Brooke Gladstone: I am Brooke Gladstone, and this is On the Media's midweek podcast. Stories of media layoffs and closures have been hardy perennials since the dawn of the internet. In 2023 alone, there have been layoffs at NBC, Fox, NPR, Spotify, Insider, ABC, and Gannett. Don Lemon was fired from CNN and Tucker Carlson from Fox News. Gawker closed for the second time and then in April…
Speaker 2: The website BuzzFeed News is closing down.
Speaker 3: BuzzFeed will lay off about 15% of its staff and it's going to completely shut down the news unit itself. It's going to amount to around 180 people losing their jobs.
Speaker 4: The CEO saying in an email to staff that he over-invested in BuzzFeed News because he loved their work and missions so much adding that he'd failed to hold the company to higher standards for profitability.
Brooke Gladstone: Just two weeks ago, Paramount announced that it's shutting down MTV News, and just last Monday, Vice filed for bankruptcy.
Speaker 5: It feels like the end of an era.
Brooke Gladstone: These headlines don't even touch on the gutting of local news that's been long underway. Over 360 local papers have closed since around the beginning of the pandemic alone but it wasn't always so dire. BuzzFeed was launched by Jonah Peretti amid the seemingly endless promise of digital news. A lot of its early traffic came from a widget on the homepage of the Huffington Post, another early internet news site, also founded by Peretti alongside Arianna Huffington, Kenneth Lerer, and Andrew Breitbart in 2005.
In 2011, after AOL bought the Huffington Post, Jonah went to work on BuzzFeed full-time and he brought in Ben Smith to set up a newsroom and move BuzzFeed's content upmarket. Now Smith is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the new website Semafor and author of the new book, Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral. He wrote that when Perretti launched BuzzFeed, he thought the site would be the next MTV, the next Viacom.
Ben Smith: We believed, and you can argue now about whether this was delusional or whether it just didn't turn out that way that places like Facebook and Twitter would ultimately wind up paying for quality content the way say Netflix or Disney pays for quality entertainment.
Brooke Gladstone: What went wrong?
Ben Smith: What went wrong was they basically never paid a dime. There were moments in which it seemed like it was going that way. There was a year when BuzzFeed News was collecting checks from Facebook, Twitter, and Snap and I thought, okay, this future is starting to emerge but there were a few things. One was that the people running the platforms really liked user-generated content which is free. Another is they really often did not like journalism, really actively didn't like it, felt they'd been covered unfairly, had these utopian ideas about citizen journalism and the wisdom of crowds. They weren't wires laid in the ground. They were social spaces where people gathered that maybe didn't prove as durable as we thought.
Brooke Gladstone: Durable in what sense?
Ben Smith: One issue is that the platforms may turn out to have been things people had fun with in the 2010s but that we may not be on much longer. Another is the platforms got really freaked out about news particularly when American and global politics got so divisive, so toxic. You're a tech CEO, you're getting called in front of Congress because of news content that really isn't where you're making your money anyway and you start wondering why you were anywhere near it.
Brooke Gladstone: I think there was also an assumption that the social platforms would take on more responsibilities or get better somehow.
Ben Smith: Yes, we had an idea that they would evolve in the direction of cable in part because they were competing with one another to have to shell out for high-quality news and entertainment. Facebook became a monopoly, so much bigger than the others, and professional content didn't wind up being the thing they competed on but there was also a big political and cultural shift. When we brought news to BuzzFeed, it was a moment when the Facebook newsfeed was new and delightful and the idea that you could get journalism and baby pictures and memes and updates from around the world was considered kind of fun and it was very popular.
So we were providing the whole range, essentially, that people would share on their Facebook feed. I think as the news itself changed, and as this new very confrontational right-wing populism got very good at driving engagement on Facebook, a lot of consumers started finding that less fun. The platform started to deal with the social and political consequences of amplifying this very divisive political debate. That was something that we had not particularly seen coming that really complicated our whole project.
Brooke Gladstone: There was a day in 2015, you call it the last Good Day on the internet.
