In 2013, BuzzFeed ran a story about Bradley Cooper wearing a knit beanie so large it hid his entire hairline and fell down his neck into a pouch spacious enough to perhaps store some oranges. It was titled: “Bradley Cooper Wore A Hat The Size Of Guam.”
But anyone looking for this post today would not find photos of Cooper’s hat. Those images have been removed. The images in the listicle titled, incredibly, “23 Pictures That Really Need to Be Deleted From The Internet” are also gone. According to several sources, the pictures in “thousands” of BuzzFeed posts have been replaced by white blanks that read: “This image is no longer available.” The mass disappearance was a deliberate move from BuzzFeed’s management to wipe the art from much of what the website published before 2015 — including six posts from a writer who died in 2013 — in order to ward off claims of copyright infringement. And they did so without telling their editorial staff.
Several current and former BuzzFeed employees told Gawker that they first noticed the missing images in the late summer of 2020. But the removal process had been underway since April of that year, according to someone familiar with the decision. One reporter, who had been with the company for well over a decade, found that hundreds of their old posts now appeared without pictures. Another writer discovered missing screenshots in a piece about women joining ISIS. Those original images were, a colleague said, “basically fundamental to the news gathering that [the reporter] had done.”
This isn’t the first time BuzzFeed has silently disappeared its own work. Back in 2014, while the company was still under the leadership of Ben Smith (now at the New York Times), Gawker reported the site had deleted nearly 5,000 staff posts without any public explanation. Gawker writer J.K. Trotter found, over the course of several investigations, that some of the posts had been deemed improperly sourced, while others conflicted with the brand’s advertisers. The coverage culminated in a lengthy and at times adversarial interview between Trotter, Smith, and BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti.
Since 2011, BuzzFeed’s editorial content has been divided into the BuzzFeed brand, which comprises the listicles and quizzes that have become synonymous with their name, and BuzzFeed News, which publishes most of their journalism. The bulk of the impacted posts came out of BuzzFeed proper, like the two mentioned above. But there were many points of overlap — articles published in their entertainment vertical, for example, or before the news division was established. A spokesperson for BuzzFeed declined to comment. No one could provide an estimate on the number of affected photos or posts: “There are too many.”
When staff first noticed the missing pictures, one reporter said, “people were like, “What the fuck? This is messed up.” After they brought it up with management, BuzzFeed’s leadership sent an email on Sept. 8, 2020 explaining the move. “There has been a big increase in legal copyright claims in the past year on images from old posts that cost the company a lot of time and money to resolve,” one editor wrote in an email reviewed by Gawker. “In order to reduce the risk of further claims and cost, we’re proactively removing images that we’ve deemed high-risk.”
The announcement outlined a complicated protocol for restoring the pictures. Each of the thousands of posts had been recorded in spreadsheets, divided by reporter and then by year. Staff were told to review each article and determine if they had the rights to include the original images before October 15 — giving them about four weeks to sift through up to hundreds of old pieces and remember if an image they had used years ago had come from a usable source or been pulled without permission.
This proved difficult for many BuzzFeed writers. Katie Notopoulos, one of BuzzFeed’s lead tech reporters with some 600 affected posts, had been on maternity leave at the time, according to a colleague. At least two other writers — Kate Aurthur and Louis Peitzman — were also assigned spreadsheets, but no longer worked at BuzzFeed. Neither one was alerted to the change or offered recourse to restore their old clips. Most gallingly, the reporter Michael Hastings, who died in a car crash in 2013, was assigned to fix his six altered articles.
[In a comment sent after this piece was published a BuzzFeed spokesperson said: “No former employees were asked to handle their own spreadsheets.”]
A source familiar with the decision said they “wouldn’t push back” on the fact that former staff had not been alerted. “There wasn’t much communication to people that weren’t here,” they added. The Oct. 15 deadline for current staff, however, was later extended; writers are now able to restore posts on a case by case basis, provided the images were properly credited or that BuzzFeed was able to later license them. (Most of Hastings’ posts, the source said, have been restored; save one, which still “looked funky.”)
