Micah Loewinger: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Micah Loewinger.
Brooke Gladstone: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. It's a bad time for the news business. Actually, it is usually, but this is one of the worst. This year, a record number of job cuts so far, over 19,000 of them, according to one study. Just last week, G/O Media declared the shuttering of Jezebel.
News clip: Female-focused website Jezebel is shutting down after 16 years.
Brooke Gladstone: Earlier this year, there were other seismic shifts in the digital media world.
News clip: Internet media darling BuzzFeed is shuttering its news division.
News clip: Vice Media was once one of the hottest names in new media. They just filed for bankruptcy protection.
News clip: It feels like the end of an era.
Brooke Gladstone: But it wasn't always so dire. BuzzFeed News was launched by Jonah Peretti amid the seemingly endless promise of digital news. In 2011, Peretti went to work on BuzzFeed full-time and brought in Ben Smith to set up a newsroom to move BuzzFeed's content, best known for quizzes and listicles, up market. Now, Smith is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the new website, Semafor, and author of the book Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral. When I spoke to him earlier this year, he explained to me that when Peretti 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: I mean, 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. In others, 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 hauled 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: 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 it was considered fun and it was very popular. 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 platforms 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 and 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'd 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, ah, this is this lovely new thing. Like 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: 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 kind of right-wing populism embodied in the US by Donald Trump. Facebook, and Twitter and these other platforms, they measured their success by, and the success of a piece of content, say a tweet by how many people were interacting with it. Basically, I post a racist meme, you comment, you're a racist. I then comment, no, you're a racist. 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.
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: Then 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. Had the reasonable view that, oh, like 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.
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: 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, a BuzzFeed video star begged Alaska storm the Capitol on January 6th. The editor for your book mused that maybe you were Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in their tragedy.
Ben Smith: 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 arts, the people who I was writing about, Jonah, Nick, and others, just -- it was so 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 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 that, 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: How do you feel about BuzzFeed having trained some of these people?
Ben Smith: I mean, I find it pretty disturbing. We clearly, I think, we misunderstood as I feel like I misunderstood the situation and the kind of politics that was emerging.
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: I think the late social media world gives you this illusion of a debate and of seeing all sorts of 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 too constantly and convincing you, the people who you disagree with are just utter morons all the time, 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 thought it was a really interesting statistic that was stuck with me the other day that we published in Semafor, that if you ask people if they have a favorite podcast, not everybody does. The likeliest person to be their favorite podcaster, no surprise is Joe Rogan, but what's interesting is, only 5% of people say it's him. 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: 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 doomsaying about shifts in technology, these things are morally neutral. I think we were incredibly utopian about the promise of digital media, without seeing that it could be used in all sorts of 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. News can be a good business if you do a really good job and you're 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: 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 book Traffic. This is On the Media. This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.