On Friday, Jan. 10, the Editors in Chief of the Herald sat down with Ben Smith, MC '99, the Editor in Chief of BuzzFeed News and former writer for Politico, The Wall Street Journal Europe, and the Yale Herald. This transcript of their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
KC: If you could give it an algorithm, how do you establish legitimacy as a publication, and even as a writer?
BS: Obviously for us, the main opportunity and the main challenge has always been that BuzzFeed has this huge brand and huge scale. And it’s entertainment. If you asked when I started, “Do you trust BuzzFeed?” it wasn’t a question that made any sense. Like, no, we’re trying to win trust. And I guess my basic opinion is that you do it by doing stories that people have to take seriously. And the reporting gives you credibility.
Beyond that, when you’re challenged on a question, when you’re dealing with questions of whether people will trust you—which at this point every media brand in the country has, because the President is attacking the idea of trusting media—you really have to show your work and be transparent and publish documents. And you’ve got to be very explicit about how you got things to the extent possible, and allow your reader to replicate the way you got your information.
EK: Whenever I’ve gotten something wrong or had pushback from something I’ve reported, it kind of stings—almost like a personal thing. Does that ever go away? Whenever you make mistakes or screw up, what’s the knee jerk reaction?
BS: I actually think you have to be grateful when people correct you. They are helping you be right. And one of the great things about the Internet is that you can really correct. In print, you can’t. You could stick a correction on page 3 or whatever, but it would never fix the original harm. On the web, you really can fully, completely correct something.
I think people judge you mostly not—assuming you’re mostly getting things right—on “do you make the occasional error,” but on how you deal with it, and how you deal with it in a non-defensive way.
EK: Do you think that the immediacy of the way that we get our news and demand it create additional challenges?
BS: I think the biggest challenge, actually, is that reporters shouldn’t strive for consistency. You should be reporting what you see and what you can know. And if the theory behind that contradicts what was sort of the theory behind your previous story, you shouldn’t adjust the reporting to fit your previous story. Like that’s not reporting.
It’s not a journalist’s job to project a huge, coherent theory about the world. And I think that there’s a real trap in trying to. If you see your job as trying to create a narrative, you wind up doing bad reporting and missing obvious stuff.
KC: That reminds me of a question we were going to ask about BuzzFeed News’ editorial standards and stance on activism. The Herald is one of two publications that published editorials about The Game and the climate change protest, asking Yale to divest from Puerto Rican debt and fossil fuels. We were nervous that that would hamper our credibility as an “objective” news source, which is why we were really fascinated by the fact that BuzzFeed puts this on the website.
"We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women's rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides. But when it comes to activism, BuzzFeed editorial must follow the lead of our editors and reporters who come out of a tradition of rigorous, neutral journalism that puts facts and news first. If we don't, it makes it harder for those reporters to do their jobs." —BuzzFeed News Standards And Ethics Guide
BS: I wish I had like a better answer to this, but, honestly, we were trying to say something totally banal. If you asked the New York Times, “Is racism a story with two sides?” they would say no. And I actually think at this point, if you ask them that about gay rights, they’d say no. But it doesn’t mean that we take a position on House resolution acts that say something about bakers in Colorado, right.
We were basically just trying to make explicit the assumptions that are implicit for every news organization. I’m not sure that totally worked. I feel like I only get that quoted to me out of context or in bad faith.
EK: This is something everyone getting interviewed loves to have happen, which is putting something you said this week in context with something said 13 years ago.
BS: Wow, you really did your homework.
EK: We tried—I think it was a piece in The Guardian. You’re basically saying that every four years the media tries to reassess and apply its lessons from the last election. We’re probably already getting things wrong. I think it was in the 2008 primary, there was the discussion as to whether Hillary was an incumbent or not, and the dynamics that played in the race—
BS: What did I say? I have no recollection.
EK: You wrote, “The case with Clinton is worth checking out. But there’s one near contradiction in there. That’s the central puzzle of this race. The central question is, is Hillary like an incumbent or not?” And Trump, at least to me, seems to be in the gray zone of incumbency. The Obama 2012 election feels different in terms of incumbency than Trump 2020. And I was wondering whether you think that the way that we’ll get it wrong this time—as we inevitably will—what specific effects the incumbency has on that.
BS: I don’t know. I mean, the way you often get that wrong—but this isn’t new—It’s just that people cover and get obsessed with the mechanics of Trump’s campaign, rather than covering the real campaign. It’ll be the White House, and what he does with presidential power to get himself re-elected, but I think that will get a lot of coverage, too.
Yeah, I don’t know. If I knew exactly what we were going to get wrong—
EK: Then we wouldn’t.
BS: —yeah, that’d be great.
KC: Is there a story that you wish you had caught on to earlier, that just kind of sticks in your mind like, Man, I really wish I had been on that.
BS: You know, there’s so many. I mean, this is so random and small, but it’s just since you asked that today, it’s the one that’s in my head—a colleague of mine in Brazil said a few years ago: “There’s this guy, Olavo de Carvahlo, who lives in Virginia and the Brazilian right wing worships him.”
And I always thought, “What a cool, interesting story. I should interview that guy, what a cool story.” And then I didn’t.