Ben Smith: That morning some llamas had got loose in Arizona and everybody spent the whole morning on social media watching these hapless sheriffs chase llamas around. Then that afternoon a woman who had gone to a wedding and I believe it was Scotland came back with this out-of-focus photo of this dress and was arguing about it with her mom and her friends messaged it to the woman running BuzzFeed's Tumblr and said, can BuzzFeed help us resolve this dispute?
It very quickly just became this delightful moment of global culture in a way that, again, I thought at the time, "Oh, this is this lovely new thing." Truly global instant culture that is fundamentally basically quite sweet, divisive in a literal sense. A third of people, I believe, thought it was white and gold and the rest thought it was blue and black but fundamentally sweet and harmless.
Brooke Gladstone: Then things changed.
Ben Smith: Yes, things changed and I think things didn't just change on the internet. I think all over the world you had this surge of real anger about migration, about trade, about globalization, and a new right-wing populism embodied in the US by Donald Trump. Facebook and Twitter and these other platforms measured their success and the success of a piece of content, say a tweet by how many people were interacting with it. They went through various iterations to try to make sure those interactions were as Facebook said meaningful.
Basically, I post a racist meme, you comment, you're a racist. I then comment, no, you're a racist and the machine says, "Wow, look at this incredible engagement. Let's show it to every single person in North America right now." It really favored incredibly divisive content. Then that style of populism which I think was about a few things wasn't about chasing the traffic. It was about seeing that people were angry about immigration and that the Republican party had avoided pandering to them or avoided engaging with people who were angry about immigration.
If you wrote about undocumented immigrants killing people, you would get a lot of traffic, and Breitbart and Donald Trump followed that heat. Another part of that political movement was a style of saying outrageous things, sometimes false things just to provoke a reaction to show that you could transgress social norms and that was incredibly engaging on Facebook and always went viral. Also on cable news, I would say also all over the place but it was really almost custom-built for social media.
Brooke Gladstone: You said that Facebook made a decision it later regretted to not just show you what your friends were sharing but things like what your friends were sharing just to keep people stuck to the platform.
Ben Smith: Yes. Facebook was not full of people who were trying to elect the next president. It was full of people who could see that you were spending 23 minutes a day on Facebook and were trying to get you to spend 24 minutes and were tinkering with stuff that would keep you there a little longer and had the reasonable view that, "Oh, a good way to predict what you're going to like is to look at what everybody else likes and we'll show you that."
It's no longer really a social network. It's a content network that's taking signals from one person and learning and showing it to another. Again, those signals were around what do you comment on, what do you click, what do you engage and just very often it turned out that was the thing that made you angriest.
Brooke Gladstone: That was due in part to this algorithm that was designed to focus on "meaningful social interaction." You're a racist. No, you're a racist.
Ben Smith: It was an attempt to fix a system in which people had just been idly sharing stories that Hillary Clinton had been replaced by a body double without reading them. They said, "No, we need to make sure that this is meaningful engagement." Let's favor comments in particular screaming matches about racist memes.
Brooke Gladstone: Now, Jonah cultivated personal relationships with employees who ran Facebook's newsfeed. What are some of the insights that he derived from them and how did that affect BuzzFeed and its rivals?
Ben Smith: There were a wave of internet companies that rose and fell by having figured out a neat trick to get more traffic on Facebook until Facebook caught on and killed them. BuzzFeed avoided that by staying in sync with what Facebook actually wanted but they didn't always listen to him. There were some emails that are in the book where he reached out to these Facebook engineers, I believe in 2017, and said, "Hey, the stuff that you are giving us an incentive to produce is content that can be interpreted as racist, that somebody will take as racist, that can cause racial division. That's what gets the most traffic now and you're putting these incredibly bad incentives into the world."
Brooke Gladstone: Did he ever get a response?
Ben Smith: Not a particularly good one although I think Facebook did ultimately get out of the space almost entirely.
Brooke Gladstone: You wrote that while you and Jonah "thought that you were inventing digital media" the figures who would create the new American far right were flickering just around the edges of that picture from the start. By which you mean Andrew Breitbart was working alongside Jonah to found the Huffington Post. Chris Poole, the founder of 4Chan, worked out of BuzzFeed's offices. You hired Benny Johnson to bring a conservative audience to BuzzFeed News. He became a big figure in the pro-Trump right-wing alternative media. Gavin McInnes, a co-founder of Vice, went to start the Proud Boys. A BuzzFeed video star Baked Alaska stormed the capitol on January 6. The editor for your book mused that maybe you were Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in their tragedy.
