Is This the End of Clickbait? (with Ben Smith)
As BuzzFeed News shuts down this week, former editor-in-chief Ben Smith joins Andy to reflect on BuzzFeed’s successes and pitfalls and the end of the first digital era of news. Smith explains how they used metrics and analytics to change journalism, what he learned from his fateful meeting with Steve Bannon, and why the platforms are still bigger than the personalities — even Tucker Carlson. They also chat about the future of journalism and how it will be funded in a post-click world.
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Ben Smith, Andy Slavitt
Andy Slavitt 00:18
This is IN THE BUBBLE with Andy Slavitt. Welcome to the show. My guest today is Ben Smith, who was longtime editor in chief of BuzzFeed News. He’s now the editor in chief and co-founder of something called Semaphore. We’re going to talk about clickbait, and what happened to clickbait. Speaking of which, I can give you top 10 reasons to listen to this episode. I’m just kidding. That that’s my, that’s my dad joke. That’s my dad joke for the day. Email me though, Andy at Lemonada media.com. That way we can have a dialogue, you can ask people have emailed me, I do respond to those emails, because I love to read them. And you tell me what’s going on with the show. You know, this type of journalism we’re going to talk about is really important, because we’re about to come up on an election. And the type of journalism you get, where you get the news, how the news comes to you is turned out to be something we didn’t quite think about. And like a lot of things on the internet, as I’ll talk about with my guests today, they started out as kind of all fun and light and games. And they went downhill pretty fast. I don’t think as I say to Ben in the show, I was not a fan of BuzzFeed News. And as I say to Ben the show, I think it didn’t go well. I didn’t care for it personally. But I found the idea that you could mix, trying to entice me with trying to inform me very difficult. And I wasn’t alone. I’m not trying to say it was better or higher minded than anybody else. I just didn’t trust it. And now trust is damaged, even more. So to say nothing of people who purposely spread falsehoods. But I think there’s a continuum here, you know, once you start saying I will do anything to get you to read my story, you end up in some pretty awful and interesting places, including things that can influence an election. And also just make us feel bad. One of the reasons I like doing this show is there’s enough things that go on to make you feel bad. And then we’ll think that getting educated, informed needs to be one of those things. And I do appreciate that people who are listening to this podcast, are trying to hear from somebody that I could bring on, that tells us something. This conversation with Ben gets a little back and forth the meaning not quite argumentative. But I think, you know, he challenges me. And a couple things, he corrects me, which is great. A couple times, I just don’t agree with him as much. I do find, though, that reflecting on what happened at BuzzFeed, and Gawker, and all of these other kinds of news fads of the moment. And what they did to us, is an important topic, as well as what’s come of it. He writes about it in his book that he just wrote called traffic. So this is a good episode. I’m proud that in our new format, we’re able to go really deep on topics that matter. So here’s your opportunity. Write to me, at firstname.lastname@example.org. And tell us what those topics are that you want us to go deep on. Because we have an extraordinary opportunity here with this platform to cover really interesting topics in real depth. And we want to hear from you. And with that, I’m done talking to myself and you and I’m gonna we’re gonna talk to Ben Smith. Here he is.
Andy Slavitt 04:06
Ben, welcome to the bubble.
Ben Smith 04:07
Thanks for having me, Andy.
Andy Slavitt 04:09
So we got to talk about the media landscape circa the 21st century. We’re talking kind of somewhat on the heels of BuzzFeed News’ demise, which was an organization you were the editor in chief of for a long time. Maybe you start with how you think Buzzfeed News will be remembered?
Ben Smith 04:30
I mean, you know, the thing about the media business is it’s so totally ephemeral, right? I mean, just by definition kind of lives in the moment and I think good. journalists don’t spend a lot time thinking about how they’re going to be remembered. But I think we did it and we did. And after I left, they did a lot of good work and really like, probably for better and for worse, sort of dragged the news business kicking and screaming into much more contemporary way of communicating.
Andy Slavitt 04:57
One of the things that I admire about you is it’ll be a little bit dispassionate and self-critical at times when it’s hard to that can’t be the complete obituary of BuzzFeed News. Look at I’m certainly not no experts. But can you say more?
Ben Smith 05:13
Yeah, of course. I mean, I think, you know, I was brought in to start it at this moment when it felt like the social networks, which were just kind of getting rolling, Facebook, Twitter, and the others, like, really represented this huge, permanent new structure of media. And that, like, the kind of journalism that would succeed, in part was the kind that would travel on them. And so we spent a lot of time thinking about, like, you know, it seemed unusual then to think about, like, Let’s do stories that answer the questions people have on Twitter, for instance, let’s do stories that, you know, people want to share on Facebook. And BuzzFeed was great, and had figured out already really like how to do fun, silly stuff that would go viral on Facebook. So like, what’s the what is the hard news that will go viral on Facebook? And how do you tell it in a way that all […]? You know, at first that seemed like both like a, like a very positive exercise? And kind of a fundamentally harmless one, I suppose.
Andy Slavitt 06:04
Did you have any reluctance taking it out? I mean, you’d come from Politico you’d written in New York Times, did you have any trepidation about the alliance between chasing clicks and cat videos? And I can’t tell you all the things BuzzFeed is known for, but I think those are some of the things people least say it’s known for. And in hard news.
