Ramaswamy’s new fight is with BuzzFeed

Vivek Ramaswamy’s recent acquisition of a nearly 10 percent stake in BuzzFeed is prompting unexpected questions about the digital media company’s future and feeding speculation around the firebrand conservative’s next moves.

Ramaswamy, an investor who made a name for himself as a GOP presidential candidate by embracing conspiracy theories and enthusiastically backing former President Trump, is pitching a new right-wing slant for the digital publisher.

But experts and observers in the tech and media sectors say Ramaswamy’s power will be limited, despite a splashy investment in BuzzFeed to keep his name in the news and hold on to relevance as he hopes to get a Republican vice-presidential nod.

“Just like in the GOP presidential primary when there’s a crowded field, you need to get attention,” commented Johanna Dunaway, Research Director at Syracuse University’s Institute for Democracy, Journalism, and Citizenship. “Given the venue and the tone and timing of this, it appears it’s Trump he’s trying to get attention from.”

After accumulating an 8.37 percent stake in the media company over the last three months, Ramaswamy laid out his vision for BuzzFeed in a fire-breathing letter to its board of directors on Monday.

The former Republican candidate said the company “has lost its way,” and called for it to add several directors to its board, bring in creators to produce multimedia content and proposed “large-scale” staff cuts.

Ramaswamy wrote that the new directors would help bring “intellectual diversity” to the company’s leadership, in lieu of the racial and gender diversity initiatives he, like many conservatives, has said is indicative of a liberal bias across the media.

He proposed the company hire notable right-wing figures like Tucker Carlson and Candace Owens as content marketers and influencers.

Perhaps most notably, the Republican demanded BuzzFeed admit that it “repeatedly lied on issues of national importance” and “echoed easy, politically convenient narratives in pursuit of clicks.”

BuzzFeed’s leadership signaled it does not intend to go along with Ramaswamy’s pitch.

In a written response to his proposal, which was obtained this week by The Hill, BuzzFeed co-founder and CEO Jonah Peretti dismissed a litany of criticisms leveled by the conservative and said he had a “fundamental misunderstanding” of how the company operates.

“I’m very skeptical it makes business sense to turn BuzzFeed into a creator platform for inflammatory political pundits,” Peretti wrote in his response. “And we’re definitely not going to issue an apology for our Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism.” 

A representative for Ramaswamy on Thursday declined to respond to questions from The Hill about how he planned to wrestle control away from Peretti and make the changes he is proposing, but teased an upcoming press call on his investment in the company.

During an interview with the news outlet Semafor’s “Mixed Signals” podcast, Ramaswamy suggested BuzzFeed’s financial issues could present an opportunity for him to take the company private.

“This is a company that has more debt than cash. That debt comes due this December. So anybody who thinks that Jonah Peretti is the person in control of this business because some piece of paper says he has voting rights over the shares is delusional,” he said. “People talk about going private. Are there things to do with the debt? Are there things to do with, you know, other ways of financing or growing or shedding parts of the business? I laid out my current views in the letter.”

BuzzFeed was founded in 2006 and catapulted to prominence using games, quizzes and puzzles to amass a loyal following of millions a day before investing heavily in news reporting and political coverage ahead of the 2012 election.

The company went through a controversial public offering in 2021, and has since fallen on tough financial times.

Like many digital publishers, BuzzFeed has made deep cuts to staff in recent years and experimented with artificial intelligence (AI) to create content.

BuzzFeed News shut down officially in spring 2023, slashing 15 percent of its workforce after determining it could “no longer continue to fund” a news operation “as a standalone operation.”

Earlier this year, the company announced plans to lay off another 16 percent of its staff and sold Complex — a pop culture media startup it acquired for nearly $300 million in 2021 — at a significantly discounted price.

Experts say Ramaswamy’s ideas are unlikely to help the company’s financial situation.

“One of Buzzfeed’s biggest problems is that they have spent a decade+ chasing trends – social, video, affiliate revenue, etc.” Sean Griffey, co-founder and CEO of Industry Dive, wrote on X. “Vivek’s suggestion that they focus on ‘creators’ and unique voices is just more of the same. Throwing darts hoping for magic.”

Despite Ramaswamy’s nearly 3 million shares in BuzzFeed, which makes him the second-largest Class A shareholder, experts and observers note his stake in the company translates into very limited voting power.

As of December, Peretti and his affiliates held 96 percent of the company’s Class B shares, which have about 50 times the votes of its Class A stock.

That translates to about 64 percent voting power, which BuzzFeed has acknowledged limits the ability of other stockholders to influence important transactions or initiate a change in control.

A growing number of observers have predicted Ramaswamy will likely be powerless in his pursuit of dragging BuzzFeed to the right.

“In this case, the possibility of a proxy battle literally does not matter because you cannot outvote Peretti. So what are you actually doing, Vivek?” tech columnist Elizabeth Lopatto wrote in The Verge this week. “You’ve picked Buzzfeed because the shares are cheap, and because you have a grudge against a historically liberal outlet.”

Some have drawn parallels between what Ramaswamy is proposing for BuzzFeed and the sweeping changes made by billionaire Elon Musk to X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, after he purchased the company in 2022.

Like Musk, Ramaswamy appears to be “trying to get BuzzFeed to hire or to give more attention to certain conservative voices,” noted Jill Fisch, a business law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, during an interview with The Hill.

Conservatives have long railed against the policies and influence of mainstream media outlets and tech firms, with some activist entrepreneurs starting their own alternative companies catering to right-wing customers.

Since his takeover of Twitter, Musk has eliminated various content moderation policies and allowed previously banned individuals, such as Trump and Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, back on the platform.

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