Chicken little forecast

Still Chugging Along

Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.

The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of New Media

Featuring Ben Smith

Has social media peaked? How is media different now compared to the early days of Twitter and Facebook? Are there too many social media options? Zachary and Emma speak with Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of Semafor, founding editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed, and author of “Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral.” Journalism’s recent online progression, social media fragmentation, and the Facebook news evolution are discussed here today.

Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript

Ben Smith: I think that there’s an impulse to get really ideological about business models and sort of talk your own book. But if you think about like really successful media companies like Disney, well, they’re actually in 15 different businesses and they manage them really carefully. They have like a really smart person running the theme parks and somebody else makes the little stuffed animals.

They own ABC News. I think successful media companies, you know, build good connections to their audience and then make money in lots of different ways. We are very focused on that one to one connection. We don’t charge people. We sell advertising and we host events that monetize that relationship with the audience.

Zachary Karabell: What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network, and this is What Could Go Right?, our weekly podcast where we look at, you got it. What could go right? Given that everyone is always asking the question, what could go wrong?

We thought it would be useful for ourselves, for our listeners, for the world to ask the question of what could go right. As in, there are things that are happening that may not lead to the sum of all of our fears, that may instead lead to a future that is closer to our dreams than to our fears. Gasp, that is a radical concept in a negative disposed world and in a world of many actual crises, from climate to politics to economics to globalization.

One of the things that I think has animated a lot of people has been the changing media landscape and the nature of the information we receive largely through social media outlets and of course through the ever burgeoning world of smartphones and devices. There is far more information available to all of us all the time about everything, anything we want to know, everything we want to discover. And there’s a lot of upside in that, in our ability to know and find and discover and listen. And there are people out there creating new media outlets that are designed to find their audience often in a constructive, interesting, informative, illuminative fashion.

And we’re going to talk to one of the people who has launched one of these outlets, Semafor, which is one of the newer entrants into the space. And I think has a unique perspective on what has gone on. Emma, tell us about who we’re going to talk to.

Emma Varvaloucas: So today we’re going to talk to Ben Smith. As you mentioned, he’s the co founder of Semafor.

Before that, he was a media columnist at the New York Times, and he was also editor in chief of the late, the great BuzzFeed News. We’re going to talk to him today about the industry as a whole, but also about his book, which is called “Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral.”

Alright, ready to talk to Ben?

Zachary Karabell: Let’s do it. Ben Smith, thank you for joining us today on What Could Go Right? So let’s talk a bit about your book Traffic, which came out last year, and a bit about Semafor, which comes out every day, and everything in between. You know, it’s funny looking at the book, the media landscape has morphed and been disrupted so rapidly and so many times over the past 20 plus years that reading a story of BuzzFeed and Gawker, all of which are within the last 20 years, has this kind of weird, quaint feeling of ancient history, even though at any other point in time, it would have been recent events. You feel that as well? I mean, you lived through all this, but it, like when I was reading it, I was thinking, ah, you know, for the, like the Halcyon days when people cared what Gawker was doing or, you know, that that was a central reality. And then I remember just like name dropping 101.

I would go to the LA Times Book Festival and I present there. And I got to know Arianna Huffington a little bit. And I remember her coming up and saying, you know, Oh, darling, you must blog for me. And that being a thing, like, Oh my God, I’m just wondering like what it feels from your vantage point, because that’s what struck me really palpably.

Ben Smith: Now, so you’re saying that, that your main takeaway is that we are both old.

Zachary Karabell: That’s, that is my takeaway.

Emma Varvaloucas: It felt more recent to me if that, I don’t know if that helps or hinders, but to me, I was like, yeah, Jezebel, that was recent.

Ben Smith: It’s funny when I talk to like student journalists now, I find myself saying, well, you know, that once upon a time there were these things called blogs which were this very rudimentary publishing technology that you may not be aware of. It was sort of like horse and buggy era internet. And I did write the book in part in 2020, cause I sort of left BuzzFeed in the beginning of 2020. I don’t know. It felt like you could kind of feel that a whole era was ending.

I mean, and maybe this was confusing my personal story with history, but I went to the New York Times, partly because like, where else were you going to go? This whole internet media that I’d come up with felt like it was shrinking at best, collapsing at worst. Almost more important, the idea that it was going to be this kind of utopian alternate future for media was obviously over.

And social media, which BuzzFeed in particular had really been built on and wrapped around, it just gotten incredibly dark.

