The New York Times’ Ben Smith
Dylan Byers: (CHIME) Hey, it's Dylan Byers, senior media reporter for NBC News. You're listening to Byers Market. (MUSIC) The first time Ben Smith and I talked for this podcast, coronavirus was a distant reality, somewhere far, far away. It hadn't interrupted our lives, blown up the economy and forced all of us to stay home.
And so on that day in January, Ben and I sat rather (LAUGH) close together in a small studio in Manhattan, discussing what was then the biggest story in media, which was that Ben Smith, the editor of Buzzfeed News, was stepping down to become the media columnist at The New York Times.
When Ben got that job, there was a sense among New York media insiders that things were about to get interesting. Ben, a veteran of the New York City tabloids, turned star national political blogger, turned face of the new digital media, had a penchant for ruffling some feathers within the nation's political media establishment, a gossipy bunch that was now looking forward to seeing who he might delicately skewer in the pages of The New York Times.
The coronavirus pandemic sort of changed all that. The stakes are far higher now. And Ben is shifting his focus to bigger questions. In a time of self-isolation and social distancing, how do we live life online? Who do we trust? How will the pandemic change the economics of the industry?
Needless to say, there's a lot for us to catch up on. So last week, I called Ben, who recently escaped Brooklyn for upstate New York, to talk about media reporting in the age of coronavirus. That conversation makes up roughly the first half of this episode of the podcast. The second half comes from our conversation in January, where we touched on some of the more evergreen questions about the future of media. Here's that two part conversation with Ben Smith.
So first of all, how are you doing? The first time that we recorded this podcast was in this, like, great, innocent time when you and I could sit together in the same, you know, very small studio and actually shake hands and talk to people in person. Are you housebound for the foreseeable future?
Ben Smith: Yeah. I'm locked up in upstate New York actually and feel very lucky to be up here, looking at deer. (LAUGH)
Byers: When was the last time you were in the New York Times office?
Smith: Early last week. I was pretty paranoid pretty early and biked in, which was strenuous because I was nervous about public transportation and refused to shake people's hands.
Byers: Yeah. So the original idea for getting back on the phone together was actually because the first time we talked, the news that you were going to leave Buzzfeed and become the media columnist at The New York Times had sort of just broke. And now you've written some columns and I wanna talk to you about that.
But the first question I actually have in light of this new very crazy, surreal world that we're living in is, if you were still the editor of Buzzfeed News, what would this sort of approach be? How would you assign your reporters, given that many of them can't really go anywhere? And what would the angle be in order to sort of distinguish the coverage?
Smith: I mean, I think we'd be doing sort of exactly what Buzzfeed is doing. My role as editor in moments like this was to send Slacks to my deputy, Ginnie Hughes, (LAUGH) who's the science editor and to Tom Namako, the breaking news chief, and say, "Hey, how about we do this?" And to have them respond either, "We already did that" or, "That's stupid." (LAUGH)
Byers: It's good to hear you brought a lot of added value to the company.
Smith: Yeah. Yeah, that's what editors do. (LAUGH) They distract people doing their jobs. You know, everyone's tryin' to serve their audience. Buzzfeed's audience is younger and more on the internet. So I think if you look at what Buzzfeed's doin' right now, that's, you know, speaking very directly to those folks. Often with humor. You know, including pretty dark humor these days.
And also, of course, I think one of the things that we really did incredibly well and the story that they are certainly winning is the misinformation story, just really staying on top of that in a responsible way that doesn't amplify it.
Byers: Right. I mean, you have covered digital media and digital culture for a long time. And Buzzfeed specifically was, like, you guys very much had and have your finger on the pulse of internet culture and digital culture. And what's so interesting about this time I think is that we are all now, because so many of us are self-isolated or self-quarantined, we are all sort of being forced to move online, or at least interact with the digital world in a very different way than we used to.
And in a strange way, I almost feel like, you know, when you and I talked, you know, we talked about the sort of glory days of Buzzfeed back when, you know, you first joined in 2012 and everything. But now it almost feels like there's this really great moment for Buzzfeed to sort of thrive as the, like, home of, you know, of, like, digital culture coverage.
Smith: Yeah. I mean, it's obviously this incredible flowering of digital culture because there isn't any other culture happening right now. I mean, TikTok has just never been better and is incredible, for instance.
Byers: And Zoom.
Smith: Like, every high school kid is basically under house arrest, (LAUGH) making TikToks. And it's just, like, unbelievable.
Byers: I do sort of feel like the longer this goes on, we're going to come out of this and there will be whole new genres and subgenres of video and group video and things like that that we probably can't even anticipate yet, just because so many kids are gonna have to get really creative in terms of trying to entertain themselves.
Smith: Yeah, I think teachers are gonna get really creative too. And, you know, I mean, like, there're so many great teachers out there, you know, who are internet people and who are good at this stuff and who are thinking really creatively.
And I think because there wasn't the usual sort of, like, top down school district mandate through a government contract with some inept contractor who bribed the superintendent, you know, to give you some budget version of YouTube for, you know, (LAUGH) some enormous price, you just have all these teachers, like, tryin' to figure it out. I'm sure there'll be disasters. But I think there'll probably also be some really kind of amazing innovations in education.
