The buzz is gone: Ben Smith and the end of social media-driven journalism

The Semafor publisher's new book charts the media startup craze in NYC that led to BuzzFeed and Gawker

The day before BuzzFeed announced, in mid-April, that it was shuttering its news division, Ben Smith, the intrepid journalist and digital media pioneer, was seated in a Manhattan coffee shop and waiting for a tea that would never arrive as he contemplated the rise and fall of the social web.

As the founding editor of BuzzFeed News, where he lent a crucial layer of institutional authority to an upstart media site known for viral quizzes and cute animal photos, Smith had sought to balance an intense need for clicks with an otherwise dogged focus on scoop-driven reporting that won a Pulitzer Prize while ruffling the feathers of the legacy media class. 

The proposition, largely dependent on referral traffic from social media companies like Twitter and Facebook, was never as tenable as it may have seemed at BuzzFeed and competitors of its ilk, which have struggled to stay afloat or no longer exist. “It has not ended particularly well for that generation of companies,” Smith, 46, told Jewish Insider during a recent interview in Little Italy, not far from the offices of his new media venture, Semafor, which launched last fall.

But even Smith, who co-writes a dishy weekly newsletter on the media industry and was previously a media columnist for The New York Times, acknowledges that he had not anticipated the sudden demise of BuzzFeed News, which he left in 2020 after a decade-long run. “I had no idea,” he said in a brief email to JI days after the closure.

In many ways, however, Smith had already written its epitaph in his richly reported and somewhat rueful first book, Traffic: Genius, Rivalry and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral, which hit bookshelves on Tuesday. 

Smith’s debut book chronicles the trajectory of the media startup craze in New York City through the prism of two storied websites and the people who created them: Jonah Peretti, the idealistic data whiz who founded BuzzFeed in 2006, and his acid-penned foil, Nick Denton, the British-born reporter who had launched Gawker, the now-defunct gossip blog, four years earlier.

“It’s sort of an untold story,” Smith explained. “It was a real moment of dynamism and interesting stuff happening. And it was all right around here. It was right here.”

Smith, who came up as a political reporter at New York broadsheets, was never a part of that scene, even as he admired its chief actors mostly from afar. “I actually had always felt a little like there was this part that just predated me, my face pressed to the glass,” he told JI.

“I remember meeting Jessica Coen, who I thought was so cool, who wrote for Gawker when I was writing for The New York Observer, and asking her how many views she had a day — how much traffic she had,” he clarified. “She told me 100,000 views, and I just spat out my drink. Then she asked me how many views I was getting, and I changed the subject. I was embarrassed because it was like 1,000, which I thought was a lot.”

He would later draw far greater numbers while working at BuzzFeed, where he oversaw the publication of such viral news sensations as “the dress,” which set off a furious debate over the perception of color; a watermelon brought to explosion by an expanding coil of rubber bands; and, most controversially, the so-called Steele dossier, a trove of salacious and unverified allegations concerning former President Donald Trump.

Smith continues to stand by his decision to post the document online, even as he was criticized as reckless and drew litigation. “The notion that America could just be in this place where there was a secret document that all of the elites and most journalists had seen, and we were saying, ‘Trust us, if you see this, it will burn your eyes out, you can’t look at,’ does not feel like a tenable position,” he said. His mistake, he added, was that he had “overestimated the extent to which people would take our caveats and take the context and try to see what they make of the claims and understand some things were unverified.”

Still, the recovering online traffic junkie — who, in his book, details the visceral sense of excitement he felt as the dossier began to circulate online — ultimately concludes that the mad rush for clicks obscured a more sinister trend.

“The thing that genuinely surprised me in the reporting that became the conclusion,” he told JI, “was the degree to which the sort of right-wing populism and the most unhinged elements of digital media, which overlap but aren’t the same, were really totally there from the start, just literally there from the start.”

The narrative that Smith had long understood to be true, he said, was that former President Barack Obama had “represented the culmination” of what he characterized as a “youth-led digital social media movement.” But actually, “it was Donald Trump, and that reorientation was pretty interesting for me,” he said. “That Trump wasn’t the reversal of that trend; he was the culmination of that trend.”

While the book meditates on the roots of the right-wing digital mediasphere, including sections on Andrew Breitbart and Matt Drudge, among other figures, his main vector for exploring the dynamic is a former BuzzFeed staffer named Anthime Gionet.

An alt-right provocateur who rose to prominence during Trump’s first presidential campaign, Gionet, better known by his online alias, Baked Alaska, was among the rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, which he had giddily live-streamed for his followers. He was later sentenced to 60 days in jail.