Emma Varvaloucas: I mean, is that something where you feel like you’re mourning the loss of this era and the loss of these publications? Because I think about this a lot because personally, I actively miss like the early days of Jezebel. I remember really clearly when they put out the cash reward for the unedited Photoshop images from Vogue and things like that. But if I talk to people that are not as obsessed with the media as probably all three of us are, they’re vaguely aware that Vice isn’t around anymore. They’re vaguely aware BuzzFeed isn’t around anymore.

We in the media industry mourned them and it was a loss, but to everyone else, it was just kind of like bubbles popping up and then leaving. Or is it like, do you really feel that we’ve lost something important in the news environment?

Ben Smith: I think that we’ve lost these sort of outsider voices challenging the establishment.

Maybe this is my own bias, but from what was in some sense a fundamentally constructive point of view, like they were trying to build new institutions that were probably at different values in some ways, but were trying to get to the facts, weren’t fundamentally associated with kind of partisan movement politics, but were trying to, you know, in their ways serve real journalism to audiences.

And I think of the things that replaced them were less interested in truth and more just nakedly political.

Zachary Karabell: So maybe you step back from it and just tell people who are maybe not as familiar. What was the vision of BuzzFeed when it started? What was the it that wasn’t being done that you thought needed doing?

Ben Smith: The opportunity we saw at BuzzFeed and we saw it in different ways, but the space that seemed to be opening around 2010 was the sort of shift of the internet into social media. And I was writing a blog for Politico at the time, covering politics. And I could just feel that my audience had moved from hitting refresh on my blog all day, to hitting refresh on twitter.com all day, which was a desktop product. Jonah Peretti, who is this kind of media hacker prankster who helped found Huffington Post and founded BuzzFeed, similarly saw, maybe saw before anyone almost, that social media was going to replace the blogosphere, replace the internet. And for BuzzFeed, it was primarily Facebook and then also other kind of early social networks like StumbleUpon.

He started thinking about, okay, what if the front page of our website is really Facebook? And what we are doing is providing content to be distributed on Facebook, the way MTV provides content that is distributed by cable providers. And that was really the metaphor. And it was just such a radically different way of thinking about the web than everybody else, and gave us this huge advantage as that prediction became true. And social media did, in 2010, swallow the rest of the internet. And we were really fully bought into that vision and the idea that you can make media that is not a destination in itself, but is pieces of content being distributed on other platforms.

And we also were very utopian about it, which is very specifically, we had this view that while people in the anonymity of kind of search engines and kind of the old web could be really depraved, on social media, they’d be their best selves. Cause they’d be there like kind of public selves and they’d be posting about, you know, things that will restore your faith in humanity and fundraisers for earthquake victims and stuff, and certainly not kind of shouty insane politics because like who wants to be that person, you know, in public? That did not turn out to be an accurate prediction, obviously.

Emma Varvaloucas: So one question that I kept thinking about reading Traffic, is especially you mentioned Jonah Peretti, who was like really obsessed with figuring out how to create like a viral moment and like, understand how to kind of like harness and manipulate the internet. So on this line of what you’re saying like, you know, you thought everyone was going to give their best selves that didn’t turn out to be true, would you still say, you think that the internet is harnessable now like that you can actually put something out there that you know is going to reach, you know, to certain corners with a decent amount of confidence?

Ben Smith: No, I mean, I think the internet has totally changed. We’re in this sort of new environment and it’s very unfamiliar to me. I find it interesting podcasts are a big part of it. The sort of dominant feature of today’s media environment is just fragmentation and this sense that you don’t really know what anybody else is paying attention to that I may be listening to totally different podcasts than you. Whereas, yeah, if you were on the New York subway, 10 years ago, you looked over somebody’s shoulder you were probably, they were looking at the same tweet you’d been looking at or the same meme, and now I think that’s totally different. You have no idea what’s in somebody else’s headphones, and that’s a huge shift actually.

Emma Varvaloucas: I’ve noticed, for instance, that the same stuff does travel around TikTok first, and then my friends send me the same video months later on Instagram, or like my one friend that’s on Reddit has seen it too.

I’m never quite sure that’s because there’s still some kind of subjugation to the internet or because we’re all just part of the same demographics. Any thoughts about that? Like, it’s all like women my age.

Ben Smith: Yeah. Well, there are lots of, there are tons of over and overlapping networks, like text groups in some sense now being the heart of them and private networks often.

I mean, I think part of the fun of covering media five, 10 years ago was you could kind of see what was going on. And now it’s mostly happening in the dark, but of course, like a great meme is still a great meme. And you’re going to send it to all your friends. I mean, you know, maybe in some content context is still king and things that are really important will travel, but they’re traveling in these sort of more opaque ways.

