When Ben Smith left BuzzFeed to join the New York Times two years ago, the conventional wisdom in media circles was that the move signaled the top of the once-frothy new media startup market. Would-be disrupters like BuzzFeed, it turned out, didn’t have the resources and ambition to displace Establishment Media after all.
And the Times, in particular, which looked wobbly at the beginning of the decade, had righted itself. It had a thriving business model because it had swapped out advertising dollars for reader subscription dollars. It was making excellent journalism, and it was hoovering up the best talent. “The New York Times used to be afraid of BuzzFeed. Now it’s hired its biggest star,” said this guy.
Now, Smith is leaving the NYT for a … new media startup. It’s a yet-to-be-named outfit he’s building in conjunction with Justin Smith, who has been running Bloomberg Media for eight years. Time for a new, new narrative?
Maybe not. Since Smith’s departure from BuzzFeed, the Times has continued to spend aggressively to pluck ambitious journalists from digital and traditional outlets. We’re particularly aware of it at Vox, since the list of NYT hires includes Ezra Klein, who co-founded Vox in 2014 and moved to the Times at the end of 2020.
So I asked Smith himself what we were to make of his move into the Most Established Establishment Media and back out. I got the quotable version of a shrug emoji: “The accordions accordion,” Smith told me today. “The pendulum swings.”
My translation: Both Ben Smith and Justin Smith are incredibly ambitious — ambitious enough that holding down two of the top gigs in media wasn’t enough for them. By creating their own thing — funded with other people’s money — they’ll be owners, not just employees. That was a pitch that lots of startups made a few years ago, but is much less persuasive for most journalists now that we’ve seen a generation of media startups bump their heads on the ceiling.
Which means the Smiths are very confident they can fund this thing at scale, from the start. David Bradley, who used to own the Atlantic and employed Justin Smith as his top business executive 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 didn’t have unlimited funds to support journalism. So the Smiths will likely need more than his cash. Powell Jobs herself is not an investor in the new venture, a person familiar with her business tells me.
Ben Smith wasn’t willing to tell me any more about his backers: “We’ll announce it when we’re ready to.” (If you want to get a sense of how difficult it is to get anything useful out of Smith when he’s in gnomic mode, check out his pleasant and maddening interview with the New Yorker.)
Speaking of translations: What exactly do the Smiths want to build? It will be big, they say, and they’re focused on a theoretical audience of “200 million college-educated people around the world” — a curious descriptor Ben Smith used in the New York Times, and one that David Bradley also attributed to Justin Smith in the Journal.
And beyond that, it’s quite fuzzy. “I think there’s an enormous amount of space to innovate in the newsroom,” Ben Smith told me, adding that perceptions of bias, and media organizations that catered to social media, had weakened the trust news consumers had in other media outlets.
Huh? I understand that positioning coming from Justin Smith, who has spent the past eight years at a publisher that takes great pains to present itself as a bone-dry, just-the-facts news purveyor for a business audience. Much less so from Smith, who delights in tweaking journalistic convention. He is the guy who famously published the so-called “Trump Dossier” in 2017, which enraged mainstream publishers at the time and does to this day.
I also don’t think that whatever the Smiths say about their new publication matters that much, even to the people who back them or go to work for them. They’ll sell the new org based on their resumes and output before it starts producing journalism. And once it actually starts making stuff, that’s the thing that will matter.
If you want to hear more of Justin Smith’s thoughts, you can listen to this Recode Media interview I conducted with him last fall — when, it turns out, he was talking with 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 brief. “Does the period beginning March 2020 seem short to you?” Smith said.