OneZero is partnering with the Big Technology Podcast from Alex Kantrowitz to bring readers exclusive access to interview transcripts with notable figures in and around the tech industry.
This week, Kantrowitz sits down with Ben Smith, the Media Equation columnist at the New York Times and former editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
As the Media Equation columnist at the New York Times, Ben Smith is covering an industry going through transformation and turbulence. And as the former editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News — a place I worked until this June — he lived that change while managing a newsroom of reporters who lived online in a VC funded media company.
In this week’s edition of the Big Technology Podcast, I caught up with Smith for a discussion focused on how tech is changing journalism, what media companies can do to connect with people that have shut them out, and where big tech regulation may lead.
Let’s start with technology. Twitter and Slack, while helpful tools, can also show reporters how to think. When you see a bunch of editors express the same viewpoint in a Slack room, it can make you feel like you should go along. At the New York Times, do you think Slack and Twitter are increasing or decreasing the range of ideas and perspectives that show up in the paper?
Twitter is the most incredible, fast, effective, centralized public square there has ever been in the history of the world by far and is a dream for journalists in a lot of ways just in that you find out the news really fast.
It also can really keep you honest. You can’t just go out there and bullshit the way you used to be able to. But as you say, there’s also this incredible peer pressure and pressure for conformity that has always, always been there in journalism but is blunter, and there’s more enforcement of it now.
I think people can be afraid to get away from the pack when really the best reporting usually is away from the pack. There’s a lot of different factors in that. There’s a limit to how many counterintuitive takes Donald Trump really permits.
We can talk about Twitter. Maybe we’ll get back to it. But Slack especially…
The Times’ Slack is totally weird. I’m not the expert on it. And I, in fact, basically tossed myself out of it because I’m not a Times insider, and I want to be able to report on the Times, and I don’t want people to feel like I’m lurking around Slacks reporting on them.
Slack can get out of control and can really pick up the tone and vibe of Twitter, like a bunch of strangers yelling at each other. At BuzzFeed, we all got on to it at the same time, and I felt very comfortable on there. And if people were saying mean stuff about me, I would come in and argue with them.
I felt comfortable having conversations there in a way that I think management at other places doesn’t always. And it can be a place where some groups inside the newsroom are more comfortable on Slack than others. I think at the Times, there’s a generational divide. There was a New York Times before there was Slack, right? There wasn’t really a BuzzFeed before there was Slack.
I think the uneven adoption makes it an odd place. And you have these huge Slacks and 2,000 people on a channel. And what is that in a news organization? Is that public? Is that private? Of course, it’s not really private.
There are people who believe that the Times’ focus is narrowing or its perspective is narrowing, where it’s only reflecting a small percentage of the population. I’m thinking about the axes, for instance, that were reportedly put next to Bari Weiss’ name.
Brutal internal politics did not arrive with Slack, right? The New York Times has had brutal internal politics for a long time. And I think this is true. It’s hard to disentangle the medium from the message, and I think it is certainly true that Slack can accelerate and expose certain kinds of conversations that might have been happening anyway.
Then, on the other hand, we live in this incredibly intense political moment, and that’s not fundamentally because of Slack. But the same forces that are playing out everywhere else in the culture and the same arguments that are playing out everywhere else in the culture are playing out in the New York Times, which is just another institution full of human beings.
I do think that there’s something — the analysis on social movements after the Arab Spring in particular, is that it’s incredibly — these movements can rise incredibly fast and accomplish really dramatic things fast. But they also, because there weren’t years of building institutional structures and organizations, they sometimes lack staying power.
The question in all these institutions, these media institutions, is about that. And I think the unions certainly want to occupy some of that space, but I think it’ll be interesting to see how that plays, how this organizing inside the newsrooms plays out in the long term.
Do you think that organizing winds up shifting the editorial perspective or the way that stories are covered?
I think that there are cultural shifts happening in newsrooms, and the people who are now the outsiders complaining that the institution is too conservative in a generation will be the insiders running it, to some degree at least, not entirely.
The Times more than other places actually has an institutional perspective and is fundamentally a family-owned business, where the family who owns it can do whatever they want.
Do you feel more comfortable at the New York Times than you did at BuzzFeed? What’s the difference been like for you?
No, of course not. BuzzFeed, I really was involved in creating, and it was this incredible place, and I had such a wonderful time there and really loved the people. And the Times is this giant institution where I barely know anybody, and it’s a very intimidating place, but really, totally fascinating and has all this history. So it’s hard to compare them from my perspective.
