Very Fine Day #1: Ben Smith
BEN SMITH is a reporter who lives in New York. From 2011-2020 he was the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, and helped shape it into what you see today. Previously, he worked at Politico and the New York Observer. Now, he works as the New York Times media columnist.
VFD: OK. Ben Smith. New York Times. Can you hear me?
Ben Smith: Loud and clear.
VFD: OK. I guess the first thing I wanted to ask you, actually, on the subject of interviews: With you, and your role… I guess you interview people as well. And as I was thinking about this conversation, I was like: interviewing an interviewer is kind of a trippy experience. And I mean, you're talking to people in the media a lot, as well. So how do you approach it? Do you consider their jobs and the experiences they've had? And how they might be thinking about a conversation because they've interviewed people?
Ben Smith: You know, I guess I always think about interviews from the perspective of the audience, like what would be news that I could get from someone?
People are so… Many or most public people now are so available - people now are so available on Twitter, or are talking to random people on YouTube, or they're going on television - most of their views on the big issues of the day you can Google. And I think… I think that’s the reason I've never been a host of a show. I had a podcast for a little while, but I don't think I was that good at it.
I'm usually more interested in getting news out of people than making the audience kind of like me and have a great experience. Which sometimes means you ask really obnoxious questions repeatedly, or just sit there in silence for a while, which aren't always the most pro-social things to do. But I guess I often am thinking like, okay, what's the story that I can get out of this rather than what's the most interesting 30 minutes that I can produce?
VFD: Right. And where do you think that comes from?
Ben Smith: I mean, a personality flaw. Yeah. Y’know, there's actually a prohibition in sort of Orthodox Jewish – I'm not an Orthodox Jew but I'm Jewish – but there's a prohibition in Orthodox Jewish law against gossip and I feel like I just sort of violate it constantly, and it’s against sort of speaking negatively and kind of like, rooting around for secrets.
But I guess…maybe more seriously, it's that I really came up on the internet. And I think of information often in terms of, well, who'd be interested in this? Like, who would share it? Who'd be interested in this story? How would it travel? How would it play on the internet? And kind of work backwards to my reporting from the question of, y’know, who's interested in this? Rather than starting with, well, here I am with this very important person, let me enjoy myself.
VFD: And what was it that first itched that in you, I guess, when you were young?
Ben Smith: I mean, as a reporter? Y’know, I think just to be a reporter… this is really pre-internet, I think it’s that I am, and was, a fairly shy person.
But when you have a notebook it's this incredible excuse just to start a conversation. To ask questions that can give you an excuse to be in a place where you'd otherwise be standing around awkwardly. So I think that, to me personally, it was sort of why I really loved it.
I mean, I started blogging in the end of 2004. Just because I could, just kind of local reasons, it was clear that I had been so addicted to blogs during the presidential campaign, and I was sort of there as this local New York reporter looking for something to do. And it just seemed like an obvious thing to do.
VFD: So were you at a newspaper or something before then?
Ben Smith: I was at a weekly called the New York Observer. A weekly newspaper. And so I had all this information, you know, you… acquire information that's going to expire by the time that Tuesday comes around, your deadline. And so I would often be trading that information – I'd be calling sources and saying, hey, I heard this, what have you heard? or, trading it with other reporters.
Actually, namely, this New York Post reporter named Maggie Haberman. I would often be like, hey, I've got this. Do you have anything that I can use?
VFD: And then do you think that's something that this more current generation of journalists and reporters don't have as much of because of the internet? Or do you think it's just changed a bit? I guess, actually, the broader question there is: what do you think is different about reporting now compared to that early, kind of, dot com period?
Ben Smith: Well, the early dot com period, I think my sort of comparative advantage was that there was this artificial distinction between journalists and bloggers. And to be a blogger was just to, like, have an opinion on the internet. And to be a journalist was to be like, very serious and report facts. And the thing was that the bloggers had better technology, right?