Byers: Right. That's a really great point. And it's not inconceivable to me that the sort of point system that exists online where if you do something great it catches on, that you can conceivably have a teacher for a classroom of, say, you know, 30 kids in upstate New York that then finds themselves making videos for hundreds of kids or thousands of kids across the country because they're doing something right. And in a weird way, these sort of, you know, small, independent would be businesses can somehow flourish in this time.
Smith: Yeah, I'm not sure anybody's makin' any money, but I do think there's just so much creativity across media.
Byers: That's right. And on the misinformation thing, I think you've written three or four columns since you got to The New York Times.
Smith: Feels like either zero or 1,000. (LAUGH) I can't tell.
Byers: One of the recent ones was about your feelings that, when it comes to fighting misinformation and actually doing things right, that you actually feel like companies like Facebook that have been through the ringer of public opinion are actually having a moment where they are doing some things right.
Smith: Yeah. I mean, this is now a controversial opinion. But I think Facebook, YouTube are doing a pretty good job. Companies like Snap that have always been more on top of it. You know, not that there aren't stupid things being passed around. But, you know, would I rather my mom was looking at Facebook than Fox News? Like, yeah.
Byers: Right. Yeah. That's right.
Smith: Yeah, and I think in general, all of their ambivalence about sort of censorship and free speech has been wiped out in the face of a public health crisis, or was initially. There are now emerging kind of close calls when public figures say, you know, unverified things or start speculating about cures that are hard. But I think on balance, they've been really focused on deleting misinformation and driving eyeballs to quality information. And that it's pretty powerful.
Byers: And you spoke to Mark Zuckerberg for that piece. Do you think he views this as a time for Facebook to sort of, you know, flip its own narrative? Did you get the sense that he feels very committed to this sort of fighting misinformation around coronavirus?
Smith: You know, I don't know how they see it in PR terms. You know, I kinda went in thinking, you know, "Are there kind of, like, lessons that you're learning here that will apply to other situations?" And left thinking the answer is no. You know, they're always taking this sort of engineers' mindset to the kind of ambiguous, ironic, complicated world of speech and content.
And they're just always begging for clarity. And there have been so many dumb research projects through the years, trying to kind of classify what is news and what is misinformation, and what is a good tweet and what is a bad tweet in a way that AI can spot it. And has made some progress.
But, you know, this is finally a place where they can say, "Well, the WHO, single, authoritative source has issued definitive guidance. And we're just gonna follow that." And that is what they love. That's what engineers wanna do when it comes to speech and they find it so frustrating to live in the kind of world of grays that you and I inhabit.
Byers: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). Of nuance, yeah.
Smith: And when you say, like, that they're a media company, I mean, really I think what people are asking them to do is not to make calls on truth and falsity in simple areas. But to, you know, engage in what media companies hate to acknowledge, but which is ultimately politics.
Byers: Right. That's right. And if you're a programmer or an engineer, that's the last thing you wanna engage in. (LAUGH) You want hard and fast rules of the road that give you the parameters in which you can.
Smith: Yeah, and I think the problem is that they imagine that there's some neutral ground. And that there's some apolitical neutral ground that is where they happen to standing. But, of course, there isn't. There's nothing neutral. All their decisions have consequences. And that's just so hard for them to wrestle with. You know, "Don't drink bleach" is really easy for them to wrestle with.
Byers: That's right. Right. Which is, you know, actually, thinking of Fox News, it's, like, an entirely different calculation. You know, so Trish Regan on Fox Business, her show has effectively gone away in the wake of her saying that coronavirus was part of, like, a liberal impeachment effort.
But part of the reason she goes away is it's almost like a ratings calculation, which is, like, she might be dispensable. Whereas some of, like, the misinformation coming from primetime hosts, they can't afford to get rid of those people. They can't afford to get rid of, say, a Sean Hannity.
Smith: And there's no indication that they want to. I mean, the first time anybody--
Smith: --ever heard of Trish Regan was when her show got canceled. (LAUGH) I mean, I think the--
Byers: That's exactly right.
Smith: --overwhelming response was, "Who is this? She has a show?"
Byers: Yes, that's right. That's right. But I feel like, in terms of thinking about misinformation, I agree with the thesis that more sort of traditional outlets such as, like, partisan cable news are actually far more dangerous than the social media outlets, which are actually able to get this right, despite having not been able to get the misinformation problem right in the past because those lines are so hard and fast.
Byers: But your column generally has sort of flipped conventional wisdom on its head in terms of how we think about these things. Like, you're out there defending Facebook and YouTube for doing a good job. I think in your most recent column, you said that everything that New Yorkers hate about Andrew Cuomo is actually exactly what we need in this moment.
Smith: Yeah, it's true. Actually, Facebook is good, actually, Andrew Cuomo is good. (LAUGH) Oh gosh, I feel like whatever I say here is a joke I shouldn't tell. (LAUGH) Never mind.
Byers: Yeah, that's right. You'll be in trouble.
Smith: Yeah. I don't know. (LAUGH) Actually, Trish Regan did a great (LAUGH) job.
Byers: The wave of response that I got, and we talk about this in our original recording which people will be able to hear in a matter of minutes, but, like, the wave of response to the news that you were going to The New York Times to be the media columnist, quite a few people were, like, really excited that you were going to do something there and say something different.