Basically, you started and we all went into lockdown. Has it been weird doing it from home?
I can’t quite tell, right? Everything is so weird. Is my job weird? I don’t know. That’s the least of it.
So much of the media industry is people getting together and having parties and stuff like that. And you’ve written some critical stories about some big figures in the industry, including Troy Young and Ronan Farrow. Does the fact that we’re all home, has that helped you a little bit?
I don’t think I ever worried too much about being invited to parties, and people don’t invite me that much because they don’t like — they always worry that I’ll write something, which God forbid.
The working from home thing, it seems like you’re totally physically removed…
People feel safer talking about their institutions to reporters because their bosses aren’t physically hanging around, right? That’s interesting.
And at the same time, I do think that you can get to an internal toxicity inside an institution faster and people — it’s just easier to manage and to get along with your colleagues when you’re not totally exhausted, when you can make eye contact. I do think it’s wearing on everybody, and it makes a lot of the human relationships harder.
Ben, you wrote this column “Inside the Revolts Erupting in America’s Big Newsrooms.” And I’m just going to quote from that story. You said, “Reporters more willing to speak what they see as the truth without worrying about alienating conservatives.” I wanted you to take a firmer stance on that. Is this movement good?
Sorry. Ask me in 10 or 15 years, and I’ll tell you.
You’re ambiguous on it.
Well, I guess what I really think is that different institutions and different journalists play different roles, and the idea that there is some single set of values or that I, God forbid, or anyone should be out there scolding people for diverging from those values is ridiculous, particularly this moment where there are these very intense forces of change bearing down on everyone, which include this real recognizing along the lines of race, which include the elevation of individuals against institutions.
All of these decisions about what journalism is supposed to be are happening in the context of a lot of change. I do think specifically there has historically been this tacit bargain between white-led newsrooms and Black journalists that we’d love to have you and we want diversity, but the bargain is we want you to bite your tongue on issues of race and racism.
What’s happening now is a lot of Black journalists are tired of that and have rejected it. And the people running newsrooms, Black and white, are recognizing that if you want a more diverse newsroom, you’re going to have wider differences of opinion inside it. You’re not going to get a more diverse newsroom without widening the range of points of view inside your publication. And I don’t really see a way around that.
What about when it comes to reporters talking more broadly about their political views? Pew research found the New York Times, when it comes to political and election news, is distrusted by 42% of Republicans, and the Washington Post is distrusted by 39% of Republicans. Is a broader foregrounding of individual reporters’ politics will continue to erode that trust?
Numbers about Republican trust and journalism historically have been bad. But also, obviously, the main contributor to them is the leader of their party attacking journalism a lot.
I also wonder, if we’re going to look at a moment of introspection, is there anything the press can do to bridge that disconnect?
I think that’s a great question. It’s not the only disconnect, right? I think a lot of poor people aren’t really spoken to by the mainstream press. I think there are lots of groups that are left out.
And I think the question of does the press — and by the press, I guess we’re saying the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN, these big central institutions — do we think they go broader right now, that they cast a wider cultural net? Everything I see is that they are narrowing but that there is space for new institutions to speak to different groups of people, which I’m not sure is healthy for a democratic society. I think you see this splintering continuing to happen. But I think parts of that question don’t totally make sense in the context of what’s actually happening right now.
That said, if you had a leader of the Republican Party who lied less and respected the media, I think that person could probably change those numbers a bit, and that would be great.
“Trump isn’t wrong to think the people who run these Silicon Valley companies mostly hate him.”
You mentioned there are different institutions that could come up and fill that void. I’m looking at the conspiracy theorists and the fringe news sites that have become these beacons for people who feel like the mainstream news organizations aren’t speaking their language. So where does that go?
I don’t know. I think that there’s always been a market for inflammatory lies and that it’s thriving out there and that there are these incredible distribution mechanisms for it on Facebook in particular. But on the other hand, those are not good businesses. They exist mostly because a lot of people are funding them for ideological reasons.
It does seem like the media isn’t heard by a good portion of the population. How does that change? Because I don’t think that this is something we’re going to want to persist forever. It seems like a dark moment.
I don’t anticipate dramatic changes there. These are all publications that are strengthening their paywalls, that if they could get 1–2% percent of the American people to subscribe to them, that would be a huge triumph. But that’s where they’re trying to get to, maybe 3%, 4%.
I’m not sure there is a unified media. Fox News speaks to a lot of people, CNN. I just don’t really see a path toward a recentralization here. Maybe you do. But to me, it’s just obvious that you have these big institutions getting bigger but still within the context of a subscription business that — the Times, I think, what’s their goal? Ten million subscribers, which is one in 30 Americans? That would be an incredible — that’s their stretch. That’s a very, very ambitious goal. And it still leaves out the vast, vast majority of people.
What happens if the people left out of the equation tune into Alex Jones? Does he fill the void?
It’s interesting you mentioned that, right? A lot fewer people are turning on Alex Jones since the platforms made it hard. And I do think that the only important — the important decisions that are being made are being made by executives at platforms with no real, as far as I can tell, based on pressure from the media, without any real sense of what they’re doing.
There was that one moment where you saw Apple take Alex Jones off, and then Twitter, after holding for years, took him off, and then Facebook did. There was just this cascade.
A few months before that, I had a long conversation with a senior Google executive about what an important principle it was that Alex Jones not be taken off Google. And then, of course, they take him off when the pressure gets too much. That’s just how it works.
I seem to remember that you were skeptical of the platforms using their power to end up taking people’s verified badges away or taking them off. Did your perspective change on that?
When we’re creating new powers to regulate speech at the level of the platforms, I think ultimately, the government will wind up being the one who’s able to exercise those powers. And so it’s just worth thinking that through and what that means.
Yes, let’s explore it. There’s been a huge “techlash.” And the reports that have come out of news organizations has helped fuel a lot of the skepticism around these platforms. Now, you’re going to have a politically motivated inquiry into Google, which is the most powerful company in the world. Is this an end game that should have been anticipated?
The only normal outcome is some kind of regulatory or legislative framework. That’s just how societies deal with extremely powerful institutions whose actions affect the public interest widely. That was always the end game. It could take a while. But the question of what is a platform liable for, it was just an arbitrary decision in the mid-’90s. It’s not carved into stone, Section 230.
I do think you see the right taking the language that journalists and academics have used to criticize the platforms and reusing it to mean something almost entirely different around allowing often quite crazy and extreme speech and also spreading basically false stories about censorship.
I do think it’s complicated, right? Trump isn’t wrong to think the people who run these Silicon Valley companies mostly hate him and are appalled by him and find a lot of the speech of his supporters appalling and would like to ban it.
And so he’s not totally crazy there, right? I think it’s a complicated situation. And then these companies, of course, ultimately are companies that are trying to deal with regulators and make money. And that is a huge part of the whole situation.
I think that just they’re political tools, and they’re things that, from now until the end of time, we’re going to see political parties try to get their hands on and maneuver. And I think that might be what you’re seeing with the Department of Justice. Do you think there’s any truth to that part?
Yeah. I think the Department of Justice right now is working the refs of the highest and most threatening level on behalf of Trump in a very blunt way.
If the Department of Justice is doing it one way, who knows if the next administration or whatever comes after this will do it in another way? Because liberals definitely have their attacks on the companies as well. Is that something people should be keeping in mind in terms of the way they write these stories?
I do think that Trump is operating in a way that is really widely outside the norms of American government in terms of tech regulation. And the TikTok story is by far the clearest and wildest example.
And I think the question of if the next president also thinks that he or she, in some future administration, can roll in and dismantle companies on a whim and hand off their assets to his political supporters, it doesn’t seem to be quite working out. But that is how Saudi Arabia works, but that has not historically been how the United States works.
And that is different from operating within the normal regulatory framework that is, theoretically at least, not just aimed at enriching your friends and attacking and punishing your enemies.
It sounds like you have faith that there could be commonsense regulation that restrains some of these companies’ power while leaving the public in a good place.
Yeah, and applies to all of them equally, right? That’s the craziness of the TikTok stuff, that you could imagine regulation on how these companies handle and collect and share data that applies to all of them.
The TikTok thing, though, is interesting because there are legitimate concerns there in terms of what China might do, in terms of looking at the data or influencing that algorithm.
Well, these are totally legitimate issues, but it’s also not a — it’s something that could have been dealt with in a way that wasn’t pre-election pandering.
Before we go, one of my favorite things at BuzzFeed was to ask you where you think the big stories are going to be next. What do you think people should be looking at?
I don’t know when you’re going to post this. We’re talking on the day Donald Trump got coronavirus, and I haven’t been this utterly riveted by a story for a while. I don’t think there’s anything happening other than the election for a little while now. And in fact, we’re in that very frustrating period for journalists when everything you write is going to be just swept away in the noisy, screaming craziness.