Ben Smith: Yes, I think that was, to me, the most surprising thing about going back and reporting all this out was seeing in that early internet scene in the odds, the people who I was writing about, Jonah, Nick, and others just it was presumptively a progressive world. To some degree explicitly for a blog like Jezebel or for a site like Huffington Post, the goal was the election of Barack Obama, and they made no bones about it. Facebook in particular was seen as obviously aligned with Barack Obama. As late as 2011, he went and visited Facebook, and he didn't have to say he was visiting because it was like a Democratic-leaning company. It was like visiting Madison, Wisconsin, or something.
You're visiting a place full of college students because that's who votes for Democrats. Yet, it also is totally clear that the real apogee of this whole digital media world is the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Then, when I went back and tried to look at the whole picture, the folks who were very deeply involved in Trump's election, his style of media were really there all along, were looking at these tools, and were in some ways better suited and more willing to take them to their logical conclusion than we were.
Brooke Gladstone: It was a movement that was basically waging a war at every institution.
Ben Smith: Social media turned out to be great for tearing down institutions just unreservedly. Steve Bannon, who had made a study of Huffington Post, made a study of BuzzFeed, was at Breitbart and then working for the Trump campaign, really saw it explicitly as this attack on all of these old institutions in a way that when I went to visit him in Trump Tower in 2016, he was totally puzzled that BuzzFeed hadn't just followed the traffic to the unreserved support for Bernie Sanders that Breitbart had for Donald Trump. I tried to explain that we were trying to be fair and hew to these basically journalistic values, but it just didn't really make any sense for him based on the metrics.
Brooke Gladstone: How do you feel about BuzzFeed having trained some of these people?
Ben Smith: I find it pretty disturbing, and we clearly I think we misunderstood-- I feel like I misunderstood the situation and the politics that was emerging.
Brooke Gladstone: Let's go back to the 2010s. BuzzFeed was really at the top of its game. In 2013, it was getting 130,000,000 unique viewers a month. Disney made an offer to buy BuzzFeed for half a billion dollars that year. Jonah turned it down. In 2016, BuzzFeed was valued at $1.7 billion. Then last month, BuzzFeed News shut down. BuzzFeed reported 106,000,000 in net losses. Where did the huge valuations come from? Can you tell me how BuzzFeed got from there to here?
Ben Snith: The valuations and these huge investments were really a bet that BuzzFeed would emerge as a giant company like Viacom. The way that Viacom, the owner of channels like MTV, had emerged out of the cable era, there would be these huge companies like BuzzFeed and Vice emerging out of the internet era who were content companies, not just tech companies. The crash really came from a realization that that wasn't going to happen, and really, even that the entire ecosystem that BuzzFeed was part of and that all these companies were part of was very fragile and was not throwing off tons of cash to media companies.
Brooke Gladstone: Did BuzzFeed News have to close?
Ben Smith: I felt particularly sad about it because I think they had cut costs really deeply. Something that started when I was there and the [unintelligible 00:14:20] had been shifting it toward a much more commercially viable enterprise. The whole company was suffering, and interest rates have gone up, and the ad market is down, and I think a bunch of different factors converged.
Brooke Gladstone: It had to do with money. It had to do with ads. BuzzFeed developed, I guess, its own flavor of native advertising, paid content articles or infographics, videos. Sometimes you can't even tell their commercials, right?
Ben Smith: Yes. BuzzFeed pioneered advertising that was in the voice and style of the social web and that performed well on Facebook and built a huge advertising business that basically all their competitors got into the business. Then it also turned out to be a tougher business than it seemed, and they wind up going back to the programmatic banner ads that are not widely beloved.
Brooke Gladstone: What will BuzzFeed be now?
Ben Smith: I think it wants to be a place where you go to play delightful AI-driven games and quizzes basically. It owns Huffington Post, which, in a surprise to everybody, turns out to have been one of these survivors of the era, and that's its news division now.
