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Ben Smith Talks Digital Media’s Death Dive: ‘You Could Feel That Moment Coming to an End’ | Video

With Vice facing down bankruptcy, BuzzFeed News going up in smoke and too many digital media companies to count in the media graveyard, it’s clear that an era has ended. Ben Smith has been handmaiden to and chronicler of the digital media revolution in this century. The rise of the Huffington Post, Breitbart.com, Drudge and most importantly BuzzFeed, where he was editor in chief, led to his book out this week, “Traffic: Genius, Rivalry and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral.” He’s now also the editor-in-chief of Semafor, a new digital media company focused on global politics and financial news.

“You could feel that moment coming to an end,” he said of the pioneering days of digital media and his impulse to write “Traffic.” At his heart, he remains a media junkie, and talked to WaxWord about it all, including what he calls what “will be looked upon as like the dumbest decision in the history of digital media” — not selling BuzzFeed to the Walt Disney Company for $600 million.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

For me, this book is total catnip — the behind-the-scenes of how sites like BuzzFeed, Huffington Post and Breitbart came to be. Let’s start with why you wrote this.
After I left BuzzFeed, I went and became the media columnist at the New York Times. I was writing a column a week, but it was during the pandemic, and I guess that gave me a little bit of time to think. I wound up wondering, like, “What the hell just happened?’”

Starting in about 2004, I was working in the blogosphere, as it was then known, and then in digital media. And you could sort of feel that moment coming to an end, although it wasn’t as final as it has been for the last few weeks. And I guess it prompted me to think about what just happened, and where did it start.

One of the things about when you get to a scene, whenever you arrive, everybody says, “Oh, man, the really good times were last year and the year before, and you’re too late.” And I certainly had that feeling, having been a young reporter in New York on the internet, and actually copying a lot of what Gawker did in my political reporting. I was at City Hall covering Mike Bloomberg. And then going to Politico in 2007, which again was a parallel universe a bit.

And then when I got to BuzzFeed in 2012, I realized that there had been this whole world that grew up in lower Manhattan, and that my boss, Jonah Peretti, was looking over his shoulder at Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker. They had this very real rivalry.

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At that time, 2004, for myself, I had just joined the New York Times. I was friends with Arianna Huffington and I was at the party that opens the book, where she throws a cocktail party for Nick Denton, and he stood up in front of her fireplace at that party to speak. And I hated Gawker, because I was a target, being at the New York Times and writing about media and Hollywood. Andrew Breitbart always told me that he started Huffington Post, but I didn’t know how much to believe him. (Fact check: He was an early editor.) And then, in your book it turns out he’s moonlighting the whole time for Drudge Report? 
One of the really interesting things is to go back and sort of put yourself in the mindset where Arianna, who is starting a left-wing rival to the Drudge Report — it makes sense for her to hire the guy who runs the Drudge Report to do it, because in that moment, the left-right politics were less polarized and less intense. And the thing that felt so distinct was, well, here’s the internet, and we’re on the internet over here, and that’s left-wingers and right-wingers and other weirdos. But, yeah, they’re all sort of opposed to the establishment media.

Two things: First, how stodgy the legacy media was. If you went to the website of a Condé Nast magazine, what you got was an offer to subscribe to the print version of that magazine. And that was it, totally, while they would email around a PDF of an article. And the New York Times, the big television networks — they had websites but they weren’t engaged with an online conversation. And then they were also in that period coming out of the Iraq War, when I think a lot of people felt like these big media organizations had totally discredited themselves. And so yeah, there was a lot of openness to an interest in other voices.

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So let’s take a step back to BuzzFeed where you ended up, and you, of course, were part of this digital media revolution. And in a lot of ways, I would argue that BuzzFeed was the poster child for taking power away, or the ambition of taking power away, from legacy media. And it’s quite tragic to see what’s happened, the shuttering of BuzzFeed News. When you were writing this book, were you aware of this dynamic as it was happening? 
We’d made this huge bet on social media. BuzzFeed was really built for the social media moment. And Jonah Peretti was the CEO who had seen it coming before anybody else. This tidal wave that totally swept through not just media, but society and all of our lives, of Facebook, first of all, but also Twitter and Pinterest and this whole different way of distributing information and media.

The core underlying idea was that this was a moment like the birth of cable in the ’80s. And that, just as the cable operators had needed content and had created an ecosystem in which there were dozens of really healthy, interesting businesses, you know, doing really cool stuff, MTV, ESPN, things like that, that there will be new media companies and new content companies that would grow up in these new pipes, this new distribution. And that was wrong.

I think you can argue about whether that was delusional and always doomed, or whether that was the decisions that people like Mark Zuckerberg made — the allegiance to user-generated content above everything.