And then Bolsonaro was elected. This guy has become this totally central figure, and The Atlantic had a really great story on him last week. I was like, “Man, I would’ve been so far ahead on that one.” And you get no credit for that. Like it’s negative credit, you know, when somebody else gets a scoop and you say, “Oh yeah, I had that one and I decided not to do it,” and you think that makes you look smarter. It does the opposite, it makes you look like an idiot. But I would say that, in general news, judgment is so much about when you think, “Oh, this is kind of interesting. I wonder if I should do it or maybe it’s too early.” You always do that story—there’s no such thing as too early. The other thing is too late.
EK: You said in a New York Times article about you that “political coverage that wants to be solely high minded is missing huge chunks of the actual interplay of personality power that actually drives things,” which was about the idea of memes and entertainment in politics. Do you think that coverage that gives light to that plays into the idea of politics as a spectacle? And if it is a spectacle, does it have to be?
BS: That’s really interesting. I think the landscape has changed on us a little bit. I mean, it’s always a spectacle. I don’t know what that means, but I think the thing that people object to is that it’s like a game—it’s a sport.
When I was at Politico, we had a big audience who really, really explicitly were interested in politics as a game. And I just think that one of the real features of Trump’s election is that nobody thinks that it’s a game, or that the stakes are low and it’s fun. It’s not that they don’t care about who’s going to win or don’t care about tactics, it just means that, tonally and in the framing of the story, you have to make clear that there are real stakes.
EK: Yeah, I think I was thinking in terms of how we saw a lot of pundit coverage about the impeachment hearings, where the headline would be “Groundbreaking, but Boring,” right?
BS: Yeah, and honestly, that might be true. But people got upset about it because it felt like [the coverage] was making light of an important thing and covering it as theater.
EK: Yeah, that’s a better word.
KC: We had a few questions that were just specifically about your experience at The Herald. You were an opinion columnist?
BS: I wrote a column but I never went to the office. I was an opinion columnist, that’s all I was. I wasn’t actually like a big student journalist. I went to an organizational meeting at the Yale Daily News my freshman year and I thought, “These people are way too intense for me.” Yeah. I didn’t go back and was scared by them.
And then I wrote a bit for The New Journal and got a column in The Herald my senior year.
KC: Imagine you’re a senior in college again, seeing yourself in your life today. What do you think would surprise you most about your life and your career?
BS: I mean, just the fact that I became a blogger—a word I would not have known my senior year—for a series of publications that didn’t exist at the time, Politico, BuzzFeed, the New York Sun. Like most of my career has been spent at publications that did not exist at the time and would have been really hard to explain to a college senior in 1999.
KC: I couldn’t imagine explaining a blog before blogs were a thing—
BS: —or explaining a publication that is rooted in social media when there was no social media.
When I was in college, the interesting part of the Internet was the Usenet, which was all bulletin boards, and I remember planning a vacation by going on some bulletin board and asking some people, “Is there a good state park in Georgia to camp in?” It was very sweet old Internet stuff. I did a paper for Linguistics about the use of language on singles bulletin boards on the Internet, about gender pronouns.
There was a service literally called “Finger,” where you could type in somebody else’s email address and see where they had last logged in. So you could sort of see if somebody was around. (laughs)
EK: What do you think of the media’s ability to penetrate new audiences at this point? Do you think that that’s still the game?
BS: I think the era of really rapid growth is mostly over. I mean these new organizations like us and Vox and Vice, I guess. I think we’re all trying to build sustainable businesses rather than focusing on growth. And I think that we grew very rapidly in this kind of wide-open social media space with Facebook—we grew on the backs of Facebook and Twitter’s growth and they’ve stopped growing domestically and they’ve closed off those channels. I think it’d be very hard today to start a new news organization or media company and reach a massive scale fast. I mean, that’s not always true. You could start a platform like TikTok, right?
But you don’t really see—there are no media companies being born on TikTok and I don’t think TikTok is gonna let that happen.
EK: Do you think this is sustainable, the way things are now?
BS: No, right now the media business is struggling. I think there are some exceptions. A handful of these players that have gotten to scale and built real businesses—including us—will be fine. The biggest legacy brands will be okay. And then there are some very small things, little newsletter subscription things, that will be fine. Everybody in the middle is really struggling.
EK: And do you think in the shadow that casts, with local reporting as a check to local corruption and things like that, do you think there’s anything that other brands that are not struggling can do?
BS: I think with local in particular, nonprofits are an important part of the picture. I’m involved with The City, which is a big New York-based news nonprofit. My wife runs Brooklyner, which is a small Brooklyn for-profit news organization, so I’m very with that space. And I think there’s just nothing on the horizon to replace the kind of scale local newspapers have. That’s a real problem.
EK: Knowing the economic prospects of journalism and knowing the sort of attack that it’s under, what advice would you give to young people entering the field today?
BS: I just feel like reporting is the most fun thing—and that you should not go to New York. If you can afford it, try to get a job somewhere outside New York. And actually, the woes of the industry sometimes mean that you, as a fairly junior reporter, can walk into a fairly hollowed-out newsroom and be doing really interesting stuff on day one because they’re desperate for a copy. I went to Indianapolis after Yale and really enjoyed it.
EK: —and then Eastern Europe, right?
BS: Yeah, then Eastern Europe. You know, you’re potentially in a time in your life when you’re unattached and can go cover interesting stuff—you know, away from the big media capitals. And if you do good work, you can always come back to the media capital and get coffee for people. And you can certainly work your way up through the industry that way, but it’s a lot more fun and you end up in the same place if you get out of the city. And reporting is really fun.