Ben Smith discusses new media’s rise and fall, the power of individual voices, and journalism’s future.
In the early 2000s, a significant media-business mistake emerged: the belief that website traffic is a commodity like oil, which would generate increased revenue as advertising improved. However, unlike other commodities, traffic lacked scarcity. The internet made traffic virtually infinite, posing challenges for new media-business models.
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Ben Smith, former founding editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, former media columnist for The New York Times, and author of Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion Dollar Race to Go Viral, discusses the rise and fall of new media like Gawker and BuzzFeed, the impact and consequences of megaplatforms like Facebook and Twitter, and the shifting landscape of contemporary journalism.
Smith examines the fluctuating trust in legacy news brands and the growing power of individual voices over faceless institutions, drawing parallels to developments in Hollywood, sports, and politics. Smith highlights the recent decline in both social media’s influence, and as a destination for news and information, and how this has led to more readers visiting homepages directly. He also emphasizes that conservative media outlets appear to have derived the most valuable insights from the social media era, adapting their strategies to thrive in the changing landscape.
Looking ahead, Smith suggests that journalism must help beleaguered consumers navigate the vast information landscape by providing context and a clear voice. He speculates that this may involve a return to some of the principles of print journalism — concision and an editorial perspective — while adapting to the digital era’s demands.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. If it’s true that the medium is the message, then it should also be true that the history of how media and news has been delivered over the past 20 years should tell us how it shaped our politics, our culture and how we came to this place at this time. Back in the early 2000s, after the first dot-com crash, social media and, as it came to be known, digital media would become the driver of the rebirth of the internet. The power and reach of social media and the billions of dollars in VC-fueled media investments would create a new digital media landscape.
Brands like Gawker, BuzzFeed, Jezebel, The Huffington Post, and Vice would come to dominate our media diets. And around the same time, legacy media was on life support. A Mexican billionaire would be needed to bail out The New York Times; Jeff Bezos would buy The Washington Post at a bargain price; and Rupert Murdoch would buy The Wall Street Journal.
Oh, how things have changed. Today BuzzFeed has just abandoned the news business, Vice is on the brink of bankruptcy, Gawker has been erased, and social media is in its nadir. Only conservative media seems to have learned all the right and wrong lessons of that period.
All of this as we sit on a new wave coming in. Media in all its forms is now pull rather than push. Instead of the news just being pushed out to us, we get to pick and choose. Today Substacks and subscription news are invited into our inbox, just as the pull and personal intimacy of podcasts have replaced radio, and streaming has replaced broadcast TV. Like the Disney song says, it’s a whole new world.
And how we got here is the story that my guest, Ben Smith, tells in his riveting new book, Traffic. Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of Semafor, a new global news company. He is the former media columnist for The New York Times and the founding editor of BuzzFeed News. It is my pleasure to welcome Ben Smith here to talk about Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral. Ben Smith, thanks so much for joining me here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Ben Smith: Thank you so much for having me on and for the kind words.
Jeff: It’s a delight to have you here. Go back to the early 2000s and talk a little bit about what the media landscape, particularly in New York, was looking like then. It really seemed in many ways it was the center of the media universe.
Ben: Yes. Well, in the early 2000s, one thing you have to remember is that The New York Times, Condé Nast, the big broadcast networks and cable networks really still seemed like these unchallengeable colossuses. And at that time in New York there was this little scene of people starting to play around on the internet, on this new set of platforms, and to start to think about what a future of digital media would look like at a time when the internet seemed like this little, small space where you could play around while the grownups were doing real things in print and on television.
And if you went to the website of a Condé Nast magazine like The New Yorker, you would literally just get a page that said, “Please subscribe to our print magazine,” and that was it, even though lots of people were actually on the internet looking for news. And so these entrepreneurs and visionaries and maniac — people like Jonah Peretti, who founded BuzzFeed, and Nick Denton, who founded Gawker — started to develop theories of how you could take this new digital distribution and to some degree challenge or replace these huge, apparently formidable brands.
Jeff: And talk about how social media was an important and really vital link in those conversations and how the vision was carried forward.
Ben: People had different theories of what the internet could do. Nick Denton, who created Gawker, really thought the core thing it could do is take away the hypocrisy of old media. One of the most delightful versions of that, their site, Jezebel, put a $10,000 bounty on an unretouched photo from a women’s magazine, and somebody purloined a photo from Redbook of a country singer who still had freckles and smile lines before they photoshopped them out, and they published that. And there was this idea, well, digital media will give you the real truth, not the photoshopped official version.