To Smith, Gionet, who briefly worked for BuzzFeed’s entertainment division in Los Angeles, “was in some ways this incredibly pure product of that era,” he said.

“He had gotten into media by making Vines where he poured milk on his head because that’s what people on Vine wanted, and would just do anything to please this social media audience,” Smith told JI. “When being a Nazi became that, he just optimized his sort of empty persona into that in a way that just felt very pure, actually. The fact that it brought him to this central historical moment, it just seemed to capture a lot of where the reporting took me.”

Though Gionet didn’t speak with Smith while he was writing the book, he interviewed a number of major players, including the two rival protagonists, Peretti and Denton. The former Gawker publisher has kept a low profile since his site was forced into bankruptcy seven years ago following a high-profile lawsuit that was secretly funded by the billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel.

Denton would only cooperate via written communication, fitting for a serial media entrepreneur who is now at work on a new storymaking app that will, he believes, help precipitate what he calls “a Talmudic internet,” according to the book.

For his part, Smith, who admires Denton, seemed skeptical if also somewhat amused by his gestating project. “I think Genius was the closest anybody got to a Talmudic internet, but it didn’t quite work,” he said in the interview. “Mobile sort of disrupted the attempts to build these complex, annotated internets, because it works better on a large scroll than on a tiny screen.”

“If the rabbis of old had been forced to work in mobile,” he told JI, “the Talmud would never have happened.”

Smith, who is Jewish himself, got his start in journalism as an intern at what was then known as The Jewish Daily Forward, where he worked during the summer of 1998. “I totally fell in love with reporting at The Forward,” he said, noting that he had studied Yiddish as part of an effort to understand his beat.

Does he still remember the language? “A bissel,” he joked.

Later, he spent time abroad as a reporter in Latvia before eventually landing at Politico, where he helped usher in a new era of fast-paced online reporting that became an industry standard among his peers. He went on to BuzzFeed and then the Times, his last job before co-founding Semafor, where he oversees a staff of about 35 journalists covering American politics as well as global news developments.

Smith, whose mother and grandfather were both commercial writers, said he had never intended to publish a book. At BuzzFeed, he would “always tell people that they’d be crazy to write books because they’re just like inaccessible PDFs,” he said. But he changed his mind when he came to view the book simply as a reporting project on a subject that has long been of interest to him. “It was definitely an opportunity to answer a bunch of questions I actually have.”

He finished the book after Semafor had been launched. “The thing that working on the book helped me to realize while at Semafor was the extent to which that era has ended,” he said of the social media-driven period he documents in Traffic, which concludes in 2022. “You could really sort of draw a line under it.” 

In his new role, he said he has already “learned a ton of lessons” about starting a media company during what he characterized as a moment of  “very dramatic change” within the industry. “You need to be incredibly attuned to the distribution system of the moment, and what’s changing and where the audiences are and all these things,” he said. “But the answers to those questions are totally different than they were 10 years ago.”

“That whole moment of ‘what the world needs is, like, everybody talking about and sharing the exact same things and yelling at each other, everyone in the entire world in the same space yelling at the top of their lungs,’ nobody wants that anymore,” he argued. “I think what I’m seeing at Semafor, and what we’re seeing in media, is people want direct connection to human beings. They don’t want to feel like everything is algorithmically mediated.”

Meanwhile, though he believes that “media is very, very national,” most stories are “very, very global, whether it’s the rise of social media, the rise of the far right, or COVID,” he told JI. “You really can’t understand them correctly as domestic. I think there’s a lot of opportunity to be smarter about that stuff without, by the way, saying ‘your petty problems don’t matter at all.’”

The rise of antisemitism, for instance, “is a huge global story,” he said. “If you think that’s only about Trump, it’s only about the U.S., you’re sort of missing this big global picture.”

Even as he has continued to cover the media industry at Semafor, he acknowledged that he is not pursuing the beat as aggressively as he did at the Times, where his scoop-heavy weekly columns were a must-read among journalists. “Media is a great beat, and I did feel like I had been covering it for a while,” he said, noting that a colleague “has been doing a ton of the work” on their shared newsletter at Semafor

“The media is also a small world as a beat,” he added. “I did think at the Times, like, you’re just sort of waking up every morning and punching one of your friends in the face. And that gets a little old.”

The book, he suggested, was an opportunity to get some distance from the industry he is currently navigating while coming to terms with a previous era. 

“What I was trying to do,” he explained, “is really give insight into the origins of where we are now, where this all came from, and how these people in this part of Manhattan were thinking about it when they were sort of toying around with all these forces 20 years ago.”

And how it ended?

“We were all here,” he said, “for the ending.”

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