The abrupt deletion came as BuzzFeed undertook a slew of cost-cutting measures during the pandemic lockdowns. Before 2020, the company had reported losses of more than $50 million for several years, according to a Wall Street Journal article from that October. Early in the pandemic, they had predicted that revenue could decline by nearly 20 percent. But after “heavy cost cuts,” the Journal wrote, BuzzFeed was on target to break even for the first time since 2014. The cuts included “furloughs, pay reductions, layoffs, and other changes;” they got rid of their D.C. and San Francisco office spaces, according to one staffer. They also decided, as another writer put it, to “nuke all these old images” giving them copyright issues.
Notably, BuzzFeed also announced in June that it plans to go public by way of a SPAC deal — the trendy financial vehicle that lets companies IPO with less paperwork. Typically businesses preparing to go public will want to tie up any financial, procedural, or aesthetic loose ends, both to maximize their valuation and to ward off possible lawsuits once their finances become a matter of public record. BuzzFeed is expected to merge with a blank check company called 890 Fifth Avenue Partners sometime between now and December. According to CNBC, it is shooting for a valuation of $1.5 billion.
None of the BuzzFeed reporters who talked to Gawker had heard any specifics about the copyright infringement claims, or which had prompted the decision to delete old photos. One writer suggested that the claims may have come from paparazzi, who are notoriously litigious. (Back in 2018, BuzzFeed actually reported on the trend of paparazzi suing celebrities for sharing photos of themselves). Another said it could reflect the changing social mores regarding image use on the internet. Peitzman, who started at BuzzFeed in late 2012, recalled that the internal protocol had initially been “fast and loose,” though he’d learned to properly source images at earlier jobs.
BuzzFeed has been involved in 32 copyright lawsuits, according to the federal lawsuit tracker PACER, five of which were filed in 2020 (another four have been filed in 2021). By comparison, Vice Media has been involved in 27 such cases; Gawker has been involved in 26. (Some of Gawker’s archival posts are also missing images; this stems in part from the codebase changing hands multiple times, but also from legal takedown requests, which are common for digital media outlets.)
But the timing of BuzzFeed’s internal announcement suggests the photo decision may have stemmed from a 2019 lawsuit called Mango v. BuzzFeed. The case involves a photographer named Gregory Mango, who sued BuzzFeed for lifting a photo of his from an article in the New York Post. Mango alleged that, in addition to copyright infringement, the reporter had removed his credit line (known as a “gutter credit”), and replaced it with the name of the subject’s attorneys. A judge sided in his favor in August of 2019 (about nine months before BuzzFeed began deleting photos), awarding Mango $3,750 in damages for the infringement, $5,000 for a second count related to his gutter line, and $66,942.53 in legal fees.
BuzzFeed appealed the second claim, but a Second Circuit Judge upheld the initial verdict in a decision that, as one university copyright officer wrote in an article, “will make it much easier for artists to sue over the removal of copyright management information.” That opinion came down on Aug, 13, 2020 — about a month before BuzzFeed emailed their staff.
None of the BuzzFeed writers interviewed for this piece had heard about the ruling. Management “had basically just said, ‘We're trying to protect against this [copyright claim] trend we're noticing,’” one reporter recalled, “and never mentioned this lawsuit. But it sounds like that has to be part of this.” A source briefed on the decision pointed out the company began deleting photos before the appeal judgement (though after the initial opinion). They claimed the company had been hit by a series of “professional copyright trolls,” or copyright litigators who used reverse image search to find others’ misused pictures before approaching a plaintiff to sue.
The source also pointed to a different case, though filed later in October 2020, in which six Black photojournalists sued the company for embedding Instagram photos of the George Floyd protests without permission. The lawsuit, they said, was part of a larger legal shift regarding embedded social media posts. (The company settled earlier this month).
But the BuzzFeed News staff did take action to ensure similar alterations wouldn’t happen again. In January, the union sent its membership a shop paper announcing new language in their contract. “We secured for all unit employees the right…to be advised about any corrections or significant changes made to their stories,” the paper read, “(including to images).”
This piece has been updated to include a comment from BuzzFeed submitted after it was first published.