Ben Smith 06:21
Yeah, sure. No, I mean, it was it was the world’s leading cat video website. But I guess, I mean, just sort of go back like I in and this is what my, the book I just published is about, it’s like, you know, I had sort of come up in like, oh, three of, you know, early 2000s, when he would have to get your head back into that place where like, the mainstream media was both totally out of touch with the way people actually communicated, right? We were on the internet. But the New York Times, CBS News, we’re basically not on the internet. And, you know, if you went to a Conde Nast website for The New Yorker, you would get like an ad subscribe to The New Yorker. And that was it. Like it was just a very different era. And simultaneously, I think there was a wide sense, mostly because of the Iraq war, that they were bad at their jobs and the most important things they were supposed to be good at. And so there was this enormous appetite for new stuff. And so I’d been a blogger in New York. And then I’ve done to work for Politico, which in its day was seen as like spitting in the eye of the Washington Post, and this outrageous assault on the dignity of journalism, and basically sped things up a lot again, for better and for worse, I think and made them a lot more transparent. But if you were in that, you know, how it was sort of like around the time of actually of Obamacare, in that fight, you could feel all the energy and the conversation, shift from blogs, which was what I was writing, this ancient form of communication known as blogs, over to Twitter over to social media. And so when Jonah approached me, you know, as the […] he was then the proprietor of Yeah, the world’s leading cat website, but he had a theory about how the world was changing, which was that people were going to open up their browsers on their computers and go to facebook.com, twitter.com. And that the challenge for journalists was going to be how do you get your stuff in there. And you mostly get it in there by making things that are interesting to the human beings who populate those platforms. Like that’s how I was already thinking. That’s how the traffic metrics that I had actually sort of slightly secretly installed on my blog at politico, were already telling me, all the energy is over on Twitter, that’s where I want to be.
Andy Slavitt 08:18
Well, and look, it’s important foundational piece chair you’re alluding to, but we should just call it out that the idea of how to create a profitable, sustainable source of news was one that was very much thrown up into the air in certainly at the time you’re talking about, and it’s still, I think, hasn’t been settled. But the theory at the time, that, you know, hey, if we could attract a lot of eyeballs, it could be a way to sustain and pay for news. And the main news sources aren’t doing it, as you say, that was sort of a logical place to begin thinking, right?
Ben Smith 08:53
Yeah, I mean, that’s the theory behind broadcast television, for instance, it’s a totally normal media business theory. But actually, we had a different, slightly more specific idea that again, at the time seemed plausible, and you can argue about whether it was idiotic and doomed from the start, or if things just didn’t break that way. But basically, I think the moment that we were looking back to was the birth of cable in the 80s. And this sense that like, there was this new form of distribution, suddenly, there were these wires running through the ground. And the people who own those wires and built them knew they needed stuff to run on them. And they needed to create an economic environment in which the people who started ESPN, CNN, MSNBC, Fox, MTV, VH, we all that whole world of incredibly, among other things, healthy businesses, those two need to be good businesses, so that Comcast and your local cable operator would have something to pipe to you. And I think our theory was that the platforms Facebook, Twitter, and the rest, in some sense, were the new cable operators, right. And at some point, they would realize that they needed that sort of healthy ecosystem for media companies. Now, they believed at the time and I think continue to believe that, that is not what they need. What they need is user generated content and quote unquote, creators, but basically atomized people who they pay either nothing or a little bit, which is obviously a less expensive business to run, although I think you can argue about how it’s working out for him.
Andy Slavitt 10:21
Well, there were some good things that came from this for sure. I mean, you know, what attracted many people to Twitter was not just being able to read the news story you wanted, but be able to have the reporter who wrote the news story, kind of give you a couple of their own thoughts on the background or communicate while they were in the process of reporting a story. And, you know, to say nothing of the currency of being able to see something in real time. So there was something there, what a lot of us missed, there was a lot of good things go bad is that there were other elements, ie there were algorithms that were feeding people, the news that they wanted, and the business model relied even more on giving people what they wanted, as opposed to what the traditional news organization might impart because they could because they could see the data at a real time basis of what was correcting and what wasn’t.
Ben Smith 11:13
Yeah, right. I mean, it’s as though we’d all been kind of flying without instruments. And suddenly, like they turned on the lights, and we could see all this stuff. And you could overreact to it, you could, you know, behave responsibly or irresponsibly. With that. I do think, though, to just to go back, like it’s important, remember how alienated people felt from these sort of the institutions that we now romanticize the sort of Iraq War era, Bush era media, the now everyone says, If only, you know, if only the media had stayed like that, like I don’t think that was really a tenable.
Andy Slavitt 11:42
I think the left says that, I think the right still feels alienated from that media.
Ben Smith 11:46
Oh, for sure. But I think that a lot of that alienation was justified and like a lot of the revolt against it, and the sort of hunger for more voices outside voices, this sort of wild west that we are now incredibly sick of, was at the time, easier to understand, in a way. So I think that’s just part of the story that often gets left out.
Andy Slavitt 12:06
Look, I think if this were if this was a morality tale, if the internet as a whole where morality tale would probably be called starting fund ending badly. I mean, it’s like, what starts is irony, then becomes skepticism, then become sarcasm, then becomes cynicism then becomes outright lies. I mean, it was fun at first. And boy, look what we started, you know, and even though of course, you didn’t start anything bad when you were when all of us in participating in this.
