When Ben Smith left BuzzFeed to join the New York Times two years ago, the traditional wisdom in media circles was that the move signaled the pinnacle of the once frothy new media startup market. Potential disruptors like BuzzFeed, it turned out, did not have the resources and ambitions to displace Establishment Media after all.
And especially the Times, which looked shaky at the beginning of the decade, had corrected. It had a thriving business model because it had swapped ad dollars out with reader subscription dollars. It did excellent journalism and it was to pick up the best talent. “The New York Times used to be afraid of BuzzFeed. Now it’s hired its biggest star,” the guy said.
Now Smith is leaving NYT for a new media startup. It’s an outfit yet to be named, he’s building with Justin Smith, who’s run Bloomberg Media for eight years. Time for a new, new story?
Maybe not. Since Smith’s departure from BuzzFeed, the Times has continued to spend aggressively recruiting ambitious journalists from digital and traditional businesses. We are particularly aware of this at Vox, as the list of NYT hires includes Ezra Klein, who co-founded Vox in 2014 and moved to the Times in late 2020.
So I asked Smith himself what we should do with his move to the most established media and return. I got the quoted version of a shrug emoji: “The accordion accordion,” Smith told me today. “The pendulum swings.”
My translation: Both Ben Smith and Justin Smith are incredibly ambitious – ambitious enough that it was not enough for them to keep two of the best concerts in the media down. By creating their own things – financed with the money of others – they become owners, not just employees. It was a pitch that many startups made a few years ago, but is much less compelling for most journalists now that we’ve seen a generation of media startups bang their heads in the air.
Which means the Smiths are very confident that they can finance this thing on a large scale from the start. David Bradley, who used to own Atlantic and hired Justin Smith as his top business manager there, has already told the Wall Street Journal that he wants to invest.
But Bradley sold his majority stake in the Atlantic to Laurene Powell Jobs, in part because he did not have unlimited funds to support journalism. So Smiths will probably need more than his money. Powell Jobs herself is not an investor in the new venture, says a person familiar with her business.
Ben Smith was not willing to tell me more about his backers: “We will announce it when we are ready for it.” (If you want to get a sense of how hard it is to get something useful out of Smith when he’s in gnomic mode, check out his enjoyable and insane interview with the New Yorker.)
Speaking of translations: What exactly does Smiths want to build? It’s going to be big, they say, and they’re focused on a theoretical audience of “200 million college-educated people around the world” – a curious description that Ben Smith used in the New York Times and one that David Bradley also attributed to Justin Smith and Journal.
And besides, it’s pretty fuzzy. “I think there’s a huge amount of room to innovate in the newsroom,” Ben Smith told me, adding that the perception of bias and media organizations turning to social media had weakened the trust that news consumers had in other media.
What? I understand that the positioning comes from Justin Smith, who has spent the last eight years at a publishing house that makes an effort to present itself as a boneless news provider to a business audience. Much less from Smith, who is happy to adjust journalistic convention. He is the one who famously published the so-called “Trump Dossier” in 2017, which made mainstream publishers furious at the time and does so to this day.
Nor do I think that no matter what Smiths says about their new release means so much, even to the people who back them up or go to work for them. They will sell the new organization based on their resumes and output before it starts producing journalism. And once it actually starts doing things, that’s what matters.
If you want to hear more about Justin Smith’s thoughts, you can listen to this Recode Media interview I conducted with him last fall – then, it turns out he talked to Ben Smith about launching this new venture.
And in the meantime, let’s give Ben Smith the last word: a response to my suggestion that his tenure at the Times, which started on March 1, 2020, had been short. “Is the period beginning March 2020 short for you?” said Smith.