Jun 25, 2019

Scoop: BuzzFeed's Ken Lerer stepping down as chairman

Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images for TechCrunch

BuzzFeed Chairman Ken Lerer is stepping down from his role after overseeing the viral internet publisher for over 10 years, according to sources familiar with the matter.

Why it matters: Under Lerer and CEO Jonah Peretti's leadership, BuzzFeed has grown to become one of the largest digital-native publications in the world. It's redefined online publishing as a business and has pioneered news coverage of internet culture and trends.

Details: Lerer informed the BuzzFeed board that he would officially step down last Thursday.

  • Lerer's departure is personal, sources said. He is stepping down to pursue other projects, as he feels the publication has reached a stage of maturity.
  • The board has not yet decided if it will name a new chair. according to sources familiar with the matter.

Between the lines: Lerer departs as BuzzFeed is undergoing major changes to sustain its growth.

  • In 2017, reports surfaced that BuzzFeed had delayed its rumored IPO plans after the company failed to hit revenue targets by 15-20%. It cut 100 staffers that year to refocus efforts around licensing content and away from native advertising.
  • In 2018, BuzzFeed shut down its podcasting unit and underwent a restructuring of its business team to explore new types of revenue, like commerce and licensing. This happened as its advertising business became stymied by the same industry headwinds facing all digital publishers.
  • In 2019, the company announced it would lay off roughly 15% of workers, or about 250 people, in an effort to get to profitability faster. BuzzFeed has been dogged by messy union fights ever since. Most recently, BuzzFeed News employees staged a nationwide walkout last Monday to lobby for union representation.

The big picture: Lerer oversaw BuzzFeed as it broke new ground, often writing the rules for how digital publishing could work as a business and how it could challenge the conventional notion of what online reporting and content should look like.

  • BuzzFeed was one of the first online publishers to leverage social media distribution to grow a media brand, redefining what it meant to go "viral" online.
  • It embraced online culture as a part of its aesthetic and vocabulary, popularizing concepts like "memes" and "gifs," while also normalizing the use of online short-hand, like "WTF" and "LOL" in reporting and public online conversation.
  • As BuzzFeed matured, it was the first to experiment with new business models for digital publishers, like licensing online franchises for offline commerce deals through its food brand, "Tasty," and launching TV shows for digital channels, like its "AM2DM" morning show on Twitter.
  • The company is now working toward its goal of becoming profitable.

What's next: The former AOL/Time Warner exec-turned digital publishing pioneer will continue to invest in new digital publishing upstarts as a managing partner of his New York City-based venture capital firm, Lerer Hippeau Ventures.

  • BuzzFeed is the second board that Lerer has exited in order to focus more of his efforts on his venture fund. Lerer exited Viacom's board early last year.

Note: Lerer Hippeau is an investor in Axios.

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