That you had a really smart understanding of the media industry. And I think you've demonstrated that. And I think the thesis about the tech companies is right. The thesis about Cuomo is probably right. Your first column, you sort of praised your new employer, which is probably a smart career move (LAUGH) in terms of that.
Smith: Just tryin' to buy myself a little breathing room here, Dylan. (LAUGH)
Byers: But you made a good point about the sort of power that The New York Times has.
Smith: I'm not sure I was praising them. I'm not sure this is a good thing.
Byers: You said they had been extremely successful and powerful which, I feel like if I told that to my employer, they'd be, like, "Oh, thank you."
Smith: (LAUGH) How NBC threatens to devour the entire landscape. Disney is shaking in its boots.
Byers: But no, you've sort of flipped some conventional wisdom. And I think it's been illuminating for some people. I think, you know, people are also waiting for you to, I don't know, twist the knife in someone or stir the pot or piss someone off. Are you allowed to, like, piss anyone off during coronavirus?
Smith: That is--
Byers: Are things too sensitive?
Smith: --a great question. I mean, I think that this is probably not the moment. I mean, my impression is nobody wants to read a column that's, like, "Hey, forget about coronavirus. There's this other thing happening in media that sucks," you know? Like, there's only one story in the world right now. And so all the stories are about coronavirus. I think that there are lots of people screwing up. I don't know. I think that there's not infinite appetite for sort of minor finger pointing right now either. Like, I think there is a sense of, like, "How can we fix this." Right?
Byers: That's right, yeah.
Smith: And so I don't know. I'm not a media critic. I'm a reporter. And (LAUGH) on the other hand, I was talking to one of my kinda gurus, who's a long time media writer who I won't quote by name here, who was warning me against sort of writing the profile of a small Kentucky newsroom where they're, you know, they're doin' great work in hard times just 'cause that story's gettin' written a lot too. He also said to me that the thing we really need to watch out for is when The New York Times does a column on virtual seders. That's when we'll (LAUGH) know it's time for us all to hang it up.
Byers: Don't write that column.
Smith: With recipes. (LAUGH)
Byers: Well, two things are happening in media before coronavirus, that'll probably be happening after coronavirus, which is there's a lot of really significant change happening in the business, which is sort of very exciting to cover in reshaping the world.
And then it's also, you know, media's just a pretty gossipy space. There's a lot of palace intrigue. And there's a lot of stories behind the story that I think you try to get at. And now, it's all hands on deck for coronavirus. And so as a media columnist, let's say this last for six months, let's say it lasts for a year.
Smith: As a media columnist, as a sports reporter, as a wine columnist, I mean, I think a lotta journalists right now are trying to figure out what their jobs are. And maybe that's a column for me.
Byers: (LAUGH) That's a good column.
Smith: I mean, as this wears on, the economic story which is touching every industry, is certainly touching media. I mean, if you're--
Byers: Yes, big time.
Smith: --in the advertising business, which both of our companies are to a degree, and which some companies are more, some less, I mean, it's gonna be a horrible year. You know, like, Rich Greenfield sent around a list of the top 60 advertisers. Twelve are car companies. You know, and nobody's gonna be buying cars. So it's, like, you know, I think airplanes, hotels.
Byers: Yeah. And you look at a company like Disney, every single aspect of their business is exposed. And that goes, you know, from theme parks, to theatrical distribution, to, like, a company like ESPN, which is now, because there are no live sports for the foreseeable future, who's broadcasting, like, cherry spitting contests and hamburger eating contests from 2006. And that's really disastrous for the entire television industry.
Smith: Right. And this was a industry that was booming. And it was planning to take its kind of fat profits and plunge them into these streaming services like, you know, Disney Plus and Peacock and all the others that were kind of their bet on the future. And they could comfortably do that without making hard choices because they have all this cash around. That's no longer true.
Byers: That's true.
Smith: I mean, I think there's gonna be a trickle down to the sort of big streaming story. You know, I think but also people are gonna be poorer. So are they gonna pay for as many subscriptions, consumers? Like every other industry, people are gonna have less money and be buying less.
On the other hand, you know, we're all just stuck home, consuming media. I think once we kinda catch our breath and start to adapt to this new reality, there are business stories. And then I think the media's role in public health is really fascinating.
As editor, I was always probably wrongly oversensitive to these arguments that Dave Cohen would make about mass shootings. That basically, by reporting on them, we encourage future shooters. And that suicide advocacy groups make about, you know, the way you write about suicide can influence. You can sort of encourage copycat attacks.
And I think journalists, like, hate that kind of argument because I think we see our role as, "Look, we're just telling the truth. If we start obsessing about the consequences, it'll distort our journalism." But it's also just obviously true that, in public health situations, (LAUGH) media can kill people.
You know, media can save lives. And I think that's something that it's sort of outside what journalists spend most of their time thinking about and is really uncomfortable for a lot of us. And I think that's a really interesting story.
Byers: Right. I do feel like the familiar players, The New York Times, The Washington Post, et cetera down the list, I do feel like people have been sort of remarkably responsible and have also been pretty adept at simultaneously doing the reporting and telling the story and also almost serving as, I don't know, a database for guides.
Like, you know, The New York Times, which simultaneously is telling you what's going on with the federal government response, is also giving you like a, "Hey, here are tips for parents who are at home with their kids now all of a sudden all day." There's sort of this service journalism that's going on for everyone too in a way that I have found profoundly helpful.