But Jonah Peretti, who created BuzzFeed, had this other idea, which was that this new growing social media was going to mean that the way most people consume most news and entertainment would be by getting it from a friend on a social network, by somebody sharing it with them. And if that’s the case, the thing that media companies have to spend all their time thinking about is what’s the sort of thing people want to share, and how do we make that? And if you remember BuzzFeed lists and quizzes in the early days, and also, when I got to BuzzFeed in 2012, a lot of the way we thought about news was, you have all these people on Twitter, on Facebook — what are the questions they’re asking? How do we answer them?
And we had another theory that I think turned out to be just unbelievably wrong about how social media would work, which was that people in this public space sharing content with each other are going to be their best selves. You don’t want to look like some weirdo yelling about politics. You want to be somebody who is sharing cute pictures of cats or informative articles or a link to a fundraiser for earthquake victims. And we thought that this would be a basically positive space — Twitter and Facebook — which did not, in fact, turn out to be the case.
Jeff: And one of the things that was particularly interesting was the mix of content, that it could be those cute pictures of cats next to a Pulitzer Prize article, and it was really reflective, in theory, of the way people viewed social media.
Ben: Yes. I actually think there was a social and political change, so it wasn’t just a technical media story. When the Facebook News Feed was new to being broadly used and was perfected in 2011, 2012, 2013, I do think a lot of people thought, “Wow, this is cool. I’m seeing the articles my friends are reading, I’m seeing their baby pictures and wedding pictures, and I’m seeing some funny jokes. And it’s all mixed up together, but it reflects that I’m a person who likes news and also cares about my friends’ kids, and it’s reflective of my life.” And people liked that mix, and BuzzFeed in particular thought, “Okay, we’ll build a media property that reflects that Facebook News Feed.”
I think as politics turned incredibly polarizing and divisive come 2015, suddenly you open this app and everybody you know is yelling at each other about Donald Trump. That’s a much less pleasant experience for everyone, and news also feels darker and more serious and less like something you want to see in the context of other parts of your life. And I think both the platforms started to try to figure out how to deal with that and users didn’t really like it.
Jeff: You talk about the rivalry that existed, or the difference in approach between Gawker and Nick Denton and Buzzfeed and Jonah Peretti and you. Talk a little bit about what that difference was all about.
Ben: It was really this initially quite positive but also a little bit values-free idea that we had a “buzzfeed,” that we’re going to try to create whatever people want to share, and not without limit, but that we’re not trying to impose our taste or our philosophy on this. We’re trying to figure out, almost psychologically, what is the thing that people will share? And I think at Gawker it was much more, we know that people pretend that they want to read Pulitzer Prize-winning articles and really what they want is pornography, so we’re just going to give them the pornography, and that’s the thing the internet can do.
Which I think taken to its logical extreme, which they really did, meant publishing sex tapes in particular — nonconsensually, from celebrities, from regular people, which was the thing that ultimately got them put out of business.
Jeff: And one of the things at this time and place, also, was lots of money, lots of VC money that was being thrown at companies like yours, companies like Gawker, and there really wasn’t necessarily a clear business model to go along with it.
Ben: Yes. Well, there was a bet that a particular idea, which was that cable had been— In the 1980s companies had laid cables in the ground, and the cable operators decided that the way that they would get people to use their service was to create an economic environment where companies like MTV, CNN, ESPN could build huge businesses. And the cable provider would make money, these content companies would make money, and the consumer would have really high quality — if that’s what you would call it — stuff to watch that they couldn’t get on broadcast TV.
And the bet that these venture capitalists were making was essentially that places like Facebook and Twitter would follow that path, that they would feel the need to have professional journalism, high-quality entertainment running through their pipes, and these companies that have gotten very good at making that kind of stuff that lived on their platforms would eventually become business partners for them, because they would need to have a healthy ecosystem where everybody was making money and that there would be enough to go around for these companies.
The reality was that they preferred to rely on user-generated content, which came to them for free, and never saw any point in becoming in a big way platforms for professional content. They didn’t want to compete with The New York Times on journalism, they didn’t want to compete with, say, Netflix on professional entertainment. I actually think if you think about it now, when you see the Facebook app losing cultural relevance and Twitter spinning out, whether that was a good choice or a mistake by them is an interesting question, but it certainly meant that this path that these investors imagined would make everybody rich in new media just totally dead-ended. I think the reason you’ve seen in recent weeks a bunch of companies cut or go out of business is fundamentally because this whole system didn’t work out the way they’d hoped.
