Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith on What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media

Ben Smith. Photo: Lauren Zaser

You’ve gotten a lot of scoops by capturing things on the record that a source thought were off the record. Can you give an example?
Off the record is a contractual agreement that is, like all contracts, incredibly important. But it’s also not retroactive. It’s a difficult thing, because if somebody thought they’re off the record and they’re not, the question is not “Is this ethical?” The question is “How important is my relationship with this person, and is this something where I’m going to be burning some junior person who didn’t mean what they said, or is it something where someone said something really revealing, and it’s essentially my obligation to print it? Ultimately, I think, if you’re a reporter and you have a piece of information, the question is sort of like “Why would I suppress this?” Because not writing it is essentially suppressing it. Back when I had a blog, I used to make people crazy by printing embargoed press releases. It’s something that people in the Capitol do that makes me crazy: You know, a speech will not have happened, and you’ll get Senator So-and-So or Congressman So-and-So’s response embargoed until the speech is over. And that’s not an embargo that I agreed to, and so I always would put that on my blog, and, you know, receive angry phone calls from press secretaries who thought that by putting embargo on the top of an email, that meant that you had some sort of an arrangement. And that’s, in some sense, the lowest-hanging version of that. But I think it’s important to realize that these things are two-way. The place where I probably most notoriously did this recently was with that Uber executive. The basic deal was that it was sort of an influencer dinner that Michael Wolff, the writer, had invited me to. And I think there had been some discussion that it was off the record that nobody had ever included me in. I was sort of surprised that I was there. I acted like it was on the record. I asked [Uber’s] Travis Kalanick a question and then gave that answer to a reporter, and she wrote about it on Sunday. An executive had sat across from me and said some stuff about doing oppo research on journalists. At some point, I was like, “Well, this will be a problem for you if it becomes public.” And he was like, “Oh, we would keep it secret.” And I was like, “Well, you just told me.”

Do you think it didn’t become clear to them until later that you were going to use it?
He just sort of sat down across from me and started talking, and I wrote it down.

So the calculation for you is pretty much always “How is this going to affect me in the long run? Am I going to burn a source?” That sort of thing?
No, the calculation mostly is “Is this news?” I think there’s a very high bar for not writing something that is news. To me, once you have a piece of information, it becomes “Is there some reason that I shouldn’t write this?” And that’s a pretty rare thing.

Do you feel like you have less inherent uneasiness about that kind of thing than some reporters? Some are easily intimidated, some tend be more queasy or want to please people.
If you want to please people, you’re in the wrong line of work.

I think that’s true. It seems like you have a particularly thick skin though.
Yeah, I guess I sort of grew up in the New York world, internet, and you develop a thick skin there.

Have you ever second-guessed the way you treated a source?
Sure, yeah.

Can you give an example?
I don’t want to, in the example, reopen a wound. But I think that very early in my career, I did a profile of someone who was — somebody I kind of thought of as a friend, who thought of me as a friend, who really opened his life to me, and the piece was fair and straightforward and reported, but he was totally unprepared for it. And there’s the great Janet Malcolm stuff on this, but there’s this element of journalism that is fundamentally about betrayal. But I think there’s also an obligation to be straightforward when you can and to not surprise people. And sometimes you can do that at the beginning. Sometimes, in order to get somebody to talk to you, you don’t have to lay out everything, and to just ask them questions. But I do think before you publish something, at least, you should not surprise people. And we have a practice here of writing what we call a “no surprises” letter to the subject of an investigation that lays out in great, great detail what’s in a story. And then you make sure you slip that under their door, you mail it to them, you email it to them, you send it to their lawyer. It often adds to your reporting. There’s no reason that the subject of a story should be surprised. Maybe there’s occasionally a reason, but in most cases, there isn’t a reason, and you should test your strongest reporting against their response before you publish, not after.

Do you think it’s affected the culture at Buzzfeed, the way you cultivate reporters?
Yeah. We want them to be very aggressive, but it forces you to look people in the eye when you’re writing about them. People will take as much as you give them. And it’s a complicated, messy business. It’s not like there are simple rules.

You want to be doing stories that somebody doesn’t want written. If everybody’s psyched that that story’s published, then it’s kind of like, “Well, why did we do that?”

The question of what’s gossip and what’s news is often whether you like a story or not. The CIA was really mad at us when we reported that a really controversial senior official had married somebody who talks about the CIA on TV all the time — kind of in secret. Is that news or is that gossip? They definitely thought it was gossip. But I think most of the stories we break are pretty straightforward news. And I don’t think there are ever diminishing returns for new information. I think gossip is often used as a word to deride a story you don’t like.

How do you think your business model — and the data available to you now on your readership — affects your news operation?
We try to write stories that people are interested in and headlines that make people want to read them. Are there other organizations that feel differently? I think if you don’t understand how reporting works, you can certainly overoptimize. Because beat reporting is the core of how we’re organized and the core of most journalism, and lots of beat stories are incremental, and aren’t going to get huge traffic, and are building blocks of a bigger story or how you get to the huge story. Sometimes that’s because you’re focused on one small thing and you have to write about it ten times to start getting people’s attention. Sometimes it’s because you’re learning the beat. Sometimes it’s because you need to be in the mix. And we deeply understand the structure of that kind of reporting and that not every story is optimized for views.

And you’ve been able to protect the reportering mission that way?
 is the wrong word. It’s sort of what we’re rooted in. And the kind of thing that leads to the big story or that is itself kind of incrementally building the big story — I think if you look at what Dominic Holden has done around trans-rights stuff, or what Chris Geidner did in marriage, it’s a million incremental stories that add up to the best coverage of an issue in the country. And breaking news every couple of days, but not every story is going to break news. And that’s okay.

