On Tuesday, BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Ben Smith announced he’d be leaving the site to take over the “Media Equation” column for the New York Times, which was once written by David Carr and more recently by Jim Rutenberg. Smith spent the past eight years at BuzzFeed, where he oversaw its transformation from a clickbait site to a full-fledged newsroom competing with legacy media operations like the Times. Intelligencer spoke to Smith about how his new job came about, what makes a good media column, and the biggest lesson he learned from publishing the Steele dossier.
You said you started talking with the Times about this job in December. Who approached whom?
I had talked to Dean [Baquet] on and off for a long time, mostly for advice. He’s an incredible newsroom manager and whenever I’ve gotten into hairy situations, as I sometimes do, he’s somebody I’ve always reached out to for advice and has given me incredibly good advice. At some point, one of those conversations switched into, “Hey, I’d like to recruit you.” We wound up having lunch in late December.
Can you give me an example of when Baquet has helped you out in a hairy situation?
When we were doing the layoffs. It was incredibly hard and I’d never done anything like that before. He had been through ups and downs in the newspaper business and just gave me really good advice about how to think about that situation.
What was the advice?
It’s private. I think that it would be a bad move to betray an off-the-record conversation with my boss.
Did your most recent column on the campaign to replace Dean Baquet come up during job talks?
Obviously they were amused by it. I guess I didn’t get it horribly wrong. I should say, just to be clear, this conversation was not happening while I wrote that column. That would have been quite weird.
Will you have free rein to cover the Times in your column?
Nobody’s told me otherwise. I sure plan to.
How will you handle covering BuzzFeed?
I love BuzzFeed and that is what it is. I don’t plan to cover it a lot, I think that would be weird. But I think there are moments when it will be valuable to write from my experience, which I will do. I guess I will just plan to be totally transparent and follow whatever their perception of the guidelines are. Nobody’s hired me to write tell-alls about BuzzFeed.
What do you think has been missing from the media-criticism landscape?
I think there are a lot of great reporters out there. I’m not planning to be a media-criticism critic. I think that’s a very narrow lens. I don’t think I’m going to be writing a column primarily about other media columnists. If you’re asking what is most interesting, to me the most interesting things have always been where media intersects with politics, with technology, with culture, with power, essentially. In some way, that is not primarily industrial stories about the media alone. It’s when you attach it to another live wire then you get something interesting.
How do you make that column a unique voice that people turn to, like David Carr, in 2020 when Twitter occupies such a large part of that landscape?
David was early to recognize the importance of Twitter, so I’m just following in his enormous footsteps on that. Obviously, he’s the model and I don’t want to pretend that I’ve figured out how to be as good as him, ’cause I haven’t.
Who do you like to read about media?
I read everything. I think a lot of the best media writing comes from random people who observe it from the outside and have opinions about it. There’s a lot of cynical, bad-faith trolling on Twitter but there’s an opportunity for regular people who think you’re doing stupid to tell you, and I’ve always appreciated that and been interested in that conversation.
In terms of people who write about it, I’ve always loved my old friend Michael Wolff. I sometimes have some issues with him on the details, but he’s often right on the big picture. I think Margaret Sullivan is great. I think she has this thing, that I hope I’ll bring, is that she ran a really great newsroom. I think that’s really valuable. David had also run a newsroom. I think it’s important to have mostly sympathy for working journalists, but a little sympathy for management and to understand where they’re coming from. I think she brought a sophistication with that. And I think there’s a lot of great media reporters at the New York Times. I think Jim Rutenberg is a really great investigative reporter and has a lot going for him.
Just going back to what you said about outsiders doing a good job of offering constructive feedback. Can you give me an example?
Just look at my replies. It’s a nightmare in there every day but I kind of appreciate it.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing newsrooms right now?You gotta let me save something for the column.
Okay, fair. Margaret Sullivan may have covered this a bit yesterday, but can you tell me what you’re most proud of at BuzzFeed?
I think the thing I’m proudest of is that we built a news organization with an investigative mind-set that led and has been leading on stories and on how to tell stories, and I think it’s built to last and I’m excited for what’s next for BuzzFeed.
What did you learn about the media, or journalists, in the wake of your decision to publish the Steele dossier?
My biggest lesson from the Steele dossier was the extent to which the absurd worship of Robert Mueller had totally blinded critics of Donald Trump to any serious conversation about the details of the story. I’d never seen a federal law-enforcement official or prosecutor get that sort of deference since J. Edgar Hoover.
Has there been any resolution to Mueller’s refutation of the Michael Cohen story?
Yeah, we sued. Got Michael Cohen’s notes. I think you can now look back at the story and ask, did the FBI believe that Trump directed Cohen to lie? I think it’s almost indisputable at this point. That may not be a universally held opinion. I think you saw captive Justice Department reporters carrying Mueller’s water.
What do you think of the unionization trend across the media industry?I think it’s a fact. At BuzzFeed I think there’s a healthy working relationship with the union. It’s very early, but I think it’s optimistic. Ultimately, the union and the company are in a really tough business and have a very strong interest in making it work.
Can you give me any insight into what your feeling was when your newsroom went public? What was that like as someone in management?
It was a new experience for me. I think we all learned a lot from it.
Is this move costing you money in terms of your interest in BuzzFeed?This is such a generational thing, but I’m old-fashioned enough to be uncomfortable talking about that.