Jeff: When was it clear, or at least hints of the fact, that it might not work out from a business perspective?
Ben: I think by 2016, 2017, at least for me, was when— And I think it was bound up in politics, because I think the extent to which politics have become this toxic, divisive thing, and social media company executives were being called in front of Congress to explain their role in it, made the companies very, very shy of news. If they had any interest in getting into the media business or the news business before that, I think that taught them that this was incredibly dangerous and distracting for them and they wanted to stay away.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about how this was all measured, because one of the ongoing debates was always whether page views were more important or just clicks were more important, and there was all this talk at the time about eyeballs — and, as you titled your book, about traffic.
Ben: Yes. I think that one of the core business mistakes, really, was this idea that in the early aughts, and it felt reasonable at the time, you were getting traffic, which was this very new, precise measure of audience attention, and you could sell it. You could get $9 for 2,000 eyeballs, a thousand views, on your website. And it didn’t seem crazy in that moment to think, huh, that we have this very rudimentary way of displaying advertising and we have a little bit of traffic, and the way this is going to evolve is we’re going to get better at producing the advertising and we’ll get more traffic, and this will be a huge business.
And in some sense we’ve discovered a new commodity, like oil or something, like we’re just going to be more of it, we’re going to make more money. But the thing is, the defining feature of commodities is that they’re scarce, and traffic turned out to be effectively infinite. And so instead of the price going up, the price went down, and that was a huge challenge for these new media businesses that depended on advertising.
Jeff: And because there was so much money being thrown at all this at the time, was there attention at all being paid on any end, the business side or the editorial side, to really what the economic consequences might be?
Ben: Yes. We weren’t total idiots. We were perhaps idiots, but we certainly— And I think people at all these companies, and if you read their fundraising decks from the time, they would say, “We have this dangerous dependence on Facebook and on traffic at a certain scale,” but it was also addictive, and the scale was so enormous that it was hard to tell people to ignore it or to play away from it and go try to build a business somewhere else when there was this booming new source of readers.
Jeff: Talk about how all of this that you write about in Traffic and that we’ve been talking about, has led us to where we are today. The way all of this has gone away, and how what we see as the detritus of all of this leads to the framework of the news business today.
Ben: Yes. The pendulum in media always swings, but I think where we are now is that consumer— Ultimately readers, I think, wound up feeling that this social media space, which 20 years ago felt so wide open and interesting and such a valuable alternative to a mainstream media that wasn’t really on the internet, that wasn’t communicating the way people really communicated — and that, by the way, had gotten the biggest story of its generation, the Iraq War, totally wrong — there was a real, I remember, excitement at this possibility that you would be able to find different voices and different perspectives.
Now, I think if you are a person on the internet trying just to figure out what is going on, you’re facing the chaos of these declining social media sites that really don’t do a particularly good job anymore of just telling you the basic question of what’s happening today. And so I think it’s very reasonable that people are both returning to trusted brands and looking for, and I think this is the change, individual voices who can help them navigate this very confusing, complicated moment.
Jeff: Talk about that, the individual voices in the sense of trust, not in institutions, but in individuals. And was there a way in which that has grown out of this whole period that we’ve been talking about, and that it’s part of the institutional distrust of those kind of brands and move towards individuals.
Ben: Yes, I think that’s a huge trend, and it’s not a particular trend connected to the news business. If you look over the last hundred years starting in Hollywood, the power shifted from the studio model to the star. And I think you see that in sports. You certainly see it in politics, where political figures are more important than their political parties. And I do think that’s now what you’re seeing in news and other kinds of media, and you can identify people as influencers or personal brands, and journalists hate it when you talk like that.
But I do think that one of the things that, certainly, you’re seeing now is, yes, audiences who distrust institutions looking to understand who, really, they’re talking to. And certainly, the company I just started, Semafor, is really trying to build around that idea, that we’re going to be really transparent with you about who’s doing the reporting, what they really think.
Jeff: And how much of this is an outgrowth of — and you talked about it vis-à-vis Hollywood — of celebrity culture really transformed to the news business?
Ben: I think “celebrity culture” sounds very derogatory, but I think it’s just this long-term trend, whether you like it or not. Barack Obama was more important than the Democratic Party, LeBron is, in some sense, bigger than the Lakers. And it’s, I think, part of how people organize their lives now, is that they don’t have a lot of trust in the faceless institution and want to know who they’re talking to.