That’s okay?
That’s okay, but there’s got to be some reason you did that story. Maybe it’s to build a new network of stories or to learn about the issue or to telegraph to one person that you’re going to stay on the issue until they call you back. There’s lots of reasons to write a story. One of the reasons that I think people who come out of journalism school write a feature is that, like, “This is a dull but worthy feature that will look good in my clips and could appear not on A1 of the New York Times, but perhaps on A19.” And that is not a story we would want to write. That, to me, is a story to avoid. What in newspapers is an inside feature — because you’re stuck reading the paper, and you’re flipping through, and you’re not going to share it, but you’re like, ‘Oh, what happened in Germany?’ To me, those stories are death, and those are the ones to avoid.

There’s always been a tradition of “If it bleeds, it leads” and writing headlines that will sell the most copies, off the rack or whatever, but —
I think this is now a four- or five-year-old story: the question of the shift from search to social. I think, like, a homepage and a tabloid at a newsstand, and certainly search, incentivize a kind of headline that is very, very focused on people clicking. The thing is, if you want people to share it, the story actually has to deliver on the headline. So I actually think social has generated a sort of explicitness about what is in the story and an importance that stories live up to their promise.

In the new documentary about Anthony Weiner, there’s a part where Weiner is at a press conference in the Bronx, talking about housing policy or something, and he invites on-topic questions from the reporter gaggle, and there are crickets. Then he opens it up to all questions, and they have tons of questions about his scandals. And the cameraman follows these people who are walking away, who seem quite poor, and they say, “We don’t care about this shit. We live in the Bronx. We came to hear him talk about housing.” It seems to speak to a habit in the press of chasing scandal, sometimes at the expense of covering substantive issues. Do you see that tendency? Do you think it’s a problem?
I came up covering politics. I just think that the fabric of politics is rumor and gossip, and life-and-death decisions, and what to do with nuclear weapons, and power, and jokes, and Barack Obama is both deciding what to do with the hostage situation and laughing at a meme on Twitter. And the idea that there is some level of government or power when it’s only one thing — it’s handed over to the policy robots — where the human beings don’t matter, or where politics don’t matter—is sort of just this bizarre fantasy. It’s always been part of the same fabric. The question of who a leader is is important. The hard policy questions are important. That person is making those policy decisions that involve professional analysis and their character and who they’re raising money from and who their friends are. And I think if you’re actually a reporter covering these beats, that’s totally obvious.

You’ve talked about how BuzzFeed doesn’t need to write for the median reader, the 51 percent. Your business model allows you to gear stories to extremely small and specific subgroups. Do you think there’s a danger of the press splintering off more and more, so that everyone is choosing news specific to their views and interests?
There was obviously this period in the ’60s and ’70s when Americans watched one of three nightly newscasts that represented a kind of consensus. But that’s obviously wildly outside the historical international norms. And I think the partisan media has always — elsewhere, and usually here, although not for that period — been really vibrant, and the dominance of cable news, which is now fading, was probably the peak of that. It’s always frustrating and distressing to talk to people who have chosen their facts, but I don’t really think it’s a contemporary phenomenon.

At least if the facts they’ve chosen are different from —

From yours.
Well …

Sure, but it’s more salient, it’s easier to see, if they don’t agree with you.
I think it’s easier to see if they’re at odds with reportable fact. It’s really important to us to stay rooted in what you can actually report and not get ahead of that. But I don’t know. I think your friends on Facebook tend to be more heterogenous than the commentators on MSNBC or on Fox. You have your kids and your parents, and your friends from college and your friends from high school.

I at least see more political diversity in my news feed than I see on either Fox News or in The Nation. And I’m not utopian at all about these tools, but I think there’s some research to back this up, that the bubble is at least a bit more porous than it’s been in the past. But the fact that people are sort of driven by ideology to ignore facts is not some novel feature of human nature.

Thoughts on the rise of Trump?
He has a message that a lot of people like. That’s a real thing, and that’s not a media creation. But he is fundamentally a television character and was created on The Apprentice by Jeff Zucker and now is sort of a property of CNN. That has obviously been central to his rise. I think different interviewers have different capacity to challenge him on lies, but giving him this giant unfiltered platform, he’s a real television creation. I think Trump is deeply interwoven with television, and he’s also arisen at a moment of weakness in the television industry in a way that has certainly played to his advantage.

I think that political reporting — it’s true of all reporting, but it’s particularly salient with political reporting — that journalism, and the coverage, is part of the fabric of politics, and conversely, political campaigns are themselves media organizations that exist through media. And so they are both your subject and your competitor for people’s attention. And they only exist to the degree that you’re writing about them and in what you write and show. And it’s very compromised and complicated and always has been.

Do you think there’s any big difference between old-time newspaper culture and what you have here?
I think, obviously, we are in much closer touch with our audience. Every reporter knows how many people are reading every story. I think the reality of a lot of those inside newspaper features is that nobody ever read them. They were stories that were pitched for A1 and then didn’t clear the bar for whatever reason. The reporting didn’t pan out, or an editor didn’t like them because they were boring or the thesis didn’t pan out, so they ended up on A7 with half the work put in. And probably nobody ever read those stories. And now we know!

Does that change the atmosphere?
Yeah, I think it’s incredibly fun to know your audience and be getting that feedback loop from stats and from social media all the time. I think for reporters, that’s amazing. You’re not just making widgets of a certain size and shape to fit into a print thing. I’m sort of the extreme of this, but I feel like we’re in the ephemera business, and fundamentally, the value of a story is what it does, not being something you can hang on the wall. I think you can really feel that and understand it much more quickly than you used to be able to do.

The Transcripts: A Master Class in What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media by Those In the Know

Ben Smith on the Media