Smith: That's partly 'cause you have great sports reporters, great food writers, you know, who are looking to contribute.
Byers: That's right, yeah.
Smith: And are doing a great job at stuff kind of outside their traditional lens. And then I think, you know, broadly, like, you know, I mean, we're just starting to kind of grapple with the extent to which this is, you know, a real economic crisis. And that's gonna hit every industry. And it's gonna hit our industry.
And, you know, that's gonna mean job losses. It's gonna mean that institutions that were already really weak, particularly ones that relied on ads, particularly ones that relied on ads for, like, live events, you know, Josh Benton's been writing about how catastrophic it is for alt-weeklies. Though it's interesting. The guy who runs Pico, this small subscription company, little, local outlets are seeing a ton of interest in people signing up because they wanna know what's going on in their county.
Byers: Right, interesting.
Smith: And the big, you know, big, big national outlets, you know, are seeing this huge surge of attention. You know, I think in the same way, this has been true for a long time. It's a really challenging moment for these medium sized places still very dependent on advertising, trying frantically to replace that advertising with subscriptions in time. I think that whole crisis just accelerates.
Byers: Yeah, yeah. A lotta of these businesses which are already treading water, they can't withstand, you know, going a month or two months without any business, let alone if this thing actually drags on, you know, for six, 12, 18 months. I think the amount of businesses that could potentially go under if this becomes a protracted crisis, I think the world is going to look very different when we come out the other end.
Smith: Yeah, for sure. And I think when you start talking about bailouts and sort of measures to sustain businesses, you know, there's a logic to doing it with restaurants, which are going to reopen and people are gonna go to restaurants without their businesses being kind of fundamentally altered.
I think the challenge in our business is that things are changing so fast that the ad supported news outlets were already, particularly the print ones, were, you know, in so much trouble. It's not like in the best case, those ads ever come back in a lotta cases.
Byers: Right. That's right. Yeah. And, you know, even when you get into the subscription businesses, going back into Hollywood for a moment, I think there was this initial feeling that, with everyone at home, everyone was just gonna be watching Netflix and Amazon and they would exhaust that content.
And so therefore, they would sign up for Peacock and HBO Now. And as you point out, first of all, people are gonna be making less money, or no money. And they're gonna have to make some hard decisions about what they can afford. And then on top of that, the content pipeline for all of these companies is gonna freeze up. So they're not gonna have any new shows.
And I think that's why I get back to thinking very broadly about what people are doing with their time while we're all sitting at home. I actually think that the most creative, fun stuff and where we're all gonna find ourself is with sort of more democratized user generated content online. Like the teachers or the kids who are creating sort of new forms of entertainment on Zoom or on, you know, FaceTime or whatever. But we'll see. I don't know. That's--
Smith: We'll see.
Byers: --sorta the big question.
Smith: Yeah. I don't know. My one, big coronavirus prep or purchase was I read somewhere that, like, one of the big risk factors is that people were getting really bored and going out and doing stupid (BEEP). So I (LAUGH) bought my kids a Play Station and that's been getting a lotta (LAUGH) use.
Byers: Videogames, which were already doing extremely well, are going to do even more well now. I haven't played a videogame in, like, ten years. I think now could be the time.
Smith: No, I haven't played Mortal Combat, like, since some, you know, prehistoric (LAUGH) version. And, man, like--
Byers: That's right.
Smith: --those graphics are awesome.
Byers: No, it's changed a lot--
Smith: My daughter, like, beat the crap (LAUGH) out of me. But, you know, it's, yeah.
Byers: All right, man. (MUSIC) That was my conversation with Ben Smith from last week. What follows is part of the conversation we had back in January before coronavirus hit, where we addressed some of the more evergreen issues facing the industry.
(MUSIC) So in terms of writing specifically about middle, I mean, this is where I should explain, there was a very brief period where I worked for you.
Smith: Yeah, it felt like a really long phase (LAUGH) to me.
Byers: Was it that hard for you, to hire me and employ me? You hired me to write about media on your blog, which was, like, a very big deal at the time in American politics and in D.C. Like, Politico was a big deal. And you hired me specifically to cover the media beat, which I think you were early to identify that media and the people who covered the news were actually increasingly a very big part of the news. Obviously, a lot's changed between when you hired me in 2011 and now in 2020 in terms of the sort of confluence of media and politics. Like, how are you gonna approach this new job? What are you gonna write about?
Smith: Yeah, you know, I think I learned from Peter Kaplan at The New York Observer, you know, that there's no clear line, particularly in politics, but really in many areas, between the media and the thing they cover. And that line is artificial. And that if you ignore it, the story's often much more interesting.
And right, at Politico, I guess I had started to see the beat steering into being a media beat. That these things were merging. And so I found this, you know? This, you know, aggressive, young reporter to help me cover it. You know, it's a little like the way technology is now 'cause there's no such thing as a tech beat.
Byers: Every company is a tech company?
Smith: Many business stories are tech stories. Many of the most interesting things happening at manufacturing companies, at security companies, at all sorts of different companies are basically about technological transformation. And I think in some ways, the same thing is true of media.
You know, that the stories about media that are most interesting to me are the ones that are sort of where you take the live wired media and you cross it with something else, whether it's politics or tech or culture or, you know, or business. But it's where the media story intersects with another live wire of the culture.