Jeff: There’s also this sense of a pull right now, instead of push. The news, instead of being pushed out to us, that we get to select, the audience gets to select who they want to read, when they want to read it. Talk about that.
Ben: Let’s see. I think that the social media age really meant it was this endless flow of content that was optimized for telling you what you wanted to hear, most of all. I’m not sure if it’s exactly what I’d call a pull, but I think at its worst it was really, rather than informing you, about giving you stuff that would keep you stuck to Facebook or to Twitter, that would engage you, sometimes by enraging you. But I do think we’re shifting to a place where readers are being more selective about who they’re hearing from and less interested in taking the full blast hose of social media.
Jeff: And it’s more about what comes into your inbox as opposed to going, necessarily, to somebody’s home page and picking and choosing there.
Ben: There was a thesis that home pages and websites were going away and being replaced by social media. I actually think they’re back. I think people are increasingly looking to sources that they trust and are familiar with.
Jeff: How is this impacting the legacy brands today and trust in institutions?
Ben: In the short run I think the decline of social media has obviously been good for these legacy brands, particularly The New York Times. People have come back to it and their subscription business is doing great. I think in the medium term, the challenge for all these institutions, the journalistic institutions in particular, is that they’re built in the Industrial Age to treat journalists as cogs in their big machine, but we’re in a moment when stars have a lot of leverage, have a lot of power, can command big salaries, and they have to find a way to square those two different cultures.
Jeff: One of the things you talk about in Traffic is that conservative media, or at least some of the people in conservative media, did learn a lot of lessons from this period in the early 2000s.
Ben: Yes. I think that it’s not just that they learned lessons. This new social media, which as you said is in some ways just inherently an assault on institutions of all sorts, was really well suited to this new right-wing populism in particular, which was anti-institutional. Part of its style was transgressive, confrontational public statements that would drive exactly the kind of engagement that these social platforms were built to amplify, that often were not particularly concerned with truth, and, in Donald Trump’s case, would say things that weren’t true as a provocation, to get attention.
In fact, in 2016 — I talked about this in the book — I went to see Steve Bannon, the chairman of Trump’s campaign, in Trump Tower. He had just finished running Breitbart and he had made a real study of digital media in general, and he had this one real puzzlement about BuzzFeed, where I was then working, which was why hadn’t we gone all in for Bernie Sanders the way they had for Donald Trump? I was like, “Well, we’re journalists. We want to be fair, we want to cover all the campaigns equally,” and he just couldn’t follow that. They had supported Trump in part because that’s where the traffic was, that’s where the political energy was, and they followed it. It’s a totally different way of looking at the world.
Jeff: There’s also a sense that the distrust of institutions that we talked about was another thing that fed into populism in many respects.
Ben: Yes, I think it was totally part— I mean, I think maybe that’s the definition of populism, but it was certainly bound up with these big, new revolts of the 2010s against the established politics left and right.
Jeff: What do you see are the trends now? What do you see as what’s next? I mean that you think about vis-a-vis Semafor and the things that you’re doing.
Ben: I think that what’s next right in this moment is to try to help consumers, who feel overwhelmed by the amount of stuff out there and unsure what to trust, navigate that space and to do that with the voices of really good journalists who know what they’re talking about and who, in our style of journalism, very explicitly separate the facts from our own analysis or opinion and go out of our way to bring in other opinions, views from elsewhere.
Jeff: It really is aggregation but with a voice. It seems to be combining some previous trends.
Ben: Yes, I think that’s right. This is not, as they say, rocket science. There’s only so many different things you can do in journalism. But I do agree, this is a return to, in some ways, the values of print. I don’t think people are going back to print, but I think the notion that you’re getting something that has a level of hierarchy and concision and an editorial perspective but is also going— is a traditional older news value.
The oldest news media, like the Associated Press in the old days, was largely reading other people’s stuff and aggregating it. I do think that another service that journalism can provide right now is just to go out into this totally chaotic, splintered information space and find the stuff you want to see so that you don’t have to be spending your days doing that.
Jeff: And at the same time, though, putting it in some kind of context and giving it some kind of voice to pull it all together.
Ben: Yes, that’s exactly right. In a perspective where you may not exactly agree with every single thing this person thinks, but at least you have a sense of who they are and where they’re coming from.
Jeff: Ben Smith, his book is Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral. Ben, I thank you so very much for spending time with us today here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Ben: And thank you so much for taking the time.
Jeff: Thank you, and thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.
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