But I think now you can look back and particularly from a Hollywood perspective: Would you rather be like the blue Facebook app? Or would you rather be Netflix? You’d rather be Netflix.

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Can you say today from where you sit that there was a point or a choice at BuzzFeed that could have been made that might have led to a different outcome for the company? 
Certainly. I think we started getting intimations of it in 2016-2017. We were totally aware of this huge dependency on Facebook. And so we were trying to move audience to other platforms, to email, to YouTube, to all over the place, with varying success. But the scale of Facebook was so immense and everything else was so relatively small.

If we’d have seen the future coming, we would have moved more quickly toward this. Well, honestly, we were probably spending more money on journalism. We had a theory of what this social media ecosystem was going to be able to support and it wasn’t there.

And at no point can you go to Mark Zuckerberg, sit down with him and say, “Look, you are the linchpin of our business, let’s be partners.
Jonah more than anyone was doing that every year. Toward the end of December, he would have this long conversation with Mark Zuckerberg who had tried to hire him when I arrived at BuzzFeed.

Yeah, Jonah had just turned down an offer from Facebook. That was basically an acqui-hire, he would have come to run [the Facebook] News Feed. So he had this very open channel to Zuckerberg. I think he informed Zuckerberg’s thinking about media a lot. Zuckerberg listened to him a lot on questions.

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Was that just as advanced as the Disney conversation?
It was 2011, BuzzFeed was a much smaller company. In the book, I’ve got all the Facebook messages. Had Jonah sold BuzzFeed to Facebook, it would have gone away.

Totally. Alright. Talk a little bit about this deal with Disney that BuzzFeed passed up.
This will be looked upon as like the dumbest decision in the history of digital media. But Disney was very interested in us and offered ultimately something north of $600 million to buy BuzzFeed in 2014. Obviously, it would have been a great exit.

The problem was that Jonah and Ze Frank [head of video at BuzzFeed] weren’t people who went into it for the exit, they weren’t that interested in that. And we were obsessed with what we were building, we had the wind at our back and had all this arrogance of that moment. We thought we could build a big, independent company.

Ultimately, the job Disney wanted to hire us to do was to modernize ABC News’ digital presence, and I don’t think any of us would be perfectly good at that. And it was so profoundly not what we had signed up for. I mean, in some sense, it was a very stupid, selfish decision.

In 2019, Ben Smith, then the editor in chief of BuzzFeed News, hands out free copies of a BuzzFeed News newspaper in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
In 2019, Ben Smith, then the editor in chief of BuzzFeed News, hands out free copies of a BuzzFeed News newspaper in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

But as a founder myself, I could absolutely understand that. Once you’ve built something and you feel like you have momentum, and you’ve created something new, as soon as you give up ownership and control, anything can happen. 
I actually understand that decision, even then. I don’t really regret it. I mean, I’m incredibly proud of the work we did for the next several years. That probably wouldn’t have happened. But I also understand why people think that we’re idiots.

What is your relationship with Jonah Peretti today?
You know, I talked to him a lot for the book. I don’t think he’s thrilled with everything in it. But he was very helpful. He’s fundamentally, to a fault, an optimistic person. He’s very excited to build the next thing.

How is Semafor doing?
I feel really good about the product, about the team. We have a lot of people reading us and people are advertising — all the things you want.

I mean, the most interesting thing for me coming out of BuzzFeed and out of the Times is navigating this totally changed internet. Facebook isn’t a thing anymore. I do not mind not waking up and thinking about Facebook in the morning. I mean, I think there’s something really nice about thinking about how to you deliver an email to people that just tells them stuff they’re interested in, with no mediation, but it’s also sort of back to the future. It’s very content-reliant.

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How big is Semafor? What is your audience?
It’s on SimilarWeb somewhere between one and two million monthly uniques, which is the old scoreboard. And I feel really good about that as a startup in this weird, barren internet ecosystem. I feel like that’s a really good sign.

But of course, ultimately, the thing we’re going for right now is email conversion, building these big lists of emails, and events. And those are very, very different businesses, right?

Can you talk about how many subscribers you have?
I’m sure [Semafor head of global communications] Meera Pattni would kill me. We’ll put up those numbers whenever we put them out.

But I feel good about the future of journalism in the journalism business and the news business in general. If you look at business coverage, or tech coverage, or politics coverage, it’s never been healthier. There’s never been more.

But local news is still a catastrophe. And you see that the reason the number of journalists in the world and in America keeps dropping is entirely because of how there were these huge, great local news businesses that are just continuing to crumble. And you thought they couldn’t keep crumbling, but they’re still crumbling. And I think that’s a separate, huge challenge.

It’s not that there’s a broad decline. There are problems. And obviously, what’s happened to Vice and BuzzFeed, which are relatively small in this world, is really awful.

Watch the video from WaxWord’s interview with Smith above.

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