Byers: I feel like there's an advantage in the sort of confluence of media and everything in tech and everything. But at the same time, it also makes it harder to write about because you were perhaps writing about what everyone's writing about. Like, what is a great story that you would dive into over the course--
Smith: I'm not gonna tell you that.
Byers: --of the next six months? Come on. (LAUGH)
Smith: What if I've either already written it or I'm about to write it? I have this, like, long, scribbled out list in a Google doc now that I've, you know, just over the last 24 hours. But, you know, I've written a lotta media stories in my career. I think it was funny to see The New York Times put editorial board interviews on TV this year because last cycle, a great media story, from my perspective, was that The New York Times had had a off the record with Donald Trump where he said different stuff about the wall than he had said in public.
And it's, like, I think, you know, why is that meeting an off the record meeting that isn't news in a way that every other off the record meeting is news? Like, you know, I think there's this odd presumption in American journalism that there are, like, certain places the light should not shine, which is, like, inside our offices. And that that's often where the best stuff is happening.
Byers: I think there's a really weird thing about covering the media in any capacity, as someone who is employed by a media organization, which is that you are often keenly aware that there is the version of what's happening as you read it in print or read it online, and then there's the version of, like, what's actually happening when you go out to the bar with your colleagues and talk about what's going on. How do you, like, bridge the gap?
Smith: That's the story you wanna write. I mean, you want your audience to have the story that is the story everybody's talkin' about, but won't write. I mean, that's always the story. I mean, but when we started at Politico, that was I think John Harris, the editor there's view, of the political story you should be writing is the one that, like, everybody in the newsroom kinda knows and is talkin' about, but would never think to write. That's the story.
Byers: Yes. He was very good at that. "You know more than you think you know. And what you're hearing and what's sort of in the bloodstream of the conversations you're having is actually the story."
Smith: And some of it's about respect for the audience. (LAUGH) You shouldn't be sayin' one thing to your friends and another thing to your audience.
Byers: Right. But this gets really hard because then there are things like standards and fact checking and sensitivities.
Smith: Well, I mean, if what you're saying to your friends is, like, false, scurrilous gossip, like, you probably shouldn't be sayin' that to your friends either.
Byers: Right, of course. I guess what I'm saying is you are going to have a higher bar, it seems to me, in the pages of The New York Times, to write something. You're not gonna be able to write off of speculation or off of, you know, a few sort of leads and tips in your general, like, instinct. It seems to me like it's gonna require a higher level of reporting than perhaps writing a column for Buzzfeed might or even for your blog at Politico.
Smith: Yeah. I mean, I think I came up blogging, which in a way, it's not so much to me that the standards, like, you gotta have a true fact in there. The fact has to be true and confirmed and no more, no less. I mean, I do think that David really created this platform there.
And I think Jim Rutenberg did some great stories in that platform as well. That, like, you know, that was really a place where you could really get people's attention, get them to focus on the industry. I think I'll have a learning curve for sure.
I'm sort of nervous about how to figure out how to write for that space. I mean, I've spent my entire life competing against The New York Times from a million different other publications. But obviously, it has this centrality in American media.
And I think actually, part of the challenge for me is to not get, like, scared of my own shadow when I'm there. And not listen to you when you say, "Oh well, this is The New York Times. You can't go writing, like, the sort of things you used to write. You have to write extremely boring (LAUGH) things."
Byers: Right. But the goal, I mean, truly, is to be interesting. And I say this with profound respect for all of my colleagues who cover media, but the media beat, if you live it, if you work in this world, there're a lot of really fascinating stories. And there is good gossip that actually does check out if you do the work.
And yet, it is sort of rare and hard to find a really good, great scoop-y piece of media journalism these days that really sort of moves the needle and gets everyone talking the way that, say, David Carr did back when he wrote the column.
Smith: Yeah. I mean, I think it's just a noisy, noisy environment. And I think, you know, I guess my experience here has been the two ways that a story cuts through is that either you write about the thing everyone is already talking about, or you do the story we're just gonna talk about. And there's nothing in the middle.
So it's you either got to take head on and have something new to say and hopefully new reporting on the central story in the country, which could be impeachment or could be, like, the dinosaur song this week. (LAUGH) You know, like, I mean, it could be something fun. But has to be something big, everybody's talking about, wants to know more about. Or on the other hand, you can break a big story and make people talk.
Byers: So let's talk about the business and the industry and what you've learned from advertising. And let's start actually with Buzzfeed. This is my sort of view from 30,000 feet about Buzzfeed. Before they hired you, they were a site that sort of shared, and this is dismissive, but effectively cat memes and listicles and things like that.
And when they hired you, they got seemingly overnight, news credibility. I mean, over the course of the 2012 election cycle, you turned it into something that people had to take seriously, you had scoops. Some people would even call it the Buzzfeed election.
And news became a really important part about how Buzzfeed sort of marketed itself as a credible news organization. My understanding is that Buzzfeed News specifically was never necessarily profitable. And that the business today, there are all sorts of revenue streams for the business.
Everything from video advertising, to commerce. I mean, you guys have websites that sell cookware, brand partnerships, things like that. And that news is not necessarily the most essential part of that equation. And that therefore, yet another reason why it might be the logical time for you to move on. Would you agree with that characterization?