I think one of the statistics that I saw that really fascinated me recently is Hugh did a study of a podcast actually, and it was asked people, what’s your favorite podcast? Not everybody has a favorite podcast, but of the subset of people who do, obviously this is number one. But the top one is Joe Rogan and as you would expect, but it’s only 5 percent and it’s unusual to see a market where the number one share is 5 percent and everything else is smaller.

It’s like a sort of Jeffersonian economy. Most of the listening is happening in the mid tail to stuff that’s getting a hundred thousand, 200, 000 downloads, but there’s no Tucker Carlson in the old days on the right. There’s no big central thing that drives everything else.

Zachary Karabell: One of the reasons we started the Progress Network was this feeling that the economics of traffic on the web, I mean not the web, on the interweb, whatever the hell we should be calling it now, privileges hot takes and that there was an entire business model that grew up really over the past 15 years and, you know, we talked a little in the negative sense to, to Jonathan Haidt about this, that it’s very hard for sort of non hot takes to either go viral or rise above the outrage du jour, or the anxiety du jour, or the fear du jour, or the FOMO du jour, whatever the du jour is, it’s rarely cool, calm, positive feelings.

Just liminally, that’s the nature. I don’t think it’s by design. I just think that’s kind of human. Did you start seeing that in what was getting traction? And then, of course, I want to hear what your experience is with Semafor, which is delightfully not animated by “ahh!”, but.

Ben Smith: That’s our slogan, actually, delightfully not animated by “ahh!”

Yeah, certainly BuzzFeed. We were like really pretty close to like the engine room of all this stuff and thought about it a lot and paid a lot of attention to why things were going viral. And it’s, in retrospect, extremely clear, actually, what was happening. But I think even at the time, a big day at BuzzFeed was this day we posted something that’s called the dress, which was this image. A woman had been in a wedding in Scotland and sent us a message on Tumblr that was like, Hey, we’re having this weird thing where I took a picture and my mom and I can’t decide if this dress is black and blue or white and gold. And like, I feel like I’m losing my mind. Can your readers help us settle this?

And so we put it online and it just went totally insane on Facebook. Biggest, you know, most traffic we’d ever gotten. And we were talking to Facebook, I think more than other publishers, Jonah, the CEO had a direct line to Mark Zuckerberg. And so we had kind of an understanding of what was happening and what was happening was they realized that the way to get people to stay on Facebook, because that’s their goal, they’re just thinking, how do we get people from 13 minutes to 14 minutes a day or whatever, was what they called engaging. And so initially that meant, well, we’ll show you what your friends are sharing. And then they thought, ah, well actually, if we show you what people who aren’t your friends are sharing, but are sharing a lot, that’s a pretty good signal that you’ll like that.

What other people like who are sort of demographically similar to you, that that’s a good signal and we’ll show you that. And so it sort of moved a bit from being a social network to being kind of a content machine. And then, as they dug in deeper, they were like, oh wow, if we show you stuff people are commenting on, that’s a really good signal that they’re engaged, right?

It’s even better than us hitting the like button. These people really are animated by this. And so what that really privileged to stop was the things that were divisive and made people argue with each other. And I don’t think they thought that way or would have said it that way. And the dress was the most harmless, innocent, lovely version of that.

You’re just sort of like, are you nuts? This is obviously blue and black. And you’re like, no, you’re, you’re crazy, this is white and gold. And that was the content of the comments and people being like, delighted by how crazy it was and arguing with each other. But that’s what propelled it. And we sort of figured that out pretty quickly and we’re like, started to post other kind of like silly divisive stuff. Like there was a post about hating olives because apparently like 20 percent of the population thinks olives are totally disgusting. And that post went really viral cause like people are arguing about olives, fine, totally sweet.

But of course it also meant that there was this style of politics that was really coming of age then. And I don’t think Facebook created this style of politics, but the way this sort of right wing populism works, or one of the sort of core moves of it, is the candidate has to show that they’re an outsider, that they’re not part of the corrupt establishment they’re attacking, even if, by the way, they have all these establishment credentials, they’re super rich, they’re already in politics, what they do, and this is true in the US, but true in the Philippines, true in Brazil, true in the UK, is these political figures say things that are really outrageous, racist, sexist, sort of gross, false. So that all right thinking people will attack them and wag their fingers at them. And then they can say to the alienated masses, like, look, I’m not one of them. They hate me just like they hate you.