Ben Smith 12:38
Now, I think a lot of the people who were around at the Knesset early moments in the kind of downtown New York in the early aughts feel dread genuinely feel the way you just said that, like they kind of I mean, one of the early writers and […] told me, she felt like they’ve kind of unleashed forces that they didn’t understand.
Andy Slavitt 12:53
Okay, let’s get to that. I want to say a little bit about what you put your new book. And I want to talk about Tucker Carlson a lot more after this break. So I want to confess to you, and you may hate me for saying this, but I was never a big fan of BuzzFeed News headlines, or clickbait in general. You know, I feel like you’re either trying to educate me with what I need to know. Or you’re trying to appeal to me with something you think I might like, educated to both. And I was just skeptical of places that made me want to click probably was probably in the minority of people who felt that way. But I found interesting headlines just turned me off.
Ben Smith 13:55
Well, I guess you were being enticed by somebody else’s headlines. There were some social media editor at the New York Times, who was like, We found this subset of people who only click on the most boring headlines, we’ve got to optimize for that.
Andy Slavitt 14:09
And actually, I would give the New York Times way more credit than you just did. I think the New York Times actually built maybe one of the only successful digital business models.
Ben Smith 14:18
Oh, yeah, for sure. No, and a whole chapter in my book is basically about Yeah, the BuzzFeed CEO. I mean, this is a kind of an amazing thing to think of enriched by 2015 which by the way, was right around the time this tide turned, I think, and a lot of people started to feel the way you did that they were being manipulated and kind of, you know, really started to dislike the things that liked about social media. So the Times invited the CEO of BuzzFeed Jonah Brady to come in and speak to their board. And it was this moment of still kind of the arrogance of new media, I think, where they asked him what he would do if they made him CEO. And he said, well, first thing I would do is ask for a raise. And then the second thing I’d go to my office, lock the door and cry. But in fact, in retrospect, that’s right when they were turning it around. And yeah, and Buzzfeed was starting to stumble.
Andy Slavitt 15:03
Look, I don’t know, if you read the thing that Salzburg wrote before he became publisher.
Ben Smith 15:07
The innovation report. Yeah, that was actually first published by Buzzfeed. Because it was leaked to us.
Andy Slavitt 15:13
Why don’t you talk about that? Because, you know, I think that the reality is, they probably envied the hell out of what you guys were doing. Unsuccessfully tried to figure it out for a while. And then I think this was, you know, felt, to me, at least in retrospect, like a transformative piece, which allowed them to say, hey, we could do our version of this even better.
Ben Smith 15:37
Yeah, I think it’s actually it’s sort of like a great business school story in a way, because you had a lot of these legacy institutions. And everybody was, it wasn’t like, what we’re doing was that complicated, it’s very hard to change culture. And you had a lot of institutions, I think the post most of all, kind of racing to copy innovations on the internet, oh, we’re gonna have blogs, we’re gonna have TikTok, we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do that. But often, it was stuff that didn’t really sync up with their brand didn’t really make sense. They start as reclines Wonkblog, which is great, but it’s totally disconnected from the rest of the Washington Post. And Esther just leaves eventually, and starts a new thing, because he’s so misaligned with that institution, the Times was much slower, and they liked much slower watched and watched and watched. Their culture is very, very hard to change. And eventually, they you know, the son of the publisher who’s going to become publisher. Basically, he and he and the CEOs have realized like, it has to, they have to at least give people the impression that change is coming from within. And they bring, you know, they have a bunch of senior journalists basically report out what is happening on the internet and produce this report in a very timely way. And actually, the report doesn’t say if you’re in the internet media, at that point, the report is totally […], says nothing news has nothing interesting. But what it does is give the sort of blessing of the New York Times is culture to the change, then they kind of were able to turn the ship. It’s a pretty amazing story.
Andy Slavitt 17:03
Yeah, I’m impressed with how they figured it out. I mean, today, you know, whenever you think of thought about the New York times before, you can still think about them now, whether you liked them hated them. But I think they have found a way to not really change who they are, from a newsroom standpoint, some changes, I mean, you know, they’re much more focused on the names of the photographs of the people who write their stories. So there’s no, there’s no changes, but they kept the integrity of the newsroom, and figured out how to leverage that into a whole bunch of different interesting models. And now it feels like, you know, they have figured out, you know, between cooking in games and the athletic and at least things seem to fit this sort of high quality journalism that you’d be willing to pay for.
Ben Smith 17:49
Now, I think they’re, they’re by far the most successful news publisher in the world. And in a way, what you’re talking about is, you know, when you picked up the Sunday, New York Times in 1987, you were getting recipes and crosswords, and sports and you know, yeah, and the headlines, and they have managed to reassemble that bundle in a pretty compelling way. I think it’s a pretty amazing story. I think right. You know, they’ve had their challenges and they have a lot of like, internal angst. And part of it is that they were so successful by 2019, as the sort of digital publishers really are stumbling, that they were able to kind of absorb all these ideas and all this talent from the internet and all these people. Yeah, right. Look at all the people that work for him now. […] from Gawker, Kara Swisher […] me from BuzzFeed, Ezra Klein from the Washington Post, […] Stewart from decibel printing, like everyone who had been the internet is working for the York Times. But the problem is, we are all like a bunch of lunatics who hate each other and have wildly different ideas about journalism. And it’s somewhat I think, the time sort of swallow like it was so successful, everybody else was struggling. And by 2020, the times is like, swallowed all the ideas and all the practices of the internet. And they don’t really like they’re not all aligned with each other, or with the New York Times. And I think that’s been culturally sort of shaking out. And a lot of these people are gone.