Like journalists had to like… you wrote a story in some creaky old system, and you waited 12 hours, then it was stamped onto newspapers and carried all over the place. And y’know, if you actually wanted your sources to see it, you often had to fax it to them. Whereas bloggers could just publish directly to the Internet.
And so I think the thing that started happening when I was… the thing is I was among the people who started with saying: hey, let's take this obviously superior tool that the bloggers have and just use it for traditional reporting.
But y’know, incremental reporting: you empty your notebook all the time and do reporting kind of in public. And I think that was very valuable, though for a while you could still get away with – I remember I broke a big story in ‘07 about Rudy Giuliani. And his response was: “that's just some blogger.” Like that was a legitimate way to dismiss the story.
VFD: That's good… so from there did you get headhunted? Did you just get poached by Politico, or did you apply for that job? And…
Ben Smith: No, I went to The Daily News. I mean, I was sort of in this beautiful period where I was like the only local New York blogger which gave me, y’know, incredible news. It really meant that I had anything from New York politics, like: There's a press conference at 11am. I could go have lunch, write a very simple blog item saying there was a press conference and here's what happened at 2pm, and that was… that would be the only way to find out that this thing happened unless you read the newspaper the next day. So that didn't last. But for a while, there was just… it was kind of wide open space.
And the New York Daily News hired me to sort of do the same thing there. Which is a daily kind of a tabloid, although I basically just kind of wrote this blog there. And then yeah – Politico had tried to hire a couple of other people, Washington people, Chris Cillizza and some others. And they'd all said“no”. And then somebody mentioned that there was this guy doing something vaguely similar in New York, which is a totally different world, actually, New York and Washington. And so they hired me,
VFD: Why do you think they said “no”?
Ben Smith: I don't know. It was, I mean, y’know… new media ventures are sort of risky things, and can always just crash and burn. And there was another one that year. I think it was ‘07, and it was called HOTSOUP.COM. One of the great kind of disasters of new media, so you never really know.
VFD: Yeah, you didn't get approached by HOTSOUP.COM?
Ben Smith: I didn't! It was sort of a Huffington Post style thing, or like, political insiders would write on the internet. But they hadn't really thought about why anyone would…care? Y’know, it's like: and then what? It didn't go anywhere.
VFD: Yeah. So you're writing on the internet. You get picked up. You were saying that it didn't last… what was that period of time? And what was the signal to you that things were changing and more people were picking it up?
Ben Smith: Oh, I mean, almost immediately.
You do something that's that uncompetitive and other people start jumping in and competing with you. And so that was instant. Although then at Politico we again had a bit of a lead on the rest of the national press. Like, they were taking forever to put their stories online. And there were these huge gaps where everybody would know something, or at least a handful of reporters would know something, but we'd be the only ones who bothered putting it on the internet.
Again, I think that that advantage, that comparative advantage, faded pretty fast. And then the big outlets started putting it on the internet.
I mean, there was a period when if you showed up at a Barack Obama press conference with a handheld video camera and took a shaky shot, and then uploaded it to YouTube when you were done, that would be the only video of the thing for hours and hours and hours, even though there's a wall of cameras behind you, because they were all going into their truck and kind of moving the tape from one machine to the other machine and then having long conversations about which 12 seconds should appear on the evening news.
VFD: It's kind of like,
Ben Smith: It’s so dumb. I mean, a lot of these things that we did were so obvious and the reasons they succeeded were so dumb, it's sort of embarrassing to talk about.
VFD: Right! OK, so Politico… How long were you at Politico?
Ben Smith: Five years, five years,
VFD: …and then you move to BuzzFeed. How long did that process take between the two? Did you have one conversation?
Ben Smith: I hadn't… I sort’ve had been vaguely aware of BuzzFeed as a source of kind of weird entertaining videos, but not really known what it was at all. And I was very much in the sort of political world.
Jonah Peretti approached me, took me out to lunch, said, all these words about the social web that I didn't really understand. And I said, at the end, I was sort of like: Oh, this is cool but were you trying to hire me? This isn't for me. I'm not some… tech person. And we parted and then I went home and told my wife that I had this kind of weird conversation with this sort of interesting guy. And she was just like, “You're such an idiot.” Like: “Take the job!” And I was like, “What?!” So then I wrote him a memo. And it's like: “actually, if it's not too late, I would be interested…”
So… I think the thing that, once it was explained to me, that made sense, was that… at that point… if you were writing a blog you could feel that at the end of their day it was kind of done, and that all the energy, meaning your sources, your readers, had moved over to Twitter. And if you were writing a blog, what you wanted to see was that information go viral on Twitter. And what Jonah was talking about was a world where your audience opens Twitter.com, or Facebook.com, or Stumbleupon.com, on their desktop computers, rather than BuzzFeed.com. And that the challenge is to get your content onto those platforms, y’know, by making it good, basically, rather than to draw a returning audience to your page. We were pretty absolutist about that. We were sceptical that we should even have a front page of our website.
VFD: This is at BuzzFeed?
Ben Smith: Yeah, early on.
I mean, the landscape then immediately got more complicated. And I think, y’know, for a million reasons, there was this real clarity that was fun at the beginning. I remember telling Rosie Gray and Zeke Miller and Andrew Kaczynski, the sort of first reporters I hired, that the front page of the website you work for is Twitter.com. If it has already been on that page, you shouldn't write it because somebody else already wrote it. And like, all I want is scoops.
Which by the way is very, very fun for journalists, too. Like that's, that's a real fun challenge.
VFD: Do you think that Twitter kind of metaphor still plays out?
Ben Smith: Well, Twitter was almost short on content back then. There was lots of chatter and very little information. People would tweet things like… there'd be some incident, people would say, I wonder what so-and-so thinks about this? And you'd be like, well, I think I have this person's phone number, I will call him and ask him what he thinks.
And then all the people on Twitter will… there would be sort of obvious gaps where people and journalists and political junkies were having these conversations where actually there was sort of gettable information that would inform these conversations. And so you could pretty easily just go get it.
I mean, obviously, it became much more crowded and the participants… People would be like: Man, Israel just bombed this suspected nuclear site in Syria I wonder what Hezbollah thinks? Somebody would tweet that, or they’d be speculating what Hezbollah thought. And I’m like, Hezbollah has a PR guy in Beirut, you could call him.
Now he would just tweet what he thinks, right?
I think that sort of opportunity for journalists to kind of mediate it, to some degree, went away. And all the participants are just there. It also really got toxic and sort of awful in a bunch of other ways.
VFD: What Twitter? No!
Ben Smith: And honestly, I was slow to realise that, y’know. I wrote a blog about the 2008 election, and the comments section was a garbage fire. The people were so – it was about the Democratic Primary. And Clinton supporters and Obama supporters hated each other so much. And they were like… they hated me when I reported things that they didn't like, and doxxed me and harassed me and did all sorts of stuff that, partly because I'm a white guy, partly because I was living in a place that was separate from the world in Brooklyn, I kind of felt very separate from the world that I was writing about. Y’know, I sort of let it slide. Stuff that I think now I would like to call the police about. And once did have to call the police but I mostly operated under the illusion that like, Oh, this is fine. As long as I don't read the comments, that's fine.
And then, I don't know, at some point I, in retrospect, realised, Oh, we shouldn't have allowed that commenting culture to flourish. And it wasn't fun. It was mutating into something really dangerous. And something that lots of journalists who hadn't grown up in that environment, it was gonna chase them off the internet, really.
Because I also come from this New York political world where often the commenters were making insane threats and saying crazy stuff. But also they were literally people I knew. It was a small world where you're like, Oh, come on, this guy who I saw on the street yesterday, y’know, is calling me all these names. And is like, insulting my family…and he knows my family?? You know what I mean?
It was sort of more intimate in a way that made it insane. But… but not as threatening, I guess? Yeah. So I don't know. It's something I've thought about, in retrospect. It was sort of a joke to us that I had the worst comments section on the internet on my blog. But I didn’t think it had any… It just seemed like a sort of minor inconvenience and embarrassment, like somebody that’s writing graffiti on the wall. But no connection to this is starting to be how people interact with politics.
VFD: Yeah… Why do you think that that’s how people just sort of naturally turn now?
Ben Smith: Well I think social media, y’know, of which comments were of course an early form, encourages it, basically.
VFD: Hmm. Okay. Yeah. So let's go back. OK. Politico, BuzzFeed, I wanted to ask you, I guess, because you were head of BuzzFeed News for… seven years?
Ben Smith: Eight years.
VFD: Yeah, what was your original vision of BuzzFeed News? And then what was it when you left? How are they different?
Ben Smith: The original vision, I think the reason we succeeded initially was that it was just very clear and pure. It was: we're news for the social web, we’re news that you want to share, or news that cuts through these social platforms. And that is it. And there's like, lots of other kinds of valuable things being done, but we aren't doing them. We're not gonna tell you what happened today, we're not gonna aggregate, we're not gonna talk to an audience that already knows a lot and lives inside the context of the internet. And we're gonna break lots of news.
And then we're gonna sort of experiment with other things, starting in politics, but also tech, y’know, kind of tech in Silicon Valley… and we'll experiment with what other kinds of journalism we can do that with. Particularly what was then called longform.
Ben Smith: Back then magazines would often… when they publish a great article, they would publish it in a PDF, which would sort of get posted to the internet somewhere or kind of go semi-viral if it was really good. But like hand-to-hand. Or they would publish it on some website where it had 20 page breaks in order to get as many page views as possible. And so we just thought, like, again in very simple ways: well, what if you put it all on one page? And then also, what are the kinds of stories that are going to be shared? And they're different from the kinds of stories that are going to be clicked on, or that are going to make a good read when you open the magazine, and they're different from the kinds of stories that might get developed into movies also.
And they also had certain characteristics, they're often stories, particularly when they had a really strong female central character that a reader could identify with, and would want to share on Facebook, for instance.
Y’know, they were stories that had a real kind of emotional quality. They weren't… in that moment I think the most popular brand of magazine journalism was like: there's a guy who maybe just got out of the army, and he's like, got real personal problems, and also sort of is rakishly good looking and has lots of guns. And he like, goes and robs banks, but also, he's still sympathetic. And he's sort of like an antihero. And he's on this sort of like, madcap out of control, kind of dark adventure that both reveals something about American society and ends with him getting arrested or killed. And it was very much an Esquire story. And like, no one reads that on the internet, like, just zero people on the internet are gonna read that thing.
Ben Smith: It's like, maybe I mean… that's not my type of story. I guess there are lots of people who would read that book or watch that movie.
I don't know, maybe one of our most read stories in that moment was about a woman, a mom, a mother who had – it’s this great piece by Michelle Dean – a mother who had essentially forced her daughter to pretend to be disabled… and then the daughter had kind of eventually escaped from the situation.
VFD: Yeah I remember that.
Ben Smith: And I think she – the daughter or her boyfriend – had killed the mother, I mean, it was dark and weird. But it was a different kind of story. And it was about families, and it was about women. I don't know. And so we thought a lot about that.
And I think at a moment when… SEO had made people think of the internet as a technical challenge, like, well, you get traffic on the internet by making sure that you have like, lots of nouns in your headline. And that the structure of the page includes links and all this technical stuff, which Jonah had really helped invent at Huffington Post. But it was like, particularly people didn't really understand it and it was thought of as fundamentally something you outsource to a kind of technical consultant.
Ben Smith: I mean, often, if you thought about it, what it really was, is thinking about how human beings look for things and what they're looking for, and trying to serve that.