And Facebook could have, it was not built to amplify that kind of politics, but it might as well have been, because Donald Trump says something crazy and somebody comments that that’s racist and somebody else comments, no, you’re a racist. And like, we’re off to the races and the Facebook machine amplifies it. And at some point we got access to sort of through a partnership. Facebook, I think, wanted to show off its data capacity. And so they were giving a couple of news outlets, like access to some internal sentiment data. And every month it was like, Oh wow, Donald Trump has a hundred percent of all the energy on Facebook. And then after three months they were like, ah, the numbers are broken. We will get back to you and fix it.

And then it just went away because it was embarrassing.

Emma Varvaloucas: How does Semafor look at sort of these old school social media platforms now? I would call them old school like Facebook and Twitter. Maybe even Instagram. Cause they’re trying to correct for all that stuff that they kind of did accidentally, right?

Which is often to the detriment of publishers.

Ben Smith: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think they ever cared much about publishers except to the extent that publishers could really cause them trouble. I don’t think there was like a conspiracy, maybe at News Corp at times there was an actual conspiracy to cover Google in very, very aggressive ways to get money out of them.

Like extortion is the word, but I think outside Murdoch land, it was sort of more unconscious. Journalists and publishers felt that Facebook was killing their business. And that certainly didn’t make the coverage nicer, even if there wasn’t some mandate from the top. And so to that degree, they wanted to keep publishers happy and would write checks in the hope that it would calm everybody down.

I do think that era is really over. Like, and it’s not that social media is going away, but the marriage between news and social media, Facebook is just out of the business. Like I think they feel like huge mistake. They are gone. You do not find news on Facebook. A little bit. TikTok and Instagram are like not enthused to have news and publishers, but will kind of put up with it.

And then Twitter’s gone the other direction. Elon has sort of an ideology about citizen journalism and that anything is as true as anything else and that sort of stuff that I think he is appealing to some people. And it’s not centrally relevant official news source it was, but lots of people are on there and there’s interesting information, but no real conversation anymore.

Even were he doing a spectacularly good job running it, just like culture changes. And people got tired of that era and are watching Netflix and are listening to podcasts. And some have gone back to legacy publishers. I think I’m still on it. I think it’s interesting. But in the way that I think Reddit is really vibrant and interesting, but it’s not like if you don’t read Reddit, you don’t know what’s going on in the world.

It’s just like, ah, it’s an interesting place of people having conversations.

Zachary Karabell: The fragmentation means there’s just a lot of interesting places with interesting conversations, but there’s no one place with one conversation.

Ben Smith: Yeah. And I know you guys are sort of, are kind of optimists by nature. And I think fragmentation sounds like a bad word in a way.

And this idea that everybody’s living in their own media bubble, but my actual experience of it is that it’s a less polarized, less shouty, less tense environment in which people have a little more space to, not everywhere, like Alex, one fragment is Alex Jones, right? But I think there is, there are more heterodox, interesting spaces where people are having open conversations. And social media just didn’t turn out to be a place you could do that.

Zachary Karabell: Fragmentation, insofar as it also means a lot more noise, is one of, if not the saving graces of democracies currently.

That the real global divide is between societies that either embrace or tolerate lots of noise, and societies that are trying to get everyone to sing at the same tune and the same chorus or silence. You see that even with India recently, but you certainly see that in the United States. It’s very hard to control people if everybody’s noisy.

It’s very hard to do anything if everybody’s noisy. And I suppose there is an argument of like the more chaos and the more noise, the easier it is for cohesive forces that are unified and dedicated and passionate and focused to either seize control or exert power and that’s a whole other discussion other than the media one.

I’m just saying you could definitely make the argument that the fragmentation, the noise is actually really positive.

Ben Smith: Yeah, it feels positive. Honestly, I’m obviously also an optimist or wouldn’t, you know, go around starting blogs. It feels like us in some ways, a fairly kind of a positive, interesting moment to me in media, if not in other, not so much in politics.

And then, yeah, we started this podcast. I decided to call it Mixed Signals just sort of for that reason. It just feels like it’s a moment when people do want help navigating this very complex, chaotic media environment in which it’s hard to know who to trust actually, but there is a lot of good stuff to find if you have an open mind to it.

Emma Varvaloucas: I feel like the common narrative until recently with the fragmentation stuff has been like, everyone’s in their own realities, right? Like there’s no agreed set of facts anymore. I mean, do you think we’re past that as well, that maybe that’s overstated at this point in time?

Ben Smith: No, I think that’s a disaster.

I think that’s totally true. Right? Like, let’s not get carried away here.

And particularly in kind of national politics, less and less, is there even an effort to establish some shared facts? And I think that’s a huge problem and something I think about a lot. Again, there is a big audience for whom they would like that.

