There have been three major trends in the past decade of media and Ben Smith, 46, has been a part of them all. In 2011 he was the founding editor of BuzzFeed News, the site which helped reinvent, for good or ill, the way news was covered in the 2010s. In 2020, as BuzzFeed struggled, he joined the New York Times as its media columnist.
Smith broke big stories at the Times, exposing the news and entertainment website Ozy as a scam whose traffic was chimerical, and alleging errors and omissions in the reporting of Ronan Farrow (who at the time was being heralded as America’s foremost investigative journalist; he said he stood by his reporting). Yet Smith soon left the Times, setting up Semafor, a new digital media play.
In doing so, he has sought to ride the latest shift in journalism: the proliferation of private media. In America’s highly developed media market, top journalists now expect to own equity in the sites through which they publish. At the Times, Smith was only an employee. At Semafor, which this week raised $19m, he is an owner.
In conversation Smith, a Yale graduate whose father was a judge on the New York Court of Appeals, has an imperturbable manner. “I am happy to argue with you about something,” he said calmly during our conversation, after I voiced objections to the type of journalism BuzzFeed popularised. He has written a book, Traffic, that tells the story of how BuzzFeed and other sites upended the hierarchy of the media by chasing virality.
The book is about how the engineers who built the social internet at Facebook and Twitter thought that the “logical outcome of their work was the election of Barack Obama”. They presumed that the advance of progressive ideals was “inherent” to the platforms they were building. Traffic reveals the jarring reality: “The people who would go on to create the populist right [such as Andrew Breitbart of the eponymous website], and the tools they used, really came out of that same moment.”
The populist 2010s, Smith argued, were “totally entwined with social media”. They were fuelled by “the mechanics of Facebook, and particularly of Twitter, that ‘I’m going to say something false, you’re going to get mad, and that’s going to amplify my false claim’”.
There was a naivety to BuzzFeed. “We had this idea,” Smith said, that people would be sending “their friend a cute picture of a cat, or a link to a fundraiser for an earthquake, or a thoughtful New Statesman piece that made you look like a person who has good values. People wouldn’t be out in these public spaces acting like total maniacs, and screaming about the most divisive politics you can imagine. That was just a total misread of social platforms and of human nature.”
Traffic, he said, was an attempt “to report out this whole era we just lived through. It started in 2020, thinking, ‘What was that?’”
That summer social justice movements took hold across American newsrooms, boardrooms, classrooms – nowhere more so than at the New York Times. The title had “absorbed all of these people and ideas from a bunch of different institutions,” Smith said, “who had actually come up as critics of the New York Times, who didn’t really agree with its way of journalism, and also didn’t agree with each other. And suddenly [by 2020] you’ve hired a bunch of lunatics who disagree with you and each other, and you are trying to run an institution that way. That is a formula for lots of conflict.”
“A lot of those people are gone,” Smith thinks. The company, Joe Kahn, its executive editor, is “now reinstituting a clear sense of itself”. In February Kahn pushed back authoritatively after a number of New York Times contributors signed a letter that sought to shame their colleagues over reporting on issues of sex and gender.
Didn’t some of these “lunatics” come from BuzzFeed? Smith defended the news division he ran: “Buzzfeed News was often criticised from the left for not adopting an activist framework.” When Smith visited Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart chairman and chief strategist to Donald Trump, in Trump Tower after the 2016 US presidential election, he points out, Bannon was puzzled that BuzzFeed hadn’t “gone all in for Bernie Sanders, as that was obviously the logical direction of the pull of social”.
Smith’s biggest call as BuzzFeed News editor was his decision in 2017 to publish the “Steele dossier”, a collection of unsubstantiated allegations against Trump. The dossier was discredited, allowing Trump to justifiably attack it as fake news. Smith has said he would publish the document again. “I’m sure we screwed up all the time,” he reflected, “but we were pretty conscious of the boundaries of news, which is a real sacrifice when it comes to traffic and that Breitbart didn’t burden itself with, for instance.”
The story Smith tells in Traffic is of a new journalistic set displacing an older guard who “had just blown the most important story of their generation, and cheer-led the Iraq War”. At a time when “readers and viewers felt totally constrained by these flawed established institutions that really limited what they could read, there was this huge hunger for more” – for detail; for documents, verified or not.
Now, “readers feel totally overwhelmed and alienated by the disintegrating scream of the chaotic, late social media space”. They are searching for journalists who are “transparent about who they are and trying to help you sort through what the hell is going on”. Semafor, Smith’s new site, is trying to offer that, albeit with no more sophistication than any other digital media site. Newsletters are at the core of that offering.
“I think part of the appeal of newsletters is they push you toward what I think of as print values – hierarchy, concision, clarity, editorial voice – that people want right now.”
Semafor, in short, is an anti-BuzzFeed. Smith’s former employer reached hundreds of millions a month, but chasing scale didn’t pay. Semafor attracts 1.5 million monthly visitors, according to the analytics company Similarweb, equivalent to the readership of a print magazine. Reaching influential readers, as it seeks to do, is a valuable business. Axios, a similar site, was sold for $525m last year. (BuzzFeed is now worth all of $85m, having lost more than 90 per cent of its value in 18 months.)
Smith has sought to innovate with Semafor – a journalist’s opinion is explicitly separated from their reporting in a Semafor piece. It is a pat solution to the problem it is supposed to address: the erosion of trust in journalism. “The newspaper article has had a good run, but it’s sort of going out of fashion,” Smith claimed. But as he noted, trust has fallen in “every social institution” and there is “obviously no magic wand” that will restore it.
Smith describes many thing as “obvious”. This is partly the result of a life lived on Twitter, a constant of journalistic careers that is now changing. “Social media is spiralling out of relevance,” Smith said. “Facebook and Twitter will tell you their numbers are still up, and that, you know, they’re growing really fast in south-east Asia, but it’s very hard to reclaim cultural relevance.”
Twitter is fading out; the digital-journalistic milieu of the 2010s may have been an aberration. “The notion that all sorts of political and journalistic conversations were happening in this single, centralised public space was wild.”
Elon Musk has changed Twitter’s algorithm to deprioritise media outlets (and prioritise his own tweets). That has made impact harder to measure. Twitter is “clearly not the only metric in a way that it used to be”, Smith said. “For ten years everyone was chasing the same traffic on the same platforms and optimising in the same direction. It’s a much more splintered moment.”
Where is journalism going ahead of the 2024 presidential election? Many in the media are resolved to cover Trump more aggressively than they did in 2016. Smith thinks that unwise. “I do not think that journalists saying Trump is bad changes people’s minds. Maybe there is social science research that proves me wrong. I have seen no evidence. I think it’s less and less meaningful to do that moral posturing as opposed to trying to expose what’s actually happening, and do the reporting.”
This article appears in the 31 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise of Greedflation