Smith: Almost none of it. You know, Buzzfeed follows web culture. We're sort of a creature of the internet. And when the culture of social media, which back in 2011, 2012 had gone from being sharing pictures of your babies and your pet, to other people's babies and other people's really cute, pets. That was a long time ago and a different world.
And I think what my boss Jonah saw coming was that a big part of the internet conversation, social media, was gonna be news. It was starting to be. And now, obviously, to, you know, many people's dismay, there's a lot of it out there. And he was really ahead of that curve. And that was sort of the theory on which we build a news organization.
Well, I mean, initially, it was really a native advertising business. So it's a little hard to calculate where the revenue from the rest of the media business comes. But news has never been, you know, the highest ROI part of the business. It's not profitable on a standalone basis now.
You know, but Jonah and the board, you know, have invested in it for a reason and I think feel that it's a really valuable part of the brand. We've also, over the last couple of years, focused on the business of news. That's been a big part of my job. You know, and it made progress. So I would say actually that that's not why I'm leaving. You know, if I'm was gonna leave, you know, because I felt it was gonna be a hard business cycle, I woulda left last year.
Byers: And there were layoffs.
Smith: And we had to do layoffs last year, which sucked. You know, and I think we feel like we're in a pretty strong position this year. Like, the news organization is built to last. The company, you know, actually has diversified revenue, which is not the sorta thing I used to get excited about. But actually, (LAUGH) it turns out, you know, if you can get that, that's what you want.
Byers: It's funny how exciting that can be.
Smith: Yeah, it can be really exciting. (LAUGH) And feels, you know, like we're in a pretty stable place. You know, we had a lot of really great journalism last year. And toward the end of the year, you know, stable office environment. But it was a tough year. And I think as things stabilized, I just kinda realized that I sorta wanted to do something different personally.
Byers: So I wanna get back to the business, talking about other media businesses as well. You have done over the course of I guess now it's been eight, nine years?
Smith: Eight years and 28 days.
Byers: Who's counting? Some really great journalism. And again, you have inserted yourself into the conversation of the news, and particularly political news, in a way that few upstarts have done. There was one particular controversial moment which was you--
Smith: Only one. (LAUGH)
Byers: I mean, there might've been a few. But there was one that sort of stood high above the rest, which was the publish of the Steele dossier, which other news organizations, my news organization, NBC News, The New York Times, did not publish because they didn't feel like it had been verified.
Smith: I mean, it hadn't been verified. That wasn't just a feeling.
Byers: Right, correct. Now, you know, all these many months later, how do you feel about that decision?
Smith: I mean, I never have had any doubts about that decision. I think it is so clear in retrospect that it would've been just impossible to have the public conversation we've had over the last few years about Donald Trump and Russia without understanding the source of allegations.
This wasn't something that wound up in my email inbox and I just published. This was something that was circulating at the highest levels of government, that senators, that intelligence officials, you know, hadn't just read, but were sort of acting on.
Like, if you wanted in that moment in the beginning of 2017 to understand the way in which John McCain was acting toward Donald Trump, which was a matter of, like, pretty important public interest, that was the explanation. And, you know, and then if you wanted that spring to understand this, as (LAUGH) it now feels like ancient history, but there was this kind of nuclear war between Adam Schiff and Devin Nunes.
The notion that you would say, "Well, they're having a fight. It's about a document. We're not gonna tell you what that document is. Just, like, kinda look away from Congress for a while 'cause it's inappropriate to look too closely at what your public elected officials are doing." I mean, it becomes impossible to imagine.
Like, there was just no world where the thing at the center of this, which was being used apparently to get FISA warrants, you know, that was, as a judge ruled, a document of the public interest, should stay secret and we should all be dancing around it. I think it's really important when you make a editorial decision.
You're not gaming out the politics. Like, we didn't think, like, "I wonder how this is gonna play. You know, is this gonna help who" or, you know? And I think there's sort of an open question of who it helps. But I think it's really corrosive when you have the notion that what you really oughta do is say, "I have in my hand a document," this was CNN's approach, "that makes dark and mysterious allegations about the president of the United States and they're very, very shocking.
"And God, you know, they said he's been compromised. I mean, I can barely look at this. But you know what? You can't see it." Like, that's Joe McCarthy. That's really irresponsible. You know, I respect the point of view that is, "We are going to pretend this thing doesn't exist." That seems a little strange to me.
And I respect the decision to publish it, the notion. But once you start talking about it, which was at that moment, bizarrely, the establishment media position, The New York Times, CNN. They were saying, "We're gonna say there's a secret document. We're gonna characterize the secret document."
Byers: "And we may even know what it is, but we're not gonna tell you what it is."
Smith: Yeah, "We're gonna characterize it in, like, quite a bit of detail and tell you exactly how sinister it is." That's just an incoherent--
Byers: So this gets--
Byers: --back to the point you were making earlier, which is about closing that gap between what reporters know and what reporters are talking about and what they tell the public.
Smith: Yeah, that's right.
Byers: Yeah, which is you and I think this has been the sort of MO at Buzzfeed is you lean on the side of publication. You lean on the sense that reporters aren't necessarily any more entitled to the facts or the truth available to you than the public are.
Smith: Yeah, and I think, you know, that's partly my instinct and what I think is the right thing to do. It's also certainly, like, different news organizations have different roles to play in the ecosystem. And I should say this specifically doesn't apply to the dossier. That's a pretty specific situation.
