Maybe I should have waited a week before interviewing Ben Smith. It was Friday, April 14, when I drove to Smith’s home in Brooklyn, where he lives in a neighborhood that feels like a leafy suburb, full of picturesque Victorian homes. about his new book, Traffic, now out of Penguin Press, incorporating his former boss Jonah Peretti lands in the middle of the story. (Nick Denton too, but more on that later.)
In the book, a post-mortem account of the digital media revolution in the mid-2000s, we follow Peretti from his origins as Huffington Post CO-FOUNDER FAMOUS for a 2001 viral stunt email to Nike about his rise to Buzzfeed as one of the towering CEOs of the digital age. Editor-in-chief of PERETTI for eight years. Together they built Buzzfeed News from the ground up and turned it into a Pulitzer Prize-winning brand that became a talent farm for legacy institutions such as The New York Times, who, for example, hired Smith in 2020 as a media columnist.
So we sat on Smith’s porch talking about BuzzFeed, and of course neither of us knew that BuzzFeed News would be gone in another six days, the latest in a series of grim cost-cutting measures at Peretti’s 17-year-old. company, grappling with macroeconomic pressures, the shifting landscape of content distribution, and the lingering fallout from a disastrous IPO. Still, one of my questions turned out to be foresight.
A few weeks earlier I had received an email from Jill Abramson, the former Time executive editor who made BuzzFeed a major character in her own book several years ago. Before I left for Brooklyn, I texted Abramson and asked if I could read Smith’s email and get his reply. She certainly said:
Is it because we’re all charmed by Peretti that the scandalous scam that was his highly anticipated IPO hasn’t really been investigated? Key questions: How much money did he make from the deal? How much did Ben Smith make on his stocks? “A viral Nike chain of emails many years ago has turned into an epic mess. Was Peretti’s ‘genius’ a complete chimera all along?”
“I mean, if she says the stock is worth a dollar,” Smith said, “that’s exactly true.” He took out his phone to check. “96 cents.” He also declined to quantify the returns on his BuzzFeed shares. : “I don’t share the millennial compulsion to disclose your personal income.”
And the part about whether Peretti was just fooling us all along?
“No, Jonah is actually a genius. I think he looked around the corner and saw social media and saw these changes coming, but he overestimated the extent to which he could channel or control them. I always felt like I was collaborating with someone who could see a little bit into the future. But he also had never run a news organization. And so he could often say, ‘Hey, this is what the world will be like in five years,’ which is an incredible insight. And I would say, ‘Okay, what are we going to do now?’ He would say, “I don’t know, we have to find out.” But he could really look around the corner.”
The following week, as Peretti’s announcement circulated far and wide, Smith would eventually expand on these thoughts in a BuzzFeed News requiem published by his new digital media organization, Semafor, co-founded last year with ex-Bloomberg honcho Justin Smith.
“The end of BuzzFeed News,” Smith wrote, “signals a massive shift in digital media that those of us living in it are feeling intensely right now, the end of one era and the beginning of another. Peretti had built BuzzFeed into a Traffic JuggernAnt by being among the first to see the emerging social web But Buzzfeed NEVER FOUND A NEW WAY, THEN TREND TREND TREND AGAINST US — When Consumers Discovered Their Facebook Feeds, Poisonous, Not Delightful; When Platforms Decided News Was Poison ; and then Facebook, Twitter , and the rest of them just stopped giving out links to websites… Those of us lucky enough to be building from scratch at this new moment should realize that the old way of thinking about news – based on text on the World Wide Web and distributed mainly on social media – is over. But the question of understanding what is happening in the world has not disappeared.”
Back on Smith’s porch, I’ve been racking his brains on other topics that have bewitched media commentary lately. AI in newsrooms?
“These things are language tools and we should use them to the extent that they are valuable. I’ve found ChatGPT to be very good at editing texts, and I see no problem asking it to find typos. We’re not to use it to write articles or anything like that For me, the most interesting use cases are in video, where many types of animation are very, very technical and very, very expensive, and there’s no way a newsroom of our size, or Probably yours, could make an animated mini-documentary costing a hundred thousand dollars.