on with kara swisher

Ben Smith on BuzzFeed News’s Demise and Twitter’s Sad Decline

Kara Swisher talks to the digital-media veteran about Traffic, failure, and Elon Musk.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Tumult seems to have become a near-constant state for most of the media industry, particularly over the past week. Days before the Disney layoffs and the firing of Tucker Carlson, Don Lemon, and NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell, the first shoe to drop was the demise of BuzzFeed News, which was announced right before Kara Swisher spoke with its former editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, for the latest episode of On With Kara Swisher. Smith is now co-helming the news startup Semafor and has a new book out, Traffic, which examines the viral ups and brutal downs of the digital media business during the age of social. In their conversation, two segments of which are excerpted below, Swisher and Smith discuss the shifting headwinds the industry has faced, his firsthand view of BuzzFeed’s rapid decline, whether progressive new-media pioneers helped deliver a presidency to Trump, and why he’s now refreshing the Drudge Report instead of Twitter for news.

On With Kara Swisher

Journalist Kara Swisher brings the news and newsmakers to you twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays.

Kara Swisher: Right before this taping, news broke that Jonah Peretti was shutting BuzzFeed News down as a larger cost-cutting effort that will reduce headcount by about 15 percent. He wrote in the memo, “The company can no longer continue to fund BuzzFeed News as a standalone organization.”

Obviously, this is your old shop. You were the founding editor-in-chief. Are you surprised? I think you’re probably not, but why don’t you talk about it a little bit?

Ben Smith: Yeah, I mean I guess I’d say I am, you know, shocked but not surprised. This was, you know, in the cards for a long time. I was there from 2012 to 2020 and we — you know, Jonah Peretti who founded it, sort of saw social media coming. I mean, he really saw around this corner.

Kara Swisher: It’s the opening of your book.

Ben Smith: Yeah, it’s strange because I spent, you know, a couple years really spending a lot of time thinking about this period when I was writing this book. And Jonah, I think maybe more successfully than anybody really, channeled this huge new surge of audience and attention and traffic coming from social media onto BuzzFeed.

And you know, we were in the year — you know, 2012, 2013, 2014 — we had this theory, and people seemed to like a website that mixed Disney princess quizzes and investigations and breaking news, because that was kind of what your Facebook feed was like. And people liked that too. And then politics really intervened, like Facebook went from it being delightful, that this was this mix of things, to it becoming toxic. Facebook and other platforms responded by trying to start to push news out of their feeds. Because people hated it. And I think BuzzFeed really lost its footing there. And we never really recovered. Like, we looked for ways to escape this ecosystem. And I’m sure we made lots of mistakes.

Kara Swisher: It’s really hard to start a media company, first of all, let’s say that. That said, they are still, uh, subject to economics — which, I think reporters don’t like that part of it. They’re fine writing about other companies undergoing these kind of pressures. But, you know, BuzzFeed raised 700 million before its IPO. It had a $1.5 billion valuation at the IPO, and its market cap hovered significantly lower into the $100 million to $250 million for most of last year. There was downsizing, so it was sort of death by a thousand cuts. And the editors were pushing for more content with the downsized staff.

But it was a prestige brand, and the first cuts in 2023 had not affected BuzzFeed or the HuffPo. Can you talk about that and why?

Ben Smith: Yeah, I think Jonah had been really attached to BuzzFeed News and loved it and, you know, I don’t think we did a particularly good job of building a business around it. And maybe this is actually, it’s related to that, and viewed it as something that was sort of a passion project. But ultimately, you know, investors had been pushing him for years to cut it because it was unprofitable. And when your stock’s under a dollar, it’s pretty hard to resist those pressures, which is where things are, when it’s hard to borrow money.

Kara Swisher: Do you have any insight into why now? To just say, “You have to give it up, Jonah,” or what was the inside?

Ben Smith: I don’t, I’m not on the inside of that anymore. And I don’t know, I mean I do think, to me, one of the most interesting and strange things is — you know, when I was going back and reporting Traffic, Huffington Post was this bold new digital entry that captured attention and dramatically upended media, and I think we then started to see it as this sort of legacy digital thing that was dying and it was sold to BuzzFeed, I think basically for less than a dollar. I think Verizon basically paid BuzzFeed to take it off its hands. And as the social web has receded and collapsed, I think what they found at BuzzFeed is that like, huh — Huffington Post front-page traffic stuck around.

Kara Swisher: It did.

Ben Smith: And it’s, I find myself in this weird moment where like, when I want to know what’s going on in the world, like Twitter doesn’t really do that anymore. Twitter [tells you what] Elon’s thinking about. But it doesn’t tell you what’s happening in the world. And I find myself like, huh, like I’m going to the Drudge Report. I’m going to Huffington Post. These old internet behaviors that predate social media are kind of back.