But on the kind of broader question of do you have to have the receipts, The New York Times, you know, has been around for a long time and built a lotta trust over 100-and-some years and can say, "Trust us. We're The New York Times." Buzzfeed, whether we wanted to do that or not--
Byers: (LAUGH) "Don't trust us."
Smith: --was not in a position to say, "Hey, you may know us for our lists but, like, we got this secret. Trust us." Like, no. We have to say, "Here's the document."
Byers: Could you have published it in a list with, like, gifs and that?
Smith: Man, that is (LAUGH) such an old joke. (SIGH)
Byers: You know, I have respect for the organization.
Smith: No, no, yeah. No, no, no, I know. I feel like I'm finally around to roll my eyes at list jokes after all these years (MUSIC) of just kinda takin' them.
Byers: We'll be back right after this. (MUSIC) Throughout this whole time, you have done very seriously journalism and you've done very silly journalism. And this is all in the past. This is years ago.
Smith: Well, we still do. (UNINTEL PHRASE). Look at the site today.
Byers: No, no, but, I mean--
Smith: There's all sorts of really silly stuff.
Byers: --the jokes. I think people know what Buzzfeed is. It's a known quantity. The joke stopped years ago.
Smith: Right, but you work for NBC Universal. And you do very serious journalism. And honestly, I get confused (LAUGH) about who makes which show 'cause it's all streaming to me and I'm not gonna guess. But I feel like there're some comedies and maybe even some things that are fictional produced by your media company. That must be very confusing for your viewers when it transitions from the very serious evening news to something that isn't even true.
Byers: Right, this is an important point.
Smith: I don't know how your people understand that.
Byers: But this a really good point, which was people got very used to the idea that they could simultaneously watch Lester Holt, which is very serious, and then later, you know, the next night they could watch Saturday Night Live, and in between there could be all sorts of manner of dramatic, scripted programming.
Smith: Yeah. And I think the internet, you know, it was sort of wide open and new. And the conventions weren't clear. You know, it's interesting. I think people for a while thought, "Wow, this is great. Everything's mixed up." That was our experience. And, like, the Facebook newsfeed where you just get a mix of everything you like is kind of great.
And then I think, clearly, there was a really real backlash to that over the last few years. You know, we reacted to that by branding our news content much, much more clearly, having Buzzfeed News be a different URL than Buzzfeed.com, things like that. I don't think it was necessarily that it was a mistake to mix them up and then the right move to switch them, but just that the moment changed and what our audience wanted changed.
Byers: Right. So Buzzfeed is a handful of digital media sites that seems to have weathered the storm of the last decade of digital media. I would count Vox in that list. Who's around in the digital media space that launched in the 21st century? Who's around in five years and who's not?
Smith: You know, it's interesting. I mean, I think really the answer is that the notion that there's something called digital media is dissolving, right? Like, Vox now includes New York Magazine. The New York Times is a great digital organization. When I watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine on an app, is that digital or is that (UNINTEL)? I think the distinctions are actually the (UNINTEL).
Byers: I would agree, but I would also counter that when I was writing media for your blog back around the time you went to Buzzfeed, there was a very real discussion about are outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post and even NBC News, are these outlets doomed because there are all these upstarts who are coming and radically changing the game of media, whether you were talking about Buzzfeed or Politico or anyone--
Smith: And I think what you saw was that these outlets, which had incredible strengths, had built incredible trust through the years, incredible journalists working there, had gotten really complacent. And these digital outlets came and took advantage of, you know, their snobbery and skepticism about a new medium and the institutional changes to change. And they have mostly, in many ways, caught up. And are competing on a more level playing field. I mean, in a way, it's almost like you wanna talk about, like, new media companies versus old ones because it's 'cause they're all digital.
Byers: They're all digital, right.
Smith: NBC has a great--
Byers: No, that's what I mean.
Byers: New verse (SIC) legacy?
Smith: Yeah. And in fact, like, the people too have cross-populated so fully now that, you know, we have folks who used to work at The New York Times. I'm told there's a Slack at The Times called Buzz Friends of, like, ex Buzzfeed people that I've been invited to join. Like, there's a lotta cross-pollination.
But I do think that they have different challenges, right? Like, some of the older companies have, and particularly on the television side, revenue streams I think whose power I underestimated. And I think as we've gotten into streaming and done a lot of cool stuff on video and digital sort of TV, it's still just the sheer leverage that you have if you're getting cable affiliate fees, you know, is just so massive in that space.
It's easy for outsiders to underestimate the incumbent advantages there. You know, there're great, great organizations. The Economist, The FT, places I really admire, that are very dependent on a print business. And obviously, it's, I mean, "distracting" isn't the right word, but just a huge part of their next 20, 30 years is gonna be figuring out how to shift from a print business to a purely digital business. And that's a huge challenge.
Byers: And also shift from an advertising business to subscription. I mean, I know they already subscriptions.
Smith: Yeah, although I think that, you know, these pendulums again swing. I think right now, obviously swinging toward subscriptions. I don't think the advertising industry's gonna go away. You know, I think that, you know, (LAUGH) as we said before, successful media companies tend to be diversified so that when the pendulum swings from one business to the other, you're in both of them.
