller publications or is related to the owner, or both — or to someone with an MBA or business background unrelated to media. Peretti mentions this explicitly in his memo:

We are redefining the role of Publisher to reflect the way the world works today where technology is the core of publishing. This is very different from the traditional role where the title is inherited within a family business, like the Sulzbergers at the New York Times, or in the magazine world, where the Publisher is often the person responsible for selling advertising and overseeing business operations.

BuzzFeed’s choice is none of these things. Dao Nguyen is only 40, for one thing, and as an Asian woman she doesn’t fit the typical white/male demographic profile of a media company publisher either. But it is her background that makes her the most different: as VP of growth, she has been almost exclusively focused on data as a driver of both knowledge and strategy when it comes to BuzzFeed’s behavior.

Where data science meets journalism

That comes through most clearly in a profile of her that Inc. magazine did recently, in which she talks about how the site tries to use data to understand what readers want, and how this process drives the editorial strategy — from the way it promotes posts on social media over the weekend to its focus on mobile. And those skills are what BuzzFeed needs most in a publisher, Peretti says:

Dao is a new type of Publisher. She isn’t the heir to a newspaper baron and she won’t be responsible for the business, selling ads or physical newsstand distribution. Instead, she’ll lead publishing for the social web, in the most modern sense, where data science, the CMS, technology, and a deep understanding of social networks, mobile devices, and digital video matter most.

In many ways, Nguyen’s job sounds like what a technology company would describe as “head of platform” or “head of product,” in the sense that she is going to be looking at all of the non-editorial aspects of the business. And this is fitting, because as Chris Dixon — a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, which led BuzzFeed’s recent $50-million fundraising round — described it, the company is more of a technology platform than it is a traditional media company.

Nguyen’s job also fits with my theory about how the site looks at the content business, which is that it sees news or entertainment as a service rather than a product that it stamps out and ships to a waiting readership, which is the way many traditional media outlets still see their business. BuzzFeed is constantly tweaking what it does while watching the behavior of its readers, in the same way smart technology companies refine their service based on actual usage.

That may not sound like a revolutionary approach, but it has not been the norm for mainstream media companies — and it seems to be working for BuzzFeed, which has tripled its traffic since Nguyen started running the data team. Maybe other media companies will take a cue from BuzzFeed and look for senior executives who understand the two-way relationship with readers and how to maximize it.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Thinkstock / Sergey Nivens