There’s a lot of appetite for that. And at Semafor, I think that’s kind of core to what we’re trying to do and the way we structured our articles. So that there’s a section that is, here are the facts. And then there’s another section that is like, here’s what the journalist thinks about those facts.

Because I think there’s a sense, fairly and unfairly, that establishment media kind of isn’t on the level in some way, and you’re getting opinion and ideology smuggled into your journalism, and people would like to separate those things. I think that’s the big challenge for kind of governance in national politics, just this lack of any kind of shared agreement.

But this parallel thing you were talking about around fragmentation and media bubbles, because obviously, this idea of the filter bubble and Eli Pariser’s really interesting book about that is incredibly sinister, the idea that people are just living in these totally different information spaces.

Social media, in some sense, ought to have cured that. Like we were all just out in this insane asylum screaming at the top of our lungs at each other, but you weren’t being shielded from information. You would contact with people who deeply disagreed with you all the time. But what it really turned into was a machine.

And I think in the early days of social media, like I loved Twitter in its early days and you really often would as a journalist, there’s an impulse in journalism and kind of newspaper journalism, just to like spout some bullshit. You don’t really understand. It’s called the nut graph in a news article where the journalist will be like, this is the latest sign of like President Biden’s weakness.

Okay. Is that true? Who knows? And I loved that social media people would just be like, what are you talking about? There is no evidence for that claim. Often like real experts would jump in and be like, you are wrong. And it really kept people honest and made sure that you weren’t making nonsense claims in news articles, which by the way, is like most of the history of writing news articles.

And so, and there would be very kind of good faith engagement. I think I, and for me, at least on social media or people, even if they were a little rude about it, we’re really trying to, in some sense, make your work better. And you could say, Hey, you’re being a jerk, but thank you. You’re right. I’m correcting.

And you could have real conversations. And that totally went away 2015, 2016. And it was replaced by this. Social media became a machine for finding like the dumbest and most offensive version of your opponent’s view, and elevating it. And like, you see this now with Israel, Gaza, like the only perspectives that travel at all are the most insane, offensive, kind of murderous statements.

And when someone tries on social media to say something nuanced and thoughtful, that’s not what that machine does. It doesn’t work. You saw, I think the Palestinian representative at the UN I noticed this summer had expressed joy that this released Israeli hostage was going to get to see her dying mother in God.

Nothing but attacks for that. And then wrote a very lovely thing, defending himself, which nobody really read. It’s just, it is just a machine for elevating awful opinions and persuading you that your opponents are the worst people in the world.

News Clip: The Instagram experience became overrun with advertisements in your feeds, sponsored content shared by influencers.

And a lot of those perfectly curated moments, instead of those life updates from your second cousin or the everyday snippets we were posting when it first launched, and we really found a lot of joy out of. So that’s a lot of the ways that it’s changed.

Emma Varvaloucas: I have to say, I have to stand for TikTok really quickly because I have noticed, I agree with you, I think, especially about Israel, Gaza.

It’s a whole can of worms why that’s such a hot button issue, but we, but,

Ben Smith: Yeah, let’s just riff on that for a while.

Emma Varvaloucas: All right. Yeah.

Aside from like really hot button issues like that on our account on TikTok anyway, when we have videos that go viral and people start to roll into the comments, kind of saying nonsense, our social media manager doesn’t need to like respond to things that quickly or like fact check people because other people do it for her like very fast. And I was really surprised when I started to see that happening. And I was sort of some comfort here that the wisdom of crowds might be still alive a little bit, at least on TikTok.

Ben Smith: I agree that there are a lot of conspiracy theories about TikTok that are unproven. And there’s lots of nice stuff on TikTok. It’s very hard to talk in general about TikTok because you see what you see and you don’t really know what anyone else is seeing. I mean, it is its own sort of fragmented environment.

Yeah. I think the sort of opacity of it makes it a little hard to talk about, but I also think there’s this idea, and I think a big part of why TikTok is really likely to be banned if Biden wins reelection is that there’s a view in Washington that the reason that the kids are pro Palestine is because of TikTok and that they were brainwashed by it probably because the Chinese communists wanted them to.

And there really is not particularly evidence for that, I don’t think either.

Zachary Karabell: Yeah, I think that’s one of the, and I’ve had vociferous arguments with people about this because I’ve written a number of pieces over the past couple of years about TikTok for Politico, for foreign policy, for others. It may absolutely be true that the Chinese government could, at some point, manipulate the algorithm.

It’s completely unclear whether they could even manipulate the algorithm in a way that would be particularly effective. The algorithm is an affinity algorithm. It’s not a…

Ben Smith: Yeah, if they started showing people communist propaganda, I mean Yeah, right. I mean, it’s complicated.

Zachary Karabell: They would tune out. That’s the thing. It’s like, it’s…

Ben Smith: It’s complicated, but could they dial up social division the way the Russians tried to maybe, does it kind of do that? Maybe it’s sort of social media tends to do that. It’s a very sort of complicated question. And the sort of overall question of like, would you let the Chinese government buy NBC?

Like, probably not. I mean, I don’t think it’s a crazy cause as you say, they should have a latent threat, even if they’re not really doing it. But there’s also I think kind of a loss of confidence among Americans in the American system that we’re so scared the notion that if our kids were exposed to positive views of the Chinese authoritarian communist state, they would like it better does reflect a real like loss of faith and confidence in our own system.

Zachary Karabell: Yeah, it’s a very Manchurian candidate moment.

Ben Smith: Yeah.

Zachary Karabell: Transposed to these current technologies. So let’s talk a little bit about the business ecosystem of all this, because you’re part of starting, there’ve been a few kind of major new ish, what’s called a media, even though I don’t even know that’s the right word anymore, in Semafor, Puck has done its own interesting business model on a much smaller scale. You guys come out of very, we’ll call them established places. Justin Smith, who I know is no relation. I mean, Smith is such an unusual name. You have to do that disclaimer. Coming out of the Atlantic and Bloomberg, and you’ve been, as you said, at BuzzFeed, you were at Politico, you were at the New York Times, Steve Clemons, who I think has been almost everywhere in Washington at this point.

One, I guess, Basically, how do you make money? Two, There’s this completely the minute you think you have a model, I think economically, if I were on your side of the fence, it would be very bewildering because think of what’s going on in Canada and Australia, where they tried to get Facebook to pony up X amount of money if they’re going to have news on the site, they just said, well, Screw it, we won’t have any news on the site.

Granted that for now, that’s just those two countries, but could be the EU in a year and you just don’t know. How do you navigate that and think about how do we even make money? Is it purely just get a direct relationship with people who are going to pay you rather than advertising or platforms or is there a whole other thing going on here?

Ben Smith: So the thing about the media business that I’ve like painfully learned over quite a while doing it, there’s no single answer. And if you think about like really successful media companies like Disney. And you ask like, wait, what business is Disney in? The answer is well, they’re actually in 15 different businesses and they like manage them really carefully.

They have a really smart person running the theme parks and somebody else makes the little stuffed animals, they own ABC News and somebody else is running that and I think that there’s an impulse to get really ideological about business models and talk your own book, but I think successful media companies build good connections to their audience and then make money in lots of different ways.

We are very focused on that one to one connection, but we then sell advertising. We don’t charge people. We sell advertising. And we host events in some sense, monetize that relationship with the audience, but we would like to charge and feels like it ought to be part of what we’re doing. And we’ll probably start doing that at some point.

And I think, you know, successful long term use businesses have a bunch of different revenue streams because they all go up and down.

Emma Varvaloucas: How is the Semafor experiment editorially going? I should tell you, too, that I will happily stand for Semafor and I’m not just saying that because you’re on the podcast. I read Flagship every day. I’m a big fan. And what Zachary was saying before is very true. Like, when you read Flagship, which is the catch all newsletter, it comes every morning, it has the big stuff and, like, the shitty stuff that’s going on, but it also seems like there’s a very concerted effort to include things, optimism, but positive data points, or just things that don’t make you want to, like, dunk your head into a pot of boiling water and never read the news again.

And there’s humor in it, too. That’s another thing that I really enjoy, so is a lot of that on purpose, or?

Ben Smith: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s, I think that’s an accurate representation of the world. Like we’re obviously in this really disastrous political moment, but also this age of technological miracles and wonders. And like, you know, these are true at the same time.

I guess we sort of think about it from the reader’s perspective a little bit in the perspective of somebody who’s tired of having that feeling that like the basic move for publishers and broadcasters is just to freak you out. And just keep hitting that one button of fear and to keep you hooked that way.

And I actually think like that works all right, but there are definitely people who want, you know, who among other things, want diverse perspectives. The idea that there’s not sort of a single obvious truth about the news, that this isn’t like one simple story, that there are different ways of looking at the same stories, both in terms of sort of domestic partisanship, but also globally, we’re very focused on making sure there are views from different parts of the world on the same stories.

