Digital Communication Case Studies: Buzzfeed, Vice & Huffington Post

Instructor: Scott Tuning

Scott has been a faculty member in higher education for over 10 years. He holds an MBA in Management, an MA in counseling, and an M.Div. in Academic Biblical Studies.

The Information Age has dramatically altered the landscape of print media, but easy access to digital content doesn't have to be the death knell for print media organizations. These case studies demonstrate how digital-only publications can be the future for companies currently relying on print media.

Pressure Sources on Print Media

Agree or disagree: easy, online access to information is the only challenge facing print publications. What evidence do you rely on to support your position?

Sure, free and easy access to online news and editorial content have made for tough times in the print media industry, but more specific market influences are also responsible:

  • Consumers who prefer small-screen devices as a primary means of content consumption is rising, while the preference for large-screen formats (PCs, iPads, etc.) is dropping.
  • Consumers are gravitating toward content that is intentionally politically left or right leaning. This means that the line between hard facts and editorial opinions is becoming blurrier by the day.
  • Social media is becoming a substantial traffic referral source for all-digital content.

Some digital-only publications succeeded because they accounted for more than just the easy, internet-based access as the challenge they had to overcome. So let's look at three companies that succeeded in this new environment and examine how they achieved that level of success.


In 2005, Arianna Huffington and Kenneth Lerer joined forces to enter the arena of digital news content. At the time of the founding, HuffPost (initially branded the Huffington Post) was intentionally positioned as a politically liberal-leaning publication that would be something of a left-of-center counterpart to the right-leaning The Drudge Report (also an all-digital content provider).

From this information, which of the three major negative influences on print media is most relevant to HuffPost?

A consumer preference for less-neutral sources put HuffPost on the road to success as a news aggregation service. Aggregation describes the manner in which content providers like HuffPost and Drudge automatically traverse the internet looking for headlines that fit well into the political leanings of the publication's readers.

By mining these headlines from other internet sources, consumers chose to obtain their news from sources consistent with their political leanings (although many did not realize that the content being aggregated was, in fact, being chosen with their political preference in mind).

Why did the aggregation of headlines place HuffPost on the path to all-digital success? To answer that question, compare a few headlines:

Picked Up by Left-Leaning Aggregator Picked Up by Right-Leaning Aggregator
President Clinton Unlikely to be Convicted in Senate Clinton Faces Senate Trial After House Refers Articles of Impeachment
Gunman Kills Eight With Legal Assault Rifle Mentally Ill Man Involved in Shooting Incident
Migrants Face Hunger, Thirst on Grueling Trek to the US Border Illegal Immigrants Demand Food and Water During March to the Border

Today, HuffPost is a major player in the online news space covering a wide range of news, gossip, and editorial content in numerous countries and languages. In short, HuffPost succeeded as an all-digital ''newspaper'' of sorts because it effectively leveraged often-unconscious consumer preferences to consume news coverage that aligns with their own political persuasion.

Vice Magazine

A second industry success story, this time a print publication, is Vice Magazine. When it comes to advertising, one of the most fiercely coveted target segments is ''millennials''. Because of a high circulation among this demographic, Vice has proven the ability to secure enough advertisers to keep the publication in print. However, Vice Magazine's simultaneous expansion into the digital content arena through music, entertainment, and additional web sites has made the Vice brand more rounded and diverse than it's original print-only status would suggest.

Like HuffPost, Vice did not launch with a corporate mission to provide mass market hard news stories. Initially, Vice focused on pieces related to the arts, entertainment, and lifestyle. It's success was and still is bolstered by the fact that the magazine offers lots of fresh subject matter, but it is further supported by the brand's demonstrated ability to enter the digital content world and expand into other media-related ventures.

To keep readers interested, Vice has substantially more contributors than a typical content provider with many only writing a few pieces every year.

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