Ben Smith was only there for a good time, not for a long time.
“I do think there’s probably some limit to the length of time you can write a media column, because you’re stewing in your own juices,” he tells me, “although I didn’t feel I’d hit that limit or anything, but I do think if you aren’t David Carr, it’s probably like, it shouldn’t be a tenure.” And yet the New York Times’ masthead was gobsmacked by Smith’s departure after two years for a news start-up cooked up by and, for now, funded by another Smith — Justin B. Smith, who was CEO of Bloomberg Media. Some top editors, such as Dean Baquet and Carolyn Ryan, were told shortly in advance of today, but others were astonished to find out this morning.
It wasn’t just the leadership. The Times — where I worked for four years, albeit far from Smith, in the Washington bureau — had become a juggernaut in the Trump years, floated along by a subscription boom, while many VC-backed media start-ups — Ben Smith had come over from BuzzFeed — struggled. Top-level defections, once common, have become rare.
Institutionalists at the Gray Lady were predictably disapproving of his lack of loyalty: The paper throws a life raft to a new-media pirate steering a sinking sloop, who then comes aboard, uses the vaunted pages to polish his brand, and promptly jumps ship. Some speculated that perhaps he only did so because of a deadline — which had been extended by the Times until February 2022 — to divest his BuzzFeed stock options.
The paper and Smith denied the timing was related to the options. He just wanted to get back into the pirate game. “I had an incredible experience at the Times and I’m just so totally grateful to them,” says Smith. “I’ve had the opportunity and luck to start things at a couple stages in my career, and I just think there are huge advantages to starting from scratch.” Such as? “You get to sort of take a breath and think about the world as it is right now and not as it was when your institution was founded, meaning what are the important stories, how do people consume news, things like that, in a world that’s changing really fast.” He says, “Justin and I honestly have been talking — not planning this — but talking for years about the news business and where opportunities are and what we could do, but it got really serious in the last couple of months.”
The other Mr. Smith, who speaks French and once worked for the U.S. State Department in West Africa, began his media career at the International Herald Tribune (then co-published by the Times and the Washington Post). Next he worked at The Economist and then The Week, founded Breaking Media (whose websites include Above the Law and Dealbreaker), and ran Atlantic Media (where he launched Quartz) and, finally, Bloomberg.
When he departed Atlantic Media, David Bradley wrote in a note to staff, “Like Mary Poppins, if a little more euro, Justin came, changed the family and, when the work was done, moved on. I will miss him.”
Justin tells me this new venture has been “a lifelong dream.” When he was running The Atlantic, he says he tried to hire Ben away from Politico but was unsuccessful. How’d he woo him this time? “He saw my vision, and he helped me make my vision better, and I said, ‘Do you want to be editor-in-chief?’”
Justin splits his time between New York and Washington — he has dated Uma Thurman, lives in the same neighborhood as the post–White House Obamas, and throws a hell of a dinner party — and his new operation will as well with an international bureau or two thrown in. Who is paying for this thing? “I’ll be personally funding the business and will be funding it for the near future,” says Justin. “We’re also talking to a number of key investors, but since I’m funding it, we’re really being very careful and deliberate about who we want to bring on as investors. And I would say it’s a project that’s defined by its long-term perspective. The North Star down the line, the end state vision, is the world’s leading global news brand. That can’t happen overnight. That’s going to take a decade or more, and Ben and I are committed to that, so we’re looking for investors who have a similar mind-set.”
He wants it to be general interest, not strictly financial news, and sees it competing with the Times or CNN or the Washington Post or the BBC. But he says the problem with news outlets in that space now is that they “have increasingly been polarized politically, they’ve been increasingly partisan, and are also very regional in their outlook. They are really domestic brands that are sort of repackaging their domestic content for a global audience in an unthoughtful way.”
Ben Smith says, “Social media really radically changed news over the last decade in complicated ways, for better and for worse, but I think we’re kind of leaving that era.” He adds: “The values of social media have bled really deeply into a lot of media institutions.”
Curious, coming from someone who surfed those values at BuzzFeed and critiqued institutionalists like the Washington Post’s former editor Marty Baron for not being able to understand them. Twitter raised a collective eyebrow at a quote Smith gave to the Times while announcing his exit: “There are 200 million people who are college educated, who read in English, but who no one is really treating like an audience, but who talk to each other and talk to us … That’s who we see as our audience.” (“Anyone else confused by this?” asked his soon-to-be-erstwhile colleague Nikole Hannah-Jones.)
But nobody, really, thought Smith was going to be a Times lifer. “Smith gets bored easily,” Clare Malone wrote in this magazine when she profiled him in 2020.
As the Times’ deputy managing editor, Carolyn Ryan, who directly edits Ben, told me: “Ben has been a phenomenal columnist, and we’re proud of the fact that the Times is a place where people can come and elevate their careers, and I congratulate him on returning to his passion of working at a start-up.”