Brooke Gladstone: You told CNN that the closure of BuzzFeed News made it really clear that the relationship between news publishers and social media is pretty much over. The week after BuzzFeed announced it was shutting down news, Jonah Peretti wrote on the site that "We've benefited from the previous era of the internet having struggled during this transitional period, and are poised to benefit again as this next era of the internet takes shape." What's the next era?
Ben Smith: Jonah Peretti is the world's leading optimist and the next era he sees is artificial intelligence generating personalized content, an internet that is made just for you. Then I think BuzzFeed would like to be a pioneer in that.
Brooke Gladstone: Doesn't that mean we get even more tightly enclosed in our little bubbles, incapable of looking past our world into anybody else's?
Ben Smith: I find it hard to predict. That's not actually what I see right now. I think things are splintering, but I think the late social media world gives you this illusion of a debate and of seeing all perspectives, but really what it's doing is it's a machine for elevating the dumbest version of the argument you hate and showing it to you constantly and convincing you that people who you disagree with are just utter morons all the time. I'm not sure AI is going to help, but I do think we're moving away from that particular world into a bunch of different, smaller spaces.
Brooke Gladstone: Why do you think that?
Ben Smith: I saw a really interesting statistic that really stuck with me the other day that we published in Semafor that if you ask people what their favorite-- if they have a favorite podcast, not everybody does, the likeliest person to be their favorite podcaster no surprise is Joe Rogan. What's interesting is only 5% of people say it's him, and that's the biggest share of the market is somebody who has 5% of the market. It's a very unusual long tail of a market where the biggest share is 5% and many, many people are succeeding with fractional percentages. It's a very wide open unconsolidated place where people are looking for smaller, more intimate conversations with people who specific take on the world they relate to. It's also just people are sick of the last thing and ready for something new.
Brooke Gladstone: You write in the conclusion that riding traffic was a humbling exercise in what you missed even as you were there. What do you want to do with Semafor that is different? You've created things before. I guess I'm trying to learn from you what you're going to change about what you did. Maybe you don't feel you made any editorial mistakes at BuzzFeed?
Ben Smith: No, I think we made tons. We thought that we could be a feature of these big platforms and so we didn't try to connect directly to a small audience. We tried to connect indirectly to a huge one. That would be a really dumb thing to try to do now and certainly isn't something that we're going to repeat.
Brooke Gladstone: That's really interesting.
Ben Smith: We are growing very slowly and carefully. We've got about 30 journalists and aren't planning to hire dozens more anytime soon. The appetite for news isn't going away, and the platforms shift and the business models shift. People all over the world are desperate to be informed and are in this very chaotic environment where all of us find it hard to know who and what to trust. If you can help with that, there's a real appetite for it.
Brooke Gladstone: What are some of the lessons from the era that we might say is ending that you're hoping the news industry carries forth into the next one?
Ben Smith: I think the biggest lesson, which isn't solely about news is just the extent to which every technology, every technique, every form can be used by people with totally different motives for different reasons and that these surges of utopianism or I suppose doom saying about shifts in technology. These things are morally neutral but I think we were incredibly utopian about the promise of digital media without seeing that it could be used in all different directions.
The other one for me is that I don't think news is a good business for venture capitalists to invest in. There was a pressure on us to grow really fast, to grow explosively, to build a business that could return many, many times its investment very fast. I think news can be a good business if you do a really good job and are very careful about how you run it and can really provide good returns to good investors but it's not something where venture capitalists should be looking to throw in millions of dollars and see it multiply by a hundred over a period of a couple of years.
Brooke Gladstone: So you need millionaires who think it would be fun to make a newspaper?
Ben Smith: Hasn't that always to some degree been the case?
Brooke Gladstone: Ben, thank you very much.
Ben Smith: Thank you, Brooke.
Brooke Gladstone: Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Semafor and author of the new book, Traffic. Thanks for listening to the midweek podcast. The big show posts Friday in which OTM correspondent Micah Loewinger reports on the journalistically ethical conundrum of being called on to testify for the feds and it gets personal. I'm Brooke Gladstone.