Andy Slavitt 18:58
Yeah. But look, I think to me that there’s a couple lessons there and tell me if you disagree, one is sort of like, it’s sort of a Tucker Carlson and Fox News spat to me showed, which is, if you think you’re bigger than your platform, good luck.
Ben Smith 19:11
I mean, that’s the core tension and all these media companies right now. And it’s funny, Jill Abramson, the, the previous editor of the New York Times has to back now, at some point, had one of her stars was demanding something or other and she said, Look, this is what you got to understand. The New York Times is always the prettiest girl at the dance. Like, and I think that’s in some way. I mean, but I think that is diminishingly true and certainly were that mean the Tucker Carlson different dance but you know, like that’s a I think you saw the ratings really collapse when he left and I think we’ll see my impulse is the Fox News is probably the prettiest girl that dance and that’s not going to change. But I do think you see individuals able to start up on their own and speak directly to audiences in a way that did not used to be true. Present company included.
Andy Slavitt 20:01
I will go on and get to your new your new venture, or it’s not that new anymore. But I want to I do want to get to that in sort of, but I’ve got that, like artfully crafted as to the where are we going from here part of our interview?
Ben Smith 20:13
I’m sorry to jump around.
Andy Slavitt 20:15
Yeah, really like, I’m only so good at keeping flow and an interview? No, but the fox thing makes me think of something else that I thought about. And as I read through your book, and some of the interviews you’ve done, which is those text messages from Tucker, put aside the ones where he said that like bizarrely racist, violent things that we just learned about, which is, you know, added even disturbing on another level, I’ll say, from where, where I already was disturbed, but the where he was sort of like, Hey, man, we don’t believe the stuff we’re saying was essentially the gist of a lot of those text messages. In some respects, it feels like, that’s not that far cry from the sort of clickbaity news, where you’re like, hey, if I if my goal here is to attract eyeballs, if that is my new business model, and I could test real time, as I put something out, how much people engage and how quickly people engage, then I’m going to run that direction. And, you know, just interesting to me that, you know, then you’re the guy who’s the editor in chief who’s like, hey, wait a minute, we got to have some journalistic standards of journalistic integrity. Yeah. Where does that fight against each other? And where does that it’s actually not a conflict?
Ben Smith 21:32
I mean, I think you see that temptation in every form of media, you certainly see it in cable news. You see it in newspapers, although the US Metro newspapers less, I mean, pandering, pandering outrageously to your audience and printing lies that they want to hear rather than truth that they don’t like this temptation across media across history. And digital media did was it gave you just exquisite data on this. And so you couldn’t ignore it. Right? We saw, for instance, that promoting Bernie Sanders was gonna get you more traffic from promoting Hillary Clinton. But we also felt we, you know, came out of a journalistic tradition that said, you know, we’re gonna try to be fair, and tell the truth and also tell people interesting stories they want to read, but within a sort of circumscribed boundary of them being true. And this was, you know, in 2016, I went over to Trump Tower and met Steve Bannon, who was running the campaign, he was super interested in Buzzfeed because he had studied and learned like an enormous amount from these progressive digital media sites, but in a way had taken them to their logical conclusion, which is to say, this totally unhinged support of Donald Trump on Breitbart that the reality didn’t matter at all. The goal was to get drive traffic and feed off that traffic and Trump was where the energy was. And he was calling he kept asking me he was so puzzled was, why hadn’t we done that with Bernie Sanders? Was the obvious move for us? Like, why didn’t we do that? And I think that’s in a way, the fact that our impulse was to not, and I think, was part of the reason that this whole era sort of reached its peak with the election of Donald Trump because the populist right was even better adapted to these tools than anybody else. The algorithm then is sort of a second piece.
Andy Slavitt 23:10
I love the story. Yeah. When I took away from it was the right is basically saying, if you’re gonna play this game, why not go all the way cynical? And you guys are gonna you guys are gonna dabble at this for the business model. But also because you guys want a social good, like you want get news out?
Ben Smith 23:30
Yeah, I don’t think so. I don’t I don’t accept that. It’s cynical to have people read stories that interesting. But we don’t need to agree. That’s okay.
Andy Slavitt 23:41
No, it’s a good it’s a good discussion. It’s a good debate, because that that continuum, I’m saying from his lens, his lens, what he thought was being done on this was, like, if it was someone else besides Trump that people wanted, he was basically saying that so why would have given them that is cynical.
Ben Smith 23:58
And we’ve told them exactly what they wanted to hear about it. That is cynical. I agree.
Andy Slavitt 24:02
And so I think he was saying, I assume you guys are partly as cynical as I am. Now. You didn’t feel cynical, and you were doing it. But I’m saying.
Ben Smith 24:09
We’re all there. Nobody thinks there’s, I totally see that. Yeah. And then he went all the way, all the way and unconstrained by the sort of old rules.
Andy Slavitt 24:18
Right. But in any case, you were I cut you off you were you were continuing.