Kara Swisher: Well, it’s easier. It’s a quick read or, you know, whatever you decide to read.

Ben Smith: Yeah. I mean, and that’s, and that’s to the degree anybody’s on the web at all. I mean, I think you are spending a lot of time in audio and at events, I’m spending all my time in newsletters and at events. These are alternatives to the web, basically, and other ways for people to get their news.

Kara Swisher: So you said that — told the Times — that it’s the end of a marriage between social media and news. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Ben Smith: Yeah, I mean I think BuzzFeed in some ways, among others, led the way for publishers to say: “Wow.” Facebook and Twitter in particular provide, in Facebook’s case, massive distribution. In Twitter’s case, sort of a central beating heart of news and an elite conversation to penetrate. Journalists, for individual reasons, to build our brands, jumped in with both feet. Publishers in varying degrees resisted or followed. But by say 2018, Facebook and Twitter are the most important parts of the news ecosystem. And then I think you’ve seen that collapse over the last few years.

Facebook is obviously losing users, losing audience in a substantial way. And also, as part of its way of combating that, is pushing anything that resembles news or that resembles links out of the feed. Twitter is losing its cultural relevance, partly just because social networks are like bars and clubs — they’re cool when your friends are going there and then they’re not. And so I think Elon has probably speeded the move away from news, but I think it was probably inevitable. And then meanwhile publishers and journalists are thinking a lot about just totally different places, like email and like audio, where audiences who felt overwhelmed and manipulated by these algorithmic feeds are looking for something new.

Kara Swisher: Let me ask you: In Peretti’s memo, he talked about having overinvested in BuzzFeed News out of love for the work and mission, as you noted. It said it made him “slow to accept that the big platforms wouldn’t provide the distribution or financial support required to support premium, free journalism purpose-built for social media.”

They stopped paying. Right? But the New York Times reported that in a meeting with the staff, he said, “It is clearly a massive failure on my part, and I am deeply sorry for it.” Have you spoken to him?

Ben Smith: Yeah, I mean, I spent hours and hours talking to him for the book, and he’s sort of a congenital optimist and I think was so, has been very excited about what’s next about particularly AI and the uses of AI and media. But I do think he, I don’t know, I think he bet really heavily on Facebook and on Mark Zuckerberg.

Kara Swisher: He did.

Ben Smith: You know, BuzzFeed was among the companies that took checks from Facebook but really built its business on an organic relationship with Facebook and on a bet on this whole social-media ecosystem. And I think it was pretty hard for us to imagine, particularly in 2014, that this was just gonna go away.

Kara Swisher: The news part was supposed to not turn a profit? The larger company subsidized the newsroom —

Ben Smith: You know, it depends. I mean, you always say you’re not supposed to turn a profit when you’re not turning a profit. I certainly …

Kara Swisher: Yes. Yeah.

Ben Smith: And early on, you know, we were a venture-backed company, so nothing was supposed to turn a profit. If we were profitable, it was by accident. I mean, I, in retrospect, as soon as anybody started talking about news as a, something we were doing because it was important to the world, I should have said, “We gotta cut costs,” like that we can’t, we’re inevitably screwed.

Kara Swisher: Could you not charge more for advertising if it was as prestigious? Like you broke a lot of news, you broke a lot of stories.

Ben Smith: We broke a lot of news, but you know how media companies work. It’s very hard to focus on selling the harder thing to sell. And I guess I’ve sort of, you know, I mean the lessons I’ve learned are really about trying to build a news business where your partners on the business side are totally, totally focused on news and good at executing.

Kara Swisher: So last year, Jonah told the newsroom, or recently, that they had to turn a profit. It could be as little as a dollar, but they shouldn’t expect to get subsidized by the larger company. Did they get enough time to do that? Or was it just inevitable. You’re a public company, you’re —

Ben Smith: Yeah, I just think they were, I mean, he’d been … I mean that was my mandate — which, which we failed at, and I failed at, not being particularly well qualified to do — starting in 2018 or 2019 and uh, yeah. I mean, I think they ran out, we the company ran out of time.

Kara Swisher: Yeah. How do you think he’s handled this? One reporter on the beat told us that their impression was no one was going to, going out of their way to cut him slack. Why is that?

Ben Smith: Oh, you mean that his employees? I mean, I think he, I do think that, you know, there’s a lot of public conflict around the union. Um. And that, you know, where inevitably it’s a really adversarial relationship where management becomes a target. And I do think that, I think that definitely alienated him personally from the news department and alienated a lot of journalists from him who were unhappy with how he handled it.

Kara Swisher: Right. Well, you know, it’s interesting because these layoffs, there’s never any good way to do these things. There aren’t better ways.

Ben Smith: Yeah. And when you cut costs every — I mean, it’s miserable.

