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BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith to join New York Times as media columnist

Smith will write The Times' "Media Equation" column, which became a must-read for media industry insiders under David Carr, who died in 2015.
Digital Media Company BuzzFeed's New York Headquarters
BuzzFeed News Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith in his office in the newsroom at BuzzFeed headquarters in New York on Dec. 11, 2018.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

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By Dylan Byers

Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, who built a respected news organization alongside the website's lighter content, will leave the company and join The New York Times as the newspaper's top media columnist, according to sources familiar with the situation who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Smith will write The Times' "Media Equation" column, which became a must-read for media industry insiders under David Carr, who died in 2015. Jim Rutenberg, the column's writer for the last four years, moved to the position of writer at large last week.

Smith confirmed that he was leaving BuzzFeed News in a tweet.

"It's been the privilege of my life to do this job, in its many iterations, for more than eight years," Smith wrote in a memo he sent to BuzzFeed News staffers. "The notion that BuzzFeed could play a major role in shaping global news, and the news business — from tweets to streaming shows — sounded crazy in 2012. Now it's just a fact, the product of most of all of your hard work, creativity, aggressiveness, and judgement."

Smith's departure marks the end of an era for BuzzFeed. Smith, previously a blogger at Politico, was hired to take over BuzzFeed's fledgling news division in late 2011. Over the course of the 2012 presidential cycle, he gave the pop culture site added heft as a reputable source of political coverage and investigative journalism.

BuzzFeed News has remained a player in political news ever since, most notably when it made the controversial decision in 2017 to publish the Steele dossier, the 35-page opposition research document that alleged that President Donald Trump could be blackmailed by Russian intelligence. Other news organizations, including NBC News, decided not to publish the dossier because it included unverified allegations about Trump's ties to Russia.

Smith's departure comes as questions remain about BuzzFeed's future. The company became one of the most successful digital media startups of the 2000s, quickly reaching a large online audience and making money through native advertising. That business proved challenging, leading to layoffs last year as the company struggled to turn a profit.

NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News, is an investor in BuzzFeed.

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While news remains an important part of BuzzFeed, the site has become far more reliant on its video, commerce and brand partnership businesses. Jonah Peretti, the co-founder and chief executive who hired Smith, has also considered merging with other online publishers, like Vox Media and GroupNine, to gain more leverage with Facebook and Google, which dominate the digital advertising market.

"The newsroom and the company as a whole are now in a strong position," Smith wrote in the memo. "We have a CEO who fundamentally believes in news and has proven again and again that he'll stand up for the toughest stories, about anyone, and colleagues across the organization who share that view."

BuzzFeed News will now begin a formal search for its next editor-in-chief, the sources said. Meanwhile, Smith will return to writing, a role that has been familiar to him since his early days in New York tabloids, during his four years at Politico and even at BuzzFeed, where he occasionally broke from management duties to weigh in on politics and media.

One of Smith's more buzzed-about pieces in media circles was an article in November about The Times itself and the internal "Game of Thrones" to replace Executive Editor Dean Baquet, who is expected to retire no later than 2022.

Smith is likely to bring some intrigue back to the "Media Equation" column. As a journalist covering New York's City Hall and U.S. politics, Smith was known for exclusive and provocative journalism that more than occasionally ruffled the feathers of the subjects he wrote about — not unlike the late Carr himself.

Editor's note: Dylan Byers and Ben Smith worked together at Politico, where they launched the website's media blog together in 2012.