Zachary Karabell: Amplifying Emma’s question. You have traffic numbers, you don’t have revenue numbers in the sense of you’re not demanding people to actually think about what the content’s worth to them. And you have the fragmentation, right? So it’s sometimes very hard to know whether or not you should be reaching more people or fewer people, but the right people.

And by the right, I don’t mean like some sort of class, the right people kind of thing. I mean the right people who will consume and come back to the content. For a while, I was writing for Time Online over the past few years. Maybe one of those pieces had 200, 000 hits, but I had almost zero relationship to any of that.

And a lot of those people were probably in a different ecosystem than my own ecosystem. I used to joke in the nineties, the biggest magazine in the United States for much of the late nineties into the early two thousands was Parade magazine cause it was the insert in all the Sunday papers.

Ben Smith: Yeah.

Zachary Karabell: But if you were like a East Coast New Yorker or someone living in LA, you never read Parade.

You didn’t even think about it. It didn’t even register like the Home Shopping Network or QVC, right? It was huge, but invisible. So I wonder how do you grapple with those questions? Like, are you trying to have a lot of people who may or may not have much affinity?

Ben Smith: One thing is just those huge numbers of the social media where you’re reaching in some sense, as you say, millions and millions of people, but you had no idea who they were and they felt no connection to you.

And they were sort of scrolling past and clicking and glancing. It has been replaced with much smaller numbers, but hopefully more realer connections. We’ll talk about first party connection and email. Strangely enough, this 1990s technology for us has been the most valuable way to get that. Yeah, we were reaching hundreds of thousands of people every day in email with, you know, who then write us back and feel like they have a real relationship with us in some of our products, building around authors voices in a way that seems to help as well, like you actually know who you’re hearing from. There’s not this sense that it’s the voice of a kind of blob. It’s a journalist who does what she’s talking about.

Emma Varvaloucas: Ben, I have a question. We got almost 40 minutes into this interview. We didn’t talk about the Steele dossier, and I thought that maybe I’d succeed in not mentioning it, but I’m bringing it up because I’m really curious to ask you, however many years later and just through your whole career in media, how much faith do you have at this point in time about the American public parsing information intelligently?

Ben Smith: Less. I mean, I think my argument, which I believed when we published it, like we published it for a number of reasons and maybe I won’t spend half an hour revisiting them, but I would still defend the decision to do it journalistically. But I also, I think was overly optimistic about the consequences, which isn’t exactly the same thing.

And I do think that we thought, you know what, like here’s this unverified dossier and we’re going to say it become very central to American politics. It was sort of the dark matter of American politics. It wasn’t like I just got some weird email with some allegations and threw it on the internet. I’d been briefed to two presidents, legislators and intelligence officials and lobbyists and journalists all had it and were talking about it and believed it or didn’t believe it, were taking action based on it. And yet, so like everybody was in on it except the people. And I think my view was like, if some US Senator can see it, why can’t a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher or a carpenter or whatever, like it’s not going to burn their eyes out, they have as good judgment as anybody else.

And I think I kind of underestimated the extent to which no one’s going to read these things. People didn’t experience it as like, oh, here are unverified allegations that we need to wait and see what’s real. People took it as a sort of podunk of, here is the evidence of the thing I already believe, like Donald Trump is a spy. And it reminded me a little bit actually of WikiLeaks. I, there was a moment in 2016, I went to a rally for Donald Trump in New Jersey, and there was a guy outside holding a sign that said WikiLeaks and yelling WikiLeaks, WikiLeaks. And I had actually spent that morning reading through like that morning’s WikiLeaks dump because they were dribbling things out.

And I was like, excuse me, sir, like, are you particularly interested in like the leaks, Goldman Sachs speech or in the stuff about the United Arab Emirates? And he was just like, what are you talking about? Like, it wasn’t about the substance. It was about this as a symbol of Hillary Clinton’s corruption.

And I think I didn’t really understand that.

Zachary Karabell: Final question. So in the annals of impossible questions, here’s an impossible question, but just as a thought experiment, if we’re having this conversation in five years, separate from whether or not Semafor, you know, is, or is not the gold standard of media publications, what do you think this landscape looks like?

Do you think it’s just more of the same? Are we in this lull where there’s going to be some new dominant space? Are the traditional social media companies going to be disrupted in any way? I mean, what are you? What do you think?

Ben Smith: I think there are these big trends. One is toward this sort of personalization of journalism and this sense that people want to deal with and trust individuals, not institutions.

And I think institutions that embrace that and figure out how to balance it, like actually, I think the New York Times is frustratingly to me doing a pretty good job on that right now and making it people hard to hire. Yeah, I think that’s a big trend with an upside and a downside for sure in terms of sort of the role of institutions and a lot of establishment institutions really struggle with that.