But I think most media people experienced it as a kind of technical thing. And so when social came around, people thought about it technically like, Okay, how do we optimise for social. Like, what's the trick? And I think what Jonah [Peretti] always thought and what made the job so interesting was that it's not a technical trick. It’s about thinking, y’know, what are human beings? What are people interested in? What are they going to share? What makes something more likely to be shared than just clicked on? And so that was much more of a challenge.
VFD: Right? And then, fast forward to you leaving [BuzzFeed News]. Do you think that it was any different?
Ben Smith: Well, I just think that both… we were ahead, but eventually the New York Times and everybody else figured a lot of this stuff out. But also the moment in which the social media platforms changed so much. And the sort of ecosystem changed so much in the age of y’know, they rose and fell a bit, social media.
And now we’re back toward having kind of a homepage and a brand and a destination. And I think one of the things – we noticed it pretty early at BuzzFeed – It was like, Huh? We were so convinced that no one was coming to our homepage, and we only lived on social. And then when the Boston Bombing happened, which was at the end of 2013, the fall of 2013 (Note: actually April 2013), there was huge spike in traffic to our homepage. And there wasn't anything on our homepage, and we didn't have a way to make a headline on our homepage. It was just a reverse chronological feed of stuff. And it was like, Oh, I guess home pages aren't totally dead, because all these people are coming to our homepage to see what happened and we aren't telling them anything. So maybe we should start serving that.
And I think we sort of backed into eventually looking a lot more like a conventional news organisation. In terms of well, we're playing a lot of defence. We're covering the story… we’re covering the thing that happened, but I think we did come to that from a totally different direction. Like I think a lot of news organisations start there and it was the last thing we did. Although we did it very well. But I think even – I mean you were there – I don't think it was exactly the same kind of wire service reaction as places for whom that’s their core DNA. Like, we were always looking for the story, not the thing that was the commoditised version of everybody else's breaking news. But the thing that would break out and travel on its own.
VFD: Right. And wasn’t the Boston Bombing, also the first kind of lesson learned, because wasn't there some sort of sourcing or reporting issue around -
Ben Smith: Yes! Yeah, I mean, it wasn't the first but yeah, no… it was the first I had with these reporters, none of whom had operated in a sort of, in an environment like that. And I didn't have a lot of experience with that either. Like, I've covered crime a bit in my career, but I'd never, y’know, covered essentially a terror attack. And then that kind of massive, massive breaking news story where caution is so so important. And caution is not my sort of first instinct, I would say.
There were two things that we were criticised for at the time. One was a mistake that I think was the sort of mistake – a kind of heat of the moment mistake that a lot of people make – which was that the Boston… oh shoot no I’m confusing stories! That was Sandy Hook. And that was a more complicated one, which maybe I'll skip. The killer had his brother's ID or something, and a number of outlets, including us, put the brother's name in there. Because police told CNN that’s what it was. But I think that's a more complicated story.
Right, no, the Boston Bombing. There was sort of a Reddit Group – just like what happened after the Capitol Riots – of people trying to figure out who it was. And there was a student at Brown, I think, who had disappeared and people fixated on him. And there was a BuzzFeed reporter who, you know, at some point in that conversation tweeted that guy's name.
I think, because he was, in his view, sort of participating in a Twitter conversation and not reporting news, but I don't know… that was a grey area. And it was a mistake. Also, the New York Times, and I think it was the Times Magazine, wrote a long story about it, in which they assigned that reporter lots and lots of blame, because the ‘Times reporter was in California, and his Twitter showed things in Pacific time, not New York time, and he had put [the BuzzFeed reporter’s] tweet three hours earlier than it was.
I'm still mad about it. Honestly, they had to correct and apologise – But y’now, it was in this incredibly kind of high horse, finger wagging magazine story about how terrible social media was. Like a very clumsy mistake that showed that they actually didn't understand the topic they were writing about. I’m still a little defensive about it, I guess.
VFD: I mean, it does seem… On that: Even from here in Australia, there does seem to be friction between the New York Times and BuzzFeed News.
Ben Smith: Oh, I don't think, I honestly don't really think so. I think there's competition. Y’know I was always pleased to compete when I was at BuzzFeed. You want to be competing with the New York Times. Not with Upworthy. Not with boredpanda.com. And, it’s a competitive business with competitive people.
I don't think there's, I mean… I would say that it was a very happy day when we, in 2014, when we we got leaked the New York Times’ innovation report and posted it on the internet.
VFD: So… I guess like, when I think of BuzzFeed News in my head, one of the biggest things of my time at BuzzFeed is obviously when Trump got elected, and I don't really want to ask about his election and everything else because I think it's been covered a lot, obviously.
Ben Smith: Yeah, it’s a big story. Trump! What are we gonna do now!
VFD: Who’s this guy??
Ben Smith: Yeah what do ya think?
VFD: I guess like strategically, I mean, I remember it was midday here [in Australia]. And we were watching the election live stream on Facebook. BuzzFeed News.
Ben Smith: On Twitter.
VFD: On Twitter, sorry. And there was lots of people watching and it was a big crazy thing. And I mean, I don't want to speak for other people. But there was, in my opinion, definitely a vibe that like Hillary Clinton's gonna win this.
Ben Smith: Oh yeah. It wasn’t a vibe it was an assumption.
VFD: Yeah. Within even the presentation of the show. And then it was like, blown away -
Ben Smith: Oh yeah I remember we rehearsed…We rehearsed. We rehearsed and wrote a “Trump wins” version of it. And I just remember being like: Do we really have to do this?
VFD: Well I think didn’t everyone just go home?
Ben Smith: Oh, no no no. It ran long past the point where it was supposed to be running. Which would cost us money. Which cost Twitter money – they were paying for it. And so there was a point at which it just didn't look like the election had been called as of midnight. It was unclear when it was going to be called. And we're just not a television network. We didn't have, like… the people running the cameras were like, planning to go home. And there wasn't a second shift coming in, because we’re not CNN. So no, so we ended it because, I mean – actually, in that moment, there was a Twitter Executive there, and I was like, Hey, you should give us some more money. And let's just keep rolling it. Like forever. Like this is your opportunity to launch a television network. Which is the thing Twitter was thinking about doing. Like: Let's just do it now! Let's just not turn it off. We have 6 million people… we have all these people watching it. I know that we had a plan to turn it off tonight. But let's just never turn it off.
I mean, I still think would have been a good idea. You have to just be so opportunistic. It was not the way normal companies work. And I’m sure all the production folks would have murdered me. And in any case, they didn't. Anthony Noto didn't buy it. But no we had rehearsed a “Trump Wins” thing. And it was in people's head… in fact Tracy Clayton, who was one of the hosts, I thought handled it with, like incredible grace as as the show ended, like: Well, looks like it's going this way.
VFD: So then I guess, like, my question is, did the Trump win change the kind of strategy of BuzzFeed News? Or at least was there a period of, like, we need to shift slightly and kind of recompose?
Ben Smith: Well, I think we had been very early to see the sort of online forces that gave birth to Trump at the end of 2015. We did an end of 2015 package where I remember Joe Bernstein and Rosie Gray had big stories on the rise of what Joe called the “chanter culture”, which never really caught on, that coinage.
Ben Smith: But like the idea of this new counterculture that had come out of 4chan, in particular, being a major part of American life, and we had exposed Milo Yiannopoulos, who was sort of an early version of that, as an actual Nazi, or an actual Nazi sympathiser. Who was sieg heiling and using anti semitic passwords. And so I think we weren't blindsided by the forces behind Trump in the way that some were. I mean, we just believed the polls that he was going to lose. Because I mean, this is not a monolithic society. There are a lot of people who are not fans of Donald Trump, as it turned out.
But I think… I do think there was a sort of learning curve. Like, how do you cover him as president? And sort of his style and the way he used Twitter and Social Media? For sure.