Ben Smith 24:22
Oh, I mean, there is this second thing, right? Like you’ve got this system where the media companies are looking for the track traffic. And it first is really driven by what do people want to share? What are people interested in in an organic way. And then, as these platforms develop and get more sophisticated, they are also trying to keep people stuck to them and think people look at Twitter or Facebook, often coming from Washington, New York, think about them as well. They’re kind of political institutions. They’re trying to put their thumb on the scale one way or the other, but they’re fundamentally businesses and are mostly you know, seeing that you spend 4.7 minutes a day on Facebook and then if they tweak it this way, you can spend 4.9 minutes and that means they will make three extra cents off you a day or whatever. I’d like it’s mostly and sort of just business logic. But where that led them was toward how do we make the site stickier. And they were in getting a certain kind of trashy divisive news more and more on there seem to be working. And this was the like, Hillary Clinton has been replaced by a body double. And they start taking heat from that. And they see in their surveys that people ultimately aren’t thrilled with that experience. And so, and then they also are being dragged up on Capitol Hill. And this sort of reaches its peak in 20, I guess, 70. And they introduce a new measure called meaningful social interaction, which is meant to say we’re not just feeding you this fly by garbage, it’s stuff that we’re going to sort of amplify things that you’re really engaged with. And they have new metrics, comments, rather than likes. And it’s just a total catastrophe. Because what that means is that I post, like a Donald Trump meme, you comment, kill yourself 17 times in a row. The system says, wow, what incredibly meaningful engagement and shows it to like everyone we both know, and everybody else in the world and really lights the whole system on fire.
Andy Slavitt 26:02
Right. So let me go back and self-correct what I said earlier than in light of what you just said. I think we all wanted a little bit of outrage. It was just we all got too much. So I would I wouldn’t profess to say that I didn’t enjoy getting on Twitter.
Ben Smith 26:17
There was outrageous stuff happening. And also interesting stuff.
Andy Slavitt 26:21
We all go. Yeah. So we were all participants right in, in getting that ball rolling.
Ben Smith 26:28
There are ways in which the system itself can start to, incent certain kinds of journalism, or content creation and feedback to it. There was this memo that Jonah, my old CEO, who had a very tight relationship with Facebook, sent to a Facebook executive in 2017, saying, Hey, we’ve realized that the content that you are incenting us to produce and the stuff that is getting the most traffic for us is stuff that can be misinterpreted to be racist, and stuff that is producing racial tension. You know, because sometimes a lot BuzzFeed kind, it was often about identity, you know, things that black people know to be true things that we jokes about what white people say, that are funny little in jokes in a certain community that are meant to amuse and not to offend, and not to exclude. But you show them to people who are not in the in group, many of them totally reasonably say this is racist and terrible. And you’re attacking me. And then comment that. And then Facebook says great, meaningful social interaction, let’s show it to more people like that. And it did really feed, I think, a level of particularly kind of racial division.
Andy Slavitt 27:30
Right, right. No, no, that’s what I meant when I was asking you about algorithms. It’s not just algorithms, right? It’s about any measure of engagement that they use to say, we can make this story incredibly more red than the other story based upon not the newsworthiness of it, which is, of course, a nebulous concept. But based upon something very simple, like how many people are willing to read it and watch it. And from a business standpoint, that’s logical. What it did to media though, is, I think what you write about it there now, I think, being somewhat circumspect about data, we can look back. Yeah, it’s a Okay, now we have a little we have a sense of where this thing ran to where the party didn’t end, in quite as much of a fun way, as we thought. Well, this show release is going to end in a fun way. Let me take one final break and come back. And let’s talk business. I want to talk about the really the business of social media platforms themselves and the business of journalism. And is there a model short of clickable headlines? That’s the way to make money in journalism, you know, in 2023? I want to ask you about the social media platforms themselves. The idea that Twitter was something that for a bunch of people served a need, you know, it created, you know, the sense of familiarity with the people that we liked, to hear from and see from it fed, what we needed, et cetera. And all that stuff that I think much of which caused me to withdraw from Twitter, even before we learned, I basically felt like it was not good for me to be good for a lot of other things. It wasn’t good for me, personally, because I got sucked in a little too far. You know, I was like, a lot of people in the platform tweeting way more than I should. Every time I had a thought or an idea. Well, why don’t I just tell 800,000 people because they seem to care what I think and watch how many people think that’s true. So we all got we got sucked into that. And I just as I pulled back from that and realize, Wow, I haven’t spent a lot of my time you know, looking at these notifications. That’s not a good thing. I got someone sitting in the room with me, probably should talk to them. And a lot of us went you know, gone with it. With that, but Twitter, essentially, as imperfectly, with all of those caveats, it did give you reliable news sources, real time information. And whether you’re interested in sports or news or weather or whatever the heck it is. You could find it there. Something something’s changed since Elon taken over. And I think I’m curious if you could reflect on the kind of controversy of the moment between musk and NPR musk in the New York Times? And what is that dynamic all about?