Kara Swisher: Yeah. But one of the things I had told you, going public was the mistake, and with a SPAC. Oy. Did you think that was the case? I know you and I have talked about that a lot, but I always felt that one of the assets of Vox is that it didn’t go public — maybe it couldn’t have, et cetera.

Ben Smith: I think in retrospect, Vox looks incredibly smart for not going public. BuzzFeed went public through a SPAC, and the process dragged until it was the absolute worst time possible to do it, and all the capital they thought they were gonna raise with a SPAC went away.

I mean, I think that when you pull back the camera here, like, there are tons of tactical things that could have been done differently, of operating things, of kind of business decisions. But this was a company that, you know, mastered social media, saw social media coming, lived in this whole world of social media that collapsed really, really fast around it. And I think that’s a very hard thing to overcome.

Kara Swisher: In the book you draw a direct line from Gawker’s sex tapes and dick pics to BuzzFeed’s listicles and cat videos. And the viral “Is it blue or gold?” dress Facebook post to right-wing, authoritarian populists like Trump, Bolsonaro, and Duterte. I want you to explain this, I’d like you to redraw that line right now too.

Ben Smith: Yeah, that’s a, maybe not a straight line, perhaps a zigzaggy BuzzFeed-logo line. I mean, I guess the thing that surprised me most in reporting out the book, which was a lot about parts of media history that I had been a little next to and interested in, but not there — I wasn’t invited to the Gawker parties. Like, I was a young political reporter in New York; I kind of knew about them and wished I was invited.

But going back to talking to everybody in that era, one of the things that really, really surprised me was, these are mostly people, I think Jonah certainly, a lot of the people around Gawker, who see themselves really as progressives. Huffington Post was created really specifically to elect a Democratic political candidate in 2008. And they boosted Barack Obama through the primary. And in some sense it felt like the election of Barack Obama was the culmination of this new wave of progressive online media.

Yet you go back and it’s like: Huh, Andrew Breitbart was one of the co-founders of HuffPost. The founder of 4Chan worked out of the BuzzFeed office. Steve Bannon is hanging around that story. You know, the founder of the Proud Boys was over at Vice and was pals with the women who founded Jezebel. And the sort of origins of the far right are just right right next to that story. Like, they’re like down the … they’re like sitting at the same desk and learning without the sort of Establishmentarian, like, “Well, we still have some rules” kind of feelings that I, for instance, brought to it. And I think what I sort of realized was like, Oh, actually the real culmination of this period is the election of Donald Trump, not the election of Barack Obama.

I write about this in the book, but I went over to Trump Tower in the run-up to the 2016 election to see Steve Bannon, and he had obviously studied BuzzFeed incredibly closely when he was creating Breitbart. And he, and his one thing was, he was like, “I don’t understand why you guys didn’t just go all in for Bernie Sanders. I mean, that’s where the traffic was.” Which was true, by the way, that that’s where the traffic was. And we’d had folks in the BuzzFeed data side say, “Why aren’t we going all in for Bernie Sanders?”

Like, well, we’re journalists. We don’t go all in. And he just kind of shook his head at me like: What are you doing? What’s wrong with you?

Kara Swisher: Mm-hmm. Yeah. He’s the Elon Musk School of Journalism. Um, there’s a line in the book that stuck with me: “The thing about a commodity is that it needs to be limited to have real value.” That means it’s not a commodity, by the way. But give us some context for that and explain what you meant. It’s an interesting point. Rarity is critically important, obviously.

Ben Smith: Yeah. I mean, I think traffic was the commodity that people like Jonah, like Nick Denton, who founded Gawker, like you and me, felt like we had sort of discovered. And I remember putting the first kind of tracker on my website and watching it come in. And basically the business model for all these companies was you could sell advertising because you had traffic. And then the problem was that the value of each pageview kept going down. And for a while it’s like, well, each pageview, you know, used to be worth a dime and now it’s worth a penny, but we’re getting 20 times as many as we used to, so it’s okay. And we can crank harder and harder and harder and still grow.

Kara Swisher: Make it up in volume.

Ben Smith: Make it up in volume. And then at some point the numerator gets so low that it doesn’t matter what the denominator is or vice versa, whichever, but you couldn’t make it up in volume because Facebook and Google provided effectively infinite scale.

Kara Swisher: Right, exactly. Which is one reason I didn’t go that way. ’Cause I was like, I’m not gonna win here ever economically. And so we went the other way with events and podcasts that had a much better return on substance, which was interesting.

I wanna talk quickly about Twitter. Um, Elon’s been going after news organizations for being government funded? Although he’s since corrected to publicly funded [and days after this interview was recorded suddenly removed all the labels completely]. He himself is government funded, by the way. I’ll just point that out for the hundredth time. Do you think he wants to be a news organization, or is he doing damage to American media?