I mean, I think this fragmentation kind of continues. You see a lot of small stuff becoming medium sized and a lot of large stuff sort of shrinking down to become medium size. You’ll kind of keep seeing that happening, but we’re also now in an environment of high interest rates. I don’t think you will see the kind of startup, like the ones that we worked at in the 2010s, that were able just to sort of burn money on growth in hopes of a business model down the road.

And that slows down, I think the rate of change. Short videos obviously not going anywhere. You know, I don’t think Twitter or Facebook will collapse, but I don’t think they’re kind of getting more relevant either.

Zachary Karabell: I want to thank you for your insights today. For those of you who have yet to check out Semafor, go check out Semafor and go check out the book Traffic if you want to have some understanding of kind of how we got from there to here and some maybe understanding of where we’re going from here.

So thank you, Ben.

Ben Smith: If I may plug our podcast, the one thing I know about the people listening here is they’re podcast listeners. We have this new Mixed Signals podcast. It’s about the media and hope you’ll check it out.

Zachary Karabell: So check out Mixed Signals as well. Add it to your playlist along with What Could Go Right?

Thank you so much, Ben.

Ben Smith: Thanks so much.

Emma Varvaloucas: Thank you, Ben.

Zachary Karabell: Well, that was a fun conversation about the media landscape. You know, it obviously makes us think about what we’re doing at a much smaller scale, but definitely that personalization email, right? That’s been sort of our experience as well with email lists being an incredibly effective way of reaching people with high affiliation. We have amazing open rates for those of you who are listening. Most people get What Could Go Right, the newsletter, get it because they want it, and then they open it, and then they read it. I do think that’s likely to continue in terms of just people will find the news they want.

I suppose that is unfortunately a version of a filter bubble. We had a conversation with Eli Pariser a few years ago about all that. That may be inevitable, but then what one does within that and what you do to try to create bubbles that you think are constructive is a whole other question.

Emma Varvaloucas: I’m questioning like how much the bubbles overlap, to be perfectly honest.

Like there was this really interesting study that came out a few months ago that showed the American public is not among social media users. It’s not like a filter bubble saying, it’s TV. So like it’s the old folks watching TV for the most part. I’m just saying, just putting that out there.

Zachary Karabell: Okay. I got it.

Emma Varvaloucas: I do feel that we have hit peak social media just as a general rule. Like the media is seeing that first because they’re the ones that economics depend on it, but just like in general, like people my age, I think Gen Z, like they just, that whole allure and sparkliness of like the new internet and Facebook and Twitter and all this stuff is just not there anymore, like Ben was saying at the end.

Zachary Karabell: That’s a totally fair observation. But it speaks to how we ended the conversation, which is there is a real morphing here. It’s a little hard to know exactly how this is all going to settle out. The idea of this being like peak social media time, clearly not in economics, but even Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg clearly recognize that they’re at peak their own social media model time, otherwise they wouldn’t be spending tens of billions of dollars on AI and virtual reality and other research because their perception is whatever the business model is of tomorrow, it is absolutely not going to be the business model of engagement that was the case before. So that’s a really good example or really good indication of just how right the point you made is.

Whatever we’re moving into is not an amplified version of whatever we’ve just emerged from.

Emma Varvaloucas: Right. And I feel like the answer is clear for like media. I think actually it’s been clear for a long time. It’s again, what Ben was saying that multiple revenue streams, like I saw that in my previous job as well.

Like when you have multiple revenue streams, that is the way to go. That’s what the New York Times does. A lot of their revenue comes from portals, subscriptions to their cooking stuff, stuff completely unrelated to editorial, but how that relates to like the general public and their relationship to the internet and social media, I think is a really large open question.

Zachary Karabell: Absolutely. And one that we will keep asking. Anyway, thank you all for listening today. We will be back next week with another episode and of course, our shorter weekly Progress Report, which looks at news of the week that you may otherwise have missed about things that are going well or things that are going right, or things that are helping the world solve its problems.

Please send us your comments, get the newsletter, What Could Go Right? at theprogressnetwork.org. Tell us what you think. We don’t always know what we think, so it’ll be interesting to hear what you think. And thank you all for listening, and thank you Emma.

Emma Varvaloucas: Thanks Zachary, and thanks everyone.

Zachary Karabell: What Could Go Right is produced by the Podglomerate, executive produced by Jeff Umbro, marketing by the Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right, the Progress Network, or to subscribe to the What Could Go Right newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.

 

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Zachary Karabell

Emma Varvaloucas

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