Ben Smith 30:33
Yeah, I mean, I sort of probably like you, I mean, I think I maybe was a little less hooked and liked it a lot, and fat and you know, there was so much to like about it, all the things you say about it just being a really a really great way to know what was happening in the world. But also it allowed outsider voices in it allowed smart outsiders to participate in a conversation, it should have Dumb insiders were sometimes, you know, it was, I don’t know, it was really fun. At its best and kind of constructive, I think, in some ways. It could be. I mean, I do think that social net, like, as you say, sort of before Musk took over, it had gone from a place where people were having conversations to a place where people were kind of go, they were going to other spaces, deciding what they thought and then arriving on mass to fight it out with their enemies. And, you know, and so I think for people who wanted to have kind of interesting disagreements that could maybe progress and you could have honest arguments that that had sort of stopped happening there, you know, outside certain spaces in competition, but AI on Twitter, right now, pretty interesting parts of the tech industry, are really still on, they’re having interesting normal conversations. But I think the thing with social platforms is like, their tendency is to go away. They’re not like buildings, they’re like, you know, a bar or a nightclub, like you go there, because your friends are there. And if your friends start leaving, you leave and not for any particular reason, things just come in and out of fashion. And so I think there’s always a bit of a pressure to, it’s hard to keep them stable, the culture changed, people get sick of everyone being in the same place at the same time yelling at each other, and more pull in and in a more polarized political environment, it got less pleasant. So I think a lot of I sort of think that probably that era of these big giant platforms was ending anyway.
Andy Slavitt 32:18
So your analogy, the lights went up in the bar, people were pretty hammered and yelling at each other. And people are like, we get it’s time to get out of here. Let’s call it Uber.
Ben Smith 32:25
Yeah, maybe. Or maybe just like you, everybody went to that bar where they went, we know when they were in their 20s. And then they’re in their 30s. And they go to a different bar, and there’s no particular reason. And then new management takes over the bar. And it’s like, hey, we like put in a new sound system, guys. And nobody cares, because they’ve moved on. And I think like and want a different kind of experience. And I think that’s basically what’s happening with social media right now, I could be wrong. I mean, I’m sort of on the more aggressive end of predicting that these things are really going to fall apart and in the process of falling apart but sure looks like that’s a myth.
Andy Slavitt 32:53
Without trying to get have the 5000s conversation about what’s inside Elon Musk’s head. I am curious what this whole blue check argument with NPR, New York Times. I mean, we’d like to laugh about the blue check thing. I didn’t even know that somebody had gone away for like a week. But it was it was relevant that NPR, blue check was on NPR and New York Times is one New York Times and so forth. What do you make of that whole, like, fight that whole controversy? No.
Ben Smith 33:24
Yeah, I mean, I think there are these folks in the tech industry who feel that they were mistreated by journalists at various times in their careers. And in some cases, that’s true, that stupid stories written about them that weren’t true. Other times, they stupid stories that were true. They didn’t like, I don’t really know. But they feel very alienated from the media. And they then and they spent a lot of time on Twitter. And they developed like a very complex model of what they thought was happening and how the media worked. And these ideas about status and cliques and all these, a theory that if you were an alien, who had just arrived on Earth, and spoken to no one and just observed was maybe a plausible theory of how the media worked. And part of it was about the media was obsessed with these blue checks, which indicated status, and they would pay any amount for them and they then just incredibly, and anyone who was in the media, many people in the conservative or tech or populous media had said to me asking people like, this makes no sense. Like this has nothing to do with how the media works. And the checks were there basically to tell consumed as a signal to consumers who was who, but they’re very, very ideological, very attached to this theory of how the world works, and then really started making decisions based on this theory that was like utter nonsense. And it immediately provoked chaos and interesting to see a different weird, complicated dynamic than the one Musk thought it was. He was so confident, made a bunch of decisions based on a bananas theory and were sort of and I think doesn’t like journalism or journalist has some other ideologies about like the nature of truth that are kind of boring and dumb.
Andy Slavitt 34:56
Sure. So now to talk about semaphore because undaunted by your prior to pitching, I gotta do this again, like, I gotta do this again, like, there’s nothing more fun than launching a news digital news brand. from scratch.
Ben Smith 35:11
That is the truth. I think in a way, like you, you know, I was at the time for a couple years covering media. And so you know, throwing stones at everybody else’s glass as is for once, but also seeing like, how much how radically the moment had changed how kind of what people wanted needed from the news had again, shifted, and it’s so not totally, totally different things from 2005. Right back then, we were so it was so annoying how limited the information was, and so cool to be able to reach outside it and get voices from everywhere. And I think now, it’s the opposite problem. It’s that we’re totally overwhelmed by the amount of incoming and don’t really know who to trust, don’t trust the institutions, as much as we used to, per se are looking for who’s writing and why. And, yeah, and so I think so our idea and the thing we’ve been trying to do, and it’s funny, you mentioned Twitter, because I feel like thank God, six months ago, when we launched like Twitter was still there, for sure. Because we did actually come out and say, Hey, we’re here where this new thing, and there were a lot of people on their course who like signed up for emails and then deleted their Twitter account subsequently, like I can just feel it decline it. Yeah. Right. And I feel like grateful that, like we were able to get in at the last minute in a way. And people feel very manipulated by algorithms, like we were talking about. We’re trying to save people’s, you know, we’re individual journalists, writing in our own names, making clear the difference in a very transparent way between fact and opinion, and bringing in perspectives from all over to our own work, not just sort of giving you 17 links to the New York Times, but giving you trying to read the best of the times the post and include it and include disagreements in our own work. And that’s I don’t know what we think, kind of answers some of the some of the complaints of people who feel overwhelmed right now by the news, which is like everyone, including me.
Andy Slavitt 36:56
So it’s a couple of things that are interesting one from a business standpoint, which is that that platform was helpful to you. And I will say the only time I put something on Twitter is whenever do episode. So when this episode comes out, yeah, it’s market. I’ll tweet about it. I’ll tweet about it right. And we’ll get a few 1000 more listeners, because I put that tweet out.
