Ben Smith spent eight years building BuzzFeed’s news operation into a place that could compete with the New York Times. Now he’s going to work for the New York Times.
Smith, BuzzFeed News’ editor-in-chief, will become the Times’ new media columnist in March. That position was filled by the Times’s Jim Rutenberg for the past four years, but it is known in and outside of the paper as a platform created by the legendary David Carr, who died in 2015.
It makes perfect sense that the Times would want to hire Smith, a politics and media junkie with deep interest in the connections between Washington, New York, and Silicon Valley.
And Smith is one of several high-profile hires the Times has made from digital news operations. It’s a marked evolution from 2014, when the paper commissioned an internal report about how to compete with the likes of BuzzFeed and Vox.
Back then, the Times was only a few years away from a recession that looked like it might mortally wound the paper, even as online upstarts picked up funding and buzz. Now, riding high on a business model that emphasizes subscriber revenue over advertising dollars, the Times is in a position to pick up talent from anywhere on the web and doesn’t think twice about it. And the Voxs, BuzzFeeds, and Vices of the world are figuring out how to survive as cheap and plentiful investor money has disappeared, while smaller operations like Mic.com and Mashable have folded or sold at fire-sale prices.
Smith’s departure from BuzzFeed immediately raised questions about the future of that organization’s well-regarded, money-losing news team, which he constructed himself. It also leaves BuzzFeed with two major hires to make: In addition to a successor to Smith, the company is still looking to hire a president to work under CEO Jonah Peretti as its top business executive. NBC’s Dylan Byers first reported Smith’s move.
Smith’s move comes a year after his news group laid off several dozen employees — the first time BuzzFeed had major cuts to Smith’s department. Up until then, Smith and Peretti had been able to protect the news group, even as BuzzFeed made other layoffs.
Smith says his departure isn’t connected to those cuts, and that he’s not concerned about BuzzFeed’s trajectory. “I’d been feeling that I wanted to get back to reporting,” he told Recode, shortly after sharing the news at a company meeting. But a Times source says the paper was certainly aware that BuzzFeed had retrenched in the last year, and that Smith might be open to a move.
One of Smith’s employees, speaking anonymously, said that in retrospect, Smith’s departure wasn’t a complete shock: “I feel like he basically had gotten a little burned out on management. I think there are reasonable questions about why now, but I think it was inevitable that he wasn’t going to stick around.”
Smith has periodically written columns for BuzzFeed, and in the last year launched his own newsletter for the site, where he interviewed presidential candidates and other political figures via text message.
Smith said he started talking to New York Times executives about the position in late December, which means the Times moved uncharacteristically quickly to hire him. Peretti says Smith told him about his plan to leave a few weeks ago.
“It was somewhat surprising,” Peretti told Recode. “But I knew that Ben was itching to write more and think more, and have time. … He’s a reporter first, and I know he often has that itch to write, and would occasionally disappear and go write some long piece.
“It’s been eight years. So it’s not like he’s flighty,” he added.
Peretti said he expected BuzzFeed to turn a profit this year, buoyed by diversified revenue streams and a fast-growing commerce business. But he said BuzzFeed News, with its 200 staffers, would still be operating in the red: “We don’t need news to be profitable. Our plan for the year is to lose money from news, and for BuzzFeed as a whole to be profitable.”
The Times, meanwhile, has become a consistent acquirer of journalistic talent from digital publications. Recode co-founder and editor-at-large Kara Swisher, for instance, is now a regular contributor to the Times op-ed page, and last year the Times hired Sarah Kliff, a star reporter at Vox.com, to joins its investigative team.
Smith is a well-known entity to many Times reporters and executives and has worked with several of them in earlier jobs, including Politico and the New York Observer. And Smith and the Times have long been interested in each other.
A Times profile of Smith in 2013, for instance, described him as “The Boy Wonder of BuzzFeed.” And here’s a piece Smith wrote in November about the internal jockeying to replace Dean Baquet, the top Times editor, who is scheduled to step down from his job in 2022.
If you don’t care about internal Times hires, you may still care about what happens to BuzzFeed News, which Smith built from a non-thing into a serious news organization that routinely competed with the Times and other legacy pubs for significant stories; under Smith’s watch, BuzzFeed was a finalist for two Pulitzer Prizes.
Smith may always end up being best-known as the editor who published, in its entirety, the unvetted “Trump Dossier” in the runup to Trump’s inauguration, but under his watch BuzzFeed News wrote significant stories about everything from fixed tennis matches to Amazon’s worrisome network of delivery drivers.
But BuzzFeed News has also been a money pit for BuzzFeed. It had a large team, and it didn’t generate enough money to cover the costs of those teams. For years, media insiders would speculate about BuzzFeed’s commitment to the large news operation, since the company’s revenue was coming from the advertising connected to its non-news operations, like quizzes and listicles.
Two years ago, when the Financial Times reported that Smith had floated the notion of carving out BuzzFeed News from the rest of the company and getting someone like billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs to fund the operation, the idea seemed both impractical and a good idea. Now he’s headed to a news company that has far fewer question marks.
Here’s an interview I conducted with Smith in September. And here’s one I did with Peretti earlier this month: