“I’m eager to get back to reporting and writing, though I have loved editing,” Smith told me in a phone interview. He informed the BuzzFeed staff of his decision in an email Tuesday afternoon.
His departure inevitably raises questions about the financial well-being of BuzzFeed News, where there have been some troubling developments as the company — long a darling of the digital media world — has struggled to return to profitability in recent years.
About a year ago, 15 percent of the staff was laid off. And more recently, the departure of Smith’s deputy, Shani Hilton, to a high-ranking editing position at the Los Angeles Times, combined with other high-profile departures, created concern.
But Smith said that one of the reasons he feels comfortable leaving now is that the company and the newsroom are stable. He said he has reason to believe BuzzFeed will be profitable this year.
“I think we really built this place to last, and it’s in a strong position,” he said. BuzzFeed will conduct a wide search for its next top editor and will consider internal and external candidates.
I asked him if he would retain any financial interest in BuzzFeed. “Not in the long term,” he responded but acknowledged that he is still working out the details of disentangling himself from his longtime employer.
The media columnist job at the Times was most famously occupied by David Carr, who earned many admirers for his swashbuckling, candid approach to a fast-changing arena.
After Carr’s sudden death in 2015, the job went to a first-rate reporter, Jim Rutenberg, who — the Times announced recently — will become a writer at large, allowing him the freedom to move among departments. He has been on leave recently, writing what sounds like an important book about the global growth of disinformation.
Smith is likely to bring, well, buzz to his new position. A Manhattan native, Yale graduate and Brooklyn resident, he is particularly well-connected and well-liked in media and political circles. And he never shies away from the big story. He likes to stir things up.
He’s had some memorable — and some controversial — moments both as reporter and editor.
In 2014, he wrote a shocking story about Uber’s plans to go after its critics in the media by gathering disparaging information to smear them, particularly focused on the personal life of a female reporter. Smith had attended a dinner whose participants later said they