Ben Smith 37:16
Right, and some of them will stick around and you’re trying to move people from the decaying Twitter over to your platform.
Andy Slavitt 37:22
And there’s value and they know that and yeah, and that’s fine. serves a real purpose. The other thing is interesting, because the more the more content related point, which is, how do I take the lessons I’ve learned and make the kind of news that responds to what we think, is the best content to present to people now, which I think would you describe as a couple of things, highlighting the individual work of these reporters, allowing them to kind of kind of run with the tide to build out, you know, their own their own platforms on your platform. It feels hard, it feels hard. And it feels hard, because I suppose Axios might be someone who, who was born out of another news organization, did it well, and it seems to have some staying power. They found a business model, which probably has a lot of components to it. But I’m wondering, and I asked this question on behalf of anybody who wants to create a future business model for deferred news. But do you think you know what that is? Is there a good one that also allows you to feel good about journalistic integrity?
Ben Smith 38:29
Yeah, and let me actually, I think Axios is actually a great example. Because, again, they sort of looked around at like, what is actually driving people crazy. And one of the things drives people crazy is that stuff is way too long. And they admitted they kind of ran head on at that. And they like addressed it. And I think we think there’s a different moment when the thing that drives people crazy is how chaotic and overwhelming the space is. And if we can be transparent, we can pull it together that answers compliance. But I think it is sort of about extras like listening to what people complain about, too. I’m very leery of the notion that there’s kind of a silver bullet business model for news or for media. I think if you look at successful media companies and around the world, and you say, like, what business is disney in? answers like they’re in 15 different businesses, none of them perfect. And they are very, they have smart people who manage them well. And I think like if you’re a journalist and you care about the news, you shouldn’t actually get like tangled up in ideological arguments about whether advertising is corrupting, because you’re under the sway of the advertisers or subscriptions are corrupting because you have to pander to your subscribers. I mean, these are all temptations when you’re interacting with an audience of and that you should resist and that people in the long term appreciate if you resist, but it’s a tough business and you shouldn’t it’s and you should like be ideological about how you do the journalism not ideological about like, which dollar is pure. And so we know we’re in the advertising business. We have events, we’ll do subscriptions, and I think we’ll just try to you know, manage the company well and build a good business.
Andy Slavitt 39:56
But I said the purity let’s focus on the sustainability.
Ben Smith 39:58
I think sustainable I think If you look at news business, this is such a boring answer. And people it’s the successful news businesses have mixed models and do a lot of different things.
Andy Slavitt 40:06
Is that another way of saying you have to you have to subsidize the news business?
Ben Smith 40:10
No, it’s not at all. It’s a way of saying just again, it’s a very boring business statement, like the New York Times has an advertising business, it has a subscription business, the subscription business right now sort of capping out. And so it’s and there will be years when the advertising business is incredible, and incredibly high margin. And you’re like, why am I in any other business? Because subscriptions are kind of hard to maintain. And then years when the advertising market goes down? And you say, Thank God, I’ve got subscriptions or events. And I mean, I think if you look at successful news businesses over time, it’s not like a tech business where you figure out one clever thing, and you’re just a zillionaire. It’s like a tough business where you have something people really want. And you have an audience who cares. And you find ways to make money off that.
Andy Slavitt 40:49
Let me push a little bit just because like there was a certainly a point in time, when news started coming to the internet, when people were not willing to pay like it. The general thinking is, why would anybody pay? It’s on the internet? Why should they pay? Of course, I pay for that paper. But this thing isn’t real. I can’t touch it. Right? You know, I can’t put it in my cat’s litter box. So why would I pay for it? It feels to me. Like that has changed? Maybe not completely. But enough to be encouraged? Because the best business model, if it works, is someone saying, hey, Wall Street Journal, I want it, I’ll pay for it. New York Times New Yorker.
Ben Smith 41:26
Why is that better than my being able to give it to you for free? Because somebody’s telling you a mattress on the side? I mean, it’s the 20th century, I mean, maybe not for the 1000 year period. But the greatest one of the greatest media business in history is like the Indianapolis Star over the course of the 20th century, selling, you know, with cheap subscriptions and selling you a lot of mattresses. I just think this isn’t it’s not like really a theoretical question. There’s like.
Andy Slavitt 41:51
Maybe I’m gonna, you know, 10 more times more about it than I do. But I feel like the, the, the value of, of a view has gone way, way down. And so the digital advertising market, it doesn’t support and it doesn’t bother me.
Ben Smith 42:03
That’s certainly true right now, it’s 100%. True right now. And I think like, what you’re saying, in a way, like there was this idea in, you know, when, in the early 2000s, that, wow, we’ve struck digital oil, right? Like each view is worth getting $9 for 1000 views. And exactly, that’s for a really bad product. And we’ll get better and there’ll be more of it. But actually, the thing with commodities is they need to be scarce. And it’s not a commodity if it’s infinite. And so instead of the value going up, or maintaining the values kept, kept going down, as Google and Facebook started to generate infinite scale and better products. And that’s really that’s where it was a huge mistake. That’s right.
Andy Slavitt 42:37
And the other thing that happened is that, you know, there are more efficient ways to advertise. And that market became very efficient. So if I’m an advertiser, now, I’m not going to go advertise on someone’s site, I’m going to go buy the exact audience I want for the exact price I want at the exact time I want. And that’s, of course, part of what has undone a lot of local newspapers as well.