Ben Smith: I mean, both. I think he sees Twitter as a news organization and is, I’m not sure he would put it exactly this way, but yeah, he is trying to damage his competitors and drive them off his platform, and I think will certainly succeed at that.

Kara Swisher: And is that a good thing?

Ben Smith: I mean, it’s not a good thing if what you care about, as I do, is, you know, trusted, careful, verified journalism. But I also think that a less relevant Twitter — that is a place where people have great conversations about AI and tech as they continue to, that you know that much of what’s on there isn’t true, but that’s sort of caveat emptor. I mean, like for instance, I think Reddit is wonderful and an incredibly valuable part of the media ecosystem.

Kara Swisher: My son is on that a lot.

Ben Smith: Nobody says, “Well, Reddit is where you get trusted news.” Although sometimes there’s incredible trustworthy stuff on Reddit.

Kara Swisher: Or insightful things. Yeah.

Ben Smith: Yeah. Could Twitter become something like that? I think that’s sort of where it’s headed, for somewhat different communities. And then also an incredible place to watch sports.

Kara Swisher: So are some of his critiques justified? And which ones?

Ben Smith: Um, I don’t know — what even are his critiques? I think critique is a really big word.

Kara Swisher: Yeah, I know, they’re tantrums really, um, you know, lords and ladies elites, so —

Ben Smith: Oh, I think that’s totally bizarre, honestly. Like I think that there’s this sort of weird reverse class resentment by billionaires of working people in this odd way —

Kara Swisher: They’re the victims, Ben. They’re in pain.

Ben Smith: Yeah. I mean …

Kara Swisher: He’s in pain.

Ben Smith: That said, I do think the much narrower thing that reporters came to buy a set of ideologies about tech and wrote a bunch of nonsense stories. I mean, lots of journalism is wrong. I mean, and you know, it’s a flawed profession. It always has been. I do think the narrative that all society’s ills were about these tech companies was overblown.

Kara Swisher: I would agree.

Ben Smith: And the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are right to be pissed off about that. I think they then developed a kind of mirror image. You know, they, they only saw the most irresponsible and worst stories because Twitter is a machine for elevating the dumbest stuff your enemies say.

Kara Swisher: And they’re very sensitive people. Let’s be clear.

Ben Smith: Yeah, they’re, you know, they’re allowed to be. But I do think Twitter did this in a way. They live, they spent all their time on Twitter and developed their own totally Twitter-centric ideology of what the media is and how it works, that was actually just inaccurate. I mean, the notion that journalists were desperate for blue checks, that — would pay for them was just an inaccurate read of —

Kara Swisher: It’s so inane.

Ben Smith: Yeah. And have their own pretty crazy ideology about how media works, that was in some ways, created a kind of crazy mirror image of the dumbest things that journalists wrote about technology.

I mean, you go back to that Cambridge Analytica story and it was, that was basically nonsense. It was indicative of real problems and it was metaphorical for real problems. But the basic thrust of the story was that Cambridge Analytica had a meaningful impact on American elections — and that was not the case.

Kara Swisher: That is correct. But it was indicative, it was indicative of bigger problems elsewhere.

Ben Smith: Sure. It was indicative, all these things. But somebody writes a story about you that’s not true. And your defense can’t be: “It’s indicative.”

Kara Swisher: No, but you could say, “There’s mold here. We should look at this. Maybe there’s something bigger.” You know what I mean.

Ben Smith: Oh, sure. But if somebody says, “We found people who died of mold in your living room,” and you say it’s not an acceptable defense: that that’s not true, and here’s some mold.

Kara Swisher: Yeah. That’s true. That’s fair. I think the error was Mark saying it has nothing to do with it, and he opened himself up on that issue.

Ben Smith: Yeah. I would say they have some justified grievances.

Kara Swisher: Yeah, they do. But mostly when you hear pain from billionaires, it’s harder to take, I think, especially when it’s versus journalists. What do you think the shift in Twitter is doing to journalists besides making us pull our hair out and, as you just said, visit the Drudge Report and HuffPo and do other things?

Ben Smith: I think it’s actually pushing us to develop more direct connections with our audience, you know, and to find people who wanna read our work and not go through other people’s algorithms to do it. And that feels healthy to me. And the pendulum always swings in this business, and people get, audiences get tired of one thing and interested in another thing. But I think that feels like a healthy shift right now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On With Kara Swisher is produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Cristian Castro Rossel, and Rafaela Siewert, with mixing by Fernando Arruda, engineering by Christopher Shurtleff, and theme music by Trackademics. New episodes will drop every Monday and Thursday. Follow the show on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

More From 'on with kara swisher'

See All
Ben Smith on BuzzFeed News Demise and Twitter’s Sad Decline