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Thursday, January 27, 2022

New York Times star columnist Ben Smith leaves to create a media startup

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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 apex of the once-frothy new media startup market. It turns out that disruptors like BuzzFeed didn’t have the resources and ambition to take down the Media establishment after all.

The Times, in particular, which seemed vacillating at the beginning of the decade, has reformed itself. It had a thriving business model because it traded ad dollars for reader subscription dollars. He was making excellent press, and he was amassing the best talent. “The New York Times used to be afraid of BuzzFeed. Now they’ve hired their biggest star,” said this guy.

Now, Smith is leaving The New York Times for… a new media company. It’s an as-yet-unnamed outfit he’s been building jointly with Justin Smith, who has run Bloomberg Media for eight years. Time for a fresh new combo?

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Maybe not. Since Smith’s departure from BuzzFeed, The Times has continued to spend aggressively on handpicking aspiring journalists from both digital and traditional outlets. We’re especially aware of this at Vox, since the New York Times staffer list 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 are going to do when he moves into the most established media organization and backs out. I got the quotable version of the shrug emoji: “accordion,” Smith told me today. “The pendulum is swinging.”

My translation: Both Ben Smith and Justin Smith are incredibly ambitious – ambitious enough that keeping two of the best gigs in the media wasn’t enough for them. By creating things of their own – funded by other people’s money – they will be owners, not just employees. This was an offer made by a lot of startups a few years ago, but it’s a lot less convincing for most journalists now that we’ve seen a generation of media startups bump their heads.

Which means the Smiths are pretty confident they can fund this thing on a large scale right from the start. David Bradley, who owned Atlantic Magazine and hired Justin Smith as CEO of his business there, already told The Wall Street Journal he wanted to invest.

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But Bradley sold his largest stake in Atlantic to Lauren Powell Jobs in part because he didn’t have unlimited money to support the press. So it’s possible that the Smiths need more than their money. Powell Jobs herself is not an investor in the new venture, a person familiar with her business told me.

Ben Smith was unwilling to tell me more about his supporters: “We’ll announce it when we’re ready.” (If you’d like to get a feel of how hard it can be to get anything useful out of Smith when he’s in the mood, check out his fun and crazy interview with The New Yorker.)

Speaking of translations: what exactly does the Smiths want to build? It’s going to be big, they say, as they focus on a theoretical audience of “200 million college learners around the world” — a curious descriptor used by Ben Smith in the New York Times, and also attributed to David Bradley by Justin Smith in the magazine.

And beyond that, it’s totally ambiguous. “I think there is a lot of room for innovation in the newsroom,” Ben Smith told me, adding that perceptions of bias and media organizations serving social media have eroded the trust news consumers have in other media.

huh? I understand that this position comes from Justin Smith, who has spent the past eight years at a publisher making great efforts to present itself as a completely dry, fact-based news provider to the business audience. Much less so than Smith, who is happy to change journalistic norms. He’s the man who published what’s known as the famous “Trump Dossier” in 2017, which angered major publishers at the time and still is to this day.

I also don’t think everything the Smiths say about their new posts is very important, even to the people who support them or go to work for them. They will sell the new establishment based on their resumes and output before it begins producing press. And once he really starts making things, that’s the important thing.

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If you want to hear more of Justin Smith’s thoughts, you can listen to my Recode Media interview with him last fall – when it turns out he was talking to Ben Smith about launching this new project.

And in the meantime, let us give the last word to Ben Smith: in response to my suggestion that his tenure at The Times, which began on 1 March 2020, was short. “Does the period starting in March 2020 seem short to you?” Smith said.

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