Ben Smith 43:03
Unfortunately, for publishers, that’s getting harder, again, because of particularly Apple’s new privacy restrictions. And there are certain markets, I mean, I think, if you’re reaching, if you’re reaching, so essentially, like kind of key policymakers, decision makers in politics and technology, that’s not necessarily like a group who you can just target on Facebook. And so that is a space that we’re in that other publishers are in that where there is a good business to build. But you do have to be it’s yeah, but it’s a tough business. I mean, news isn’t the nobody’s going into news because they think it’s like and one of the lessons I feel like I learned is you shouldn’t take venture capital investments from people who imagine that this is going to be some explosive business that, you know, exits in four years.
Andy Slavitt 43:44
I mean, I’ll tell you who probably should have started with this mine. My interest in this is just the survivability of journalism in a good way. And as I said, if he told me it’s a conference that’s going to support him, if he told me it’s advertising, and he told me it’s subscriptions, what worries me is when it’s not sustainable, and what worries me is when you got to compromise that and so, and the idea of a Jeff Bezos, or […] jobs buying your publication to save it, that doesn’t feel like the durable sustainable model, which is why you’d have to go back to the euro times I was so impressed with the fact that they’ve said we can do news and it can be part of our virtual circle of financial success, not just media success, but they’ve got a brand they’ve got tradition they’ve got so you know, they’ve got 10 People Flynn, a flight of quality and so forth. The question is, that’s why I’m so interested in Semaphore. Now it because it would be great to be able to demonstrate that yes, you can do this, that there is a business here. It can be sustainable.
Ben Smith 44:50
Yeah. I mean, you know, we really think you can and I guess I think something you said before, is really true to like, I think that like in the spaces that we’re in and we have the luxury of picking the places we thought we could build businesses, you know, and I will definitely try to drag you into one of our events. But I would say like, of the things that we’re talking about, like local news is the one that there nobody that really feels incredibly dire. And many people talk about, yeah, the number of journalists being employed going down. It’s almost entirely these local outlets laying people off. And it’s really bleak. And a lot of the stuff like I don’t feel like I have a lot of confidence in how you could build a business and local news. And I think that’s really tough. And really important.
Andy Slavitt 45:28
I mean, if my executive producer, Kyle Shealy, who you met before the show could speak right now, which I won’t let him because it’s not his show. He’s supposed to be in the background. Good. Good.
Ben Smith 45:38
Glad some things are some old media traditions are being honored here.
Andy Slavitt 45:41
Yes, for sure. He and a lot of people in podcasting come from local NPR stations, of course. Yeah. And they felt what it was like, Yeah. and podcasts. It’s no, no salvo either. I mean, you know, it’s interesting thing of the moment, to me, the edge podcasting scratches. And it’s this very specific edge to journalism. And what some of the time is, sometimes, you don’t want to go deep. You know, you’re gonna want long form. And you can explore nuance. There’s just a lot of freedom you have here, you can get into real conversation. I mean, and that’s the difference between this and doing a cable TV hit, or something that has some amount of playback and entertainment value. And I mean, it whenever people email me, oftentimes they tell me, like literally what they’re doing while they’re listening to my podcast, I fold laundry while I’m listening to the podcast, I am running. I’m on the exercise bike. I’m driving my kids to school, like, yeah, it’s fascinating. Nobody is just sitting around listening to this show. Right now someone’s doing something more important. And then they’re listening to us as kind of their kind of sidekick.
Ben Smith 46:48
Oh, we appreciate the 40% of your attention or getting here.
Andy Slavitt 46:51
We do. We do. We do. We’ll take it. Well, fascinating account fascinating tale in traffic. I wish you good luck with Semaphore. And with all your other endeavors. I really appreciate you coming into the bubble.
Ben Smith 47:09
Oh, thank you so much, Andy.
Andy Slavitt 47:23
Few more shows to tell you about before you turn this podcast off and do what I hope you do, which is go listen to a back episode. That’s what you should do in this podcast. And there’s some great back episodes, Noah Barton from Post, Post is the new alternative to Twitter will be on the show. We’re also going to talk about the debt ceiling clash and what’s happening in Washington and what’s going to happen there how it’s going to affect us all. We’re going to unpack that a bit. Then we’re going to talk about the infant and maternal mortality problem we have in this country, in the Black community and the Native American community. And what can be done about it. It’s probably seen that issue talked about, but it’s been talked about for a while not a lot has been done. So those are a few of the topics coming on the show. I hope that that’s clickbait enough for you. Talk to you next week.
Thanks for listening to IN THE BUBBLE. We’re a production of Lemonada Media. Kathryn Barnes, Jackie Harris and Kyle Shiely produced our show, and they’re great. Our mix is by Noah Smith and James Barber, and they’re great, too. Steve Nelson is the vice president of the weekly content, and he’s okay, too. And of course, the ultimate bosses, Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs, they executive produced the show, we love them dearly. Our theme was composed by Dan Molad and Oliver Hill, with additional music by Ivan Kuraev. You can find out more about our show on social media at @LemonadaMedia where you’ll also get the transcript of the show. And you can find me at @ASlavitt on Twitter. If you like what you heard today, why don’t you tell your friends to listen as well, and get them to write a review. Thanks so much, talk to you next time.