VFD: Yeah. And I guess now, what's the next four years look like? What do you think of the scope of news? I find it hard to believe it's going to revert to the norm.
Ben Smith: I mean, y’know, first of all, Trump was pretty singular, his ability to sort of command attention, there's not some other person who can do that and step into his place. But of course it's not going to revert – or what people imagine is a reversion won't really be.
I do think the, sort of, gatekeepers are back, though. I think there's a real attempt across a number of fronts to sort of put the genie back in the bottle. Of course, you can't really get the genie back in there. But, things will keep changing, I think. But Twitter and Facebook are obviously cracking down and being forced to crack down in various ways by an increasing number of governments, notably yours.
Ben Smith: I mean, I think that the Australian situation is really interesting, because one of the ways that these companies have evaded regulation, is that there's this totally ludicrous line that everybody in Washington seems to believe that it's just too complicated. Y’know tech, social media tech, it's so complicated, you can't go regulating it because the regulators are too dumb. And these old senators talk about like, “the internet is a tube” and, I mean… there are regulations around genuinely complicated medical and scientific technology, that members of parliament and legislators probably don't personally understand. But nuclear energy and bio engineering are a lot more complicated than social media, and yet we managed to regulate them.
And so I think it was just this kind of wild, kind of amazing piece of spin, that American regulators in particular were talked into the idea that all this internet stuff was just too complicated to regulate at first.
At first, it was like, this is new, let's not step on it. And that was actually, I think, incredibly valuable and helped give birth to the internet. But there's still the sort of reluctance to regulate it, which y’know, is connected also to real legal restrictions on the ways in which the US government can regulate speech.
But what's fun about Australia and interesting is this guy Rod Sims, who is this 70-something, I think he's a lawyer, but he spent his career dealing with railroad monopolies. And he’s sort of the most literal, straightforward on market regulations, and he just kind of like, jumped in with both feet and was like, Alright, the way I see this, it's kind of like a port, like Google's like a port. And like, y’know, all the ships have to dock at this port, so the way you regulate that, is if you imagine there were like seven ports, and you figure out what the pricing would be if there were seven ports…
And it was just, I found it really interesting and refreshing to talk to him. Because he had that level where – there's a sort of differential quality. To like: well, we know these people in Silicon Valley are kind of super geniuses and we poor, government officials could never, you know, purport to get into our small brains what it is that Facebook really is.
And the thing is, these are not so complicated businesses, compared to… probably even compared to shipping, which is a genuinely complicated business. And it was sort of entertaining to see: Rod Sims just sort of dispense with that premise. And it really has driven these companies crazy. Like there are a lot of senior executives at Facebook and Google who are up at weird hours on conference calls with Australia.
VFD: So what do you think? Do you think they'll get regulated?
Ben Smith: Oh yeah, for sure. I think Australia, and maybe the European Union, they seem to be moving pretty slowly, are gonna start to set some templates – I mean the thing that I cared a lot about when I was at BuzzFeed was around financial relationships with news organisations – But you know, there are probably more important issues, including transparency around their algorithms and stuff like that. And I suspect you'll start to see those regulations in Europe and Australia, and then they'll kind of get imported to the US.
VFD: Okay, cool. All right. I'm conscious of time on here. So I'll just ask you a few more questions that I'm kind of just asking everyone. Just to get your thoughts. So like, what do you think is fundamentally wrong with your line of work?
Ben Smith: With writing newspaper columns?
VFD: No, like, I guess, media journalism.
Ben Smith: Ah, y’know, I mean, it's funny because I wrote this column every week where that's in some sense, the theme, and yeah, nothing comes immediately to mind.
I mean, I think there's this sort of national conversation in the United States or globally, really, around American politics. It's incredibly toxic and crazy. And I do wish that more of the attention in journalism – more of journalists and audience’s attention – were given to kind of coverage of concrete, local problems, rather than abstract national ones.