Byers: Okay. But so to go back to the original question, and you don't have to call it print verse digital, but let's call it legacy media verse new media, who among the crop of new media companies that came up around the time of Buzzfeed, Vox, Vice, whatever, who gets to stick around? And who lasts? And then, you know, who sort of fades away and folds?
Smith: Oh, I mean, I think Buzzfeed, Vice and Vox occupy important parts of the landscape.
Byers: And do you think they'll ever, 'cause your boss Jonah Peretti had floated this at one point, that there might be a sort of merger of these companies?
Smith: Yeah. I mean, you know, it's funny. The media business is so much the deal business. There're always whispers about acquisitions and mergers and, you know, who knows.
Byers: You know, there're down days. You gotta dig, scrape the bottom of the well.
Smith: I mean, I think these properties and these brands and these sort of voices are important. I mean, you know, Disney owns ESPN. So, I mean, it's possible, you know, for transactional stuff to happen in the background. You know, I think it's really, really hard to predict that stuff.
And right now, it's, like, just these enormous, multibillion dollar public companies are all kind of lumbering around, eyeing each other. And, like, there's a whole bunch of sort of courtship and mating happening among these sort of titans before the smaller companies start gettin' kinda eyed by these kind of engorged giants.
Byers: Right. When you joined Buzzfeed, I think there was a really sort of insightful understanding among the founders about the way that Facebook worked and how much Facebook was going to dominate ad revenue. And therefore, you know, making content that had the potential to go viral, that people wanted to share. What is your sort of near to midterm view on the relationship between Facebook, Google and publishers?
Smith: So I would say that the founder Jonah Peretti's real insight wasn't so much about the platform, it was about people. And that people were moving to social media and that the challenge was to think about what will they share on the social media. I mean, that was sort of what he opened my eyes to.
I mean, I think the platforms, you know, have changed so much. The social platforms are becoming a little less social and I think are trying to think about, "Can we have a public news site separate from our private encrypted messaging site," and sort of to split those things.
Like, I think Facebook feels like they've been, like, kinda getting the worst in PR terms. I mean, their business is great. If a terror suspect texts another terror suspect, nobody says, "AT&T is a terror platform." They're just a messaging service. You know, the things that are basically private communications, they're getting blamed as though they were public.
And then meanwhile, when somebody posts something false, they're being treated like they're a media company that posted something false. And I think in some sense, they're accepting that those are two different things and saying, "Hey, actually, we are on one hand a messaging service, on the other hand a much smaller media platform."
I think time will tell on whether that was the right choice. But I do think that you're seeing one of the consequences of that. They're saying, "And we're gonna basically vouch for certain publishers. We're gonna pay to have their content on the site--"
Byers: This is the Facebook news tab?
Smith: Yeah, you see it on Facebook. But it's been reported that Snap is thinking about similar things. There's this platform called Smart News that's syndicating content. I think, in a way, Google and YouTube are at this point, the only major platform that's really, really dead set on never paying anybody a time. And it's just taking news for free.
Byers: And you and I have talked about this before, but there is this sort of funny thing where the news industry got really mad at Facebook and hated Facebook for the way that they had sort of disrupted the business and put them at what they would argue is a disadvantage.
And then all of a sudden, after many years of scandal and controversy and dealing with that pressure, Mark Zuckerberg came back and was, like, "Hey, we're gonna pay you not a ton, but we'll pay you a little bit of money for your news that'll make a difference." And now all of a sudden, there's this weird thing where they're sort of seen more a little bit as, like, friends of publishers. And therefore, like, there's pressure on Google to start pumping up.
Smith: I don't think if you read the coverage of Facebook you would say, "Wow. Like, they just paid a little money to publishers. Now they're gettin' great press."
Byers: No, no, not at all.
Smith: If that was the idea, it didn't really work out. I don't know if that's the idea. But one of the criticisms of Facebook, right, was they're taking all this content, they're making money off it, and they're not kicking anything back to the people who are making it.
And the best way to answer that critique was actually just to pay the publishers. (LAUGH) So I think, like, in some sense, was that to stop criticism? Like, yeah. It was a good way to stop criticism. The criticism was valid. And they addressed it.
Byers: No, I don't think they were tryin' to buy better coverage.
Smith: Some people saw it that way. Not an unreasonable way to see it. But I don't think you've really seen that.
Byers: I mean, you brought up Google and YouTube not paying people. I guess what I'm asking is, now that Facebook has done it, is there pressure on Google to do it?
Smith: Yeah. For a long time they would say, "Well, it's impossible. You know, it's just too complicated. We obviously need to take people's stories to make our platform stickier and have people come. And when you do a search for something, you get news results. You know what? It would be too complicated to pay those people.
"Like, we certainly have lots of projects about sending robots to space. But paying publishers, like, that's too complicated." And Facebook, by the way, a much smaller company, like, by staff, has figured it out. It makes it much harder for Google to say it's, like, a technical issue. Like, "I don't know, Facebook figured it out. You guys could probably figure it out." (MUSIC)
Byers: Thanks for takin' the time.
Smith: Thank you.
Byers: That was Ben Smith, former of Buzzfeed and now media columnist at The New York Times. Byers Market is a production of NBC News and is produced by Janocki Meta (PH) with help from Tanner Robbins of Neon Hum Media. The show is engineered by Scott Somerville (PH). Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of podcasts for NBC News and I'm Dylan Byers. Thanks for listening.