I think this is like a civilisational problem, not a journalistic one. But I guess that's the thing that I think about sometimes. Journalism can have this enormous impact and really be a kind of public utility in communities where people feel connected to it. And so much of the energy of journalism is given to sort of like… screaming at each other about these national questions that aren't, y’know, where there's enough being said. Your voice is not adding.
But that said, and with my column, I often am trying to find really concrete and local stories, and often because it's where the conversation is, find myself writing kind of sweeping national ones. And so, you know…
VFD: I mean, I'm trying to think of a solution to that, but I guess,
Ben Smith: Yeah, no, I mean, I don't know.
VFD: Yeah, yeah. Okay. So what scares you?
Ben Smith: I mean, I think kind of how radicalised is… how disconnected from reality is a chunk of Trump's base. And I think that one of the things that's happening right now is that a lot of the most toxic content led by Trump is moving off of, and it'll be a while before we see how true this is, but seems like it’s moving off of Facebook, and sort of splintering out into places like Telegram in particular.
And I think the thing is that the way in which your Aunt happens to see a QAnon meme among the various other things on her Facebook page and get sucked into QAnon won't happen in a space where everybody's already radicalised. Like, QAnon is just one of many delightful things on Facebook. And so they will stay on Facebook and not go to Telegram.
But the question of how much more hardcore… like is there a sort of more militant fringe that will organise in a way that’s harder to track and more dangerous, on sort of splintered out platforms, whether it's like Mastodon or Telegram, which isn't particularly… Telegram is a pretty open platform. Or something else. Will there be sort of smaller but more dangerous fringe groups, basically.
VFD: Well, do you think that's likely?
Ben Smith: I mean, it seems like one of the possibilities, but I don't really know. I'm not sure. Trump was so singular, and so much about loyalty. And I mean, so much of this moment in the US was about him. And I think the question of how much of that, and I think that… you saw sort of Josh Hawley, this American senator, in some sense, try to stream on that energy and just look ridiculous. And he's… and I don't think it's gonna work.
There's not an obvious second Trump. And I think that kind of movement is very much about a sort of unitary strong leader. And I don't know if it…. I just think it's unpredictable. Basically, what happens to all that energy.
VFD: Yeah. Okay. Well, that's great. I mean, thanks a lot, man. I really appreciate it.
And last question, when have you failed? And how did you fail? And how often do you think about?
Ben Smith: Oh, I mean, I've made mistakes. I mean, I've made lots and lots of mistakes.
And I think you always, always learn from them.
I mean… I don't really want to talk about mistakes I made as the editor or manager where the mistake ultimately involved another person.
I mean, I… when I was early at Politico, I made this very sort of hacky, meaningless thing: I reported that one of the leading Presidential candidates was dropping out of the race. And that turned out not to be true. And that was just an incredible black eye for me and for Politico.
And it was interesting then, I'm not sure it's really true anymore, but the style of the time would have been to have lots of meetings, and three days later, publish a little weird correction. And because I had sort of come up on the internet as a blogger I just immediately wrote, “I'm so sorry, I got this wrong.”
Y’know, an hour later like: “Here's what happened, I had a source who told me this, that source was wrong, I should have, you know, I should have done more reporting around that. And I shouldn’t have been in such a hurry to get the scoop.”
And y’know, I learned the lessons in public. And I think, actually, the main thing I really learned from that was just how valuable it is to do all your business in public and to allow yourself to… y’know everybody's gonna make mistakes. But to not be defensive about them. But try to be transparent about them – that actually winds up building more trust. So I know this is like one of these like, my problem is I'm too much of a perfectionist. But yeah.
VFD: “I care too much”
Ben Smith: I care too much, right.
VFD: Yeah. Okay. Well, that's great. Well, thanks a lot, man. I really appreciate it.
Ben Smith: Yeah. Good talking to you, Brad.
VFD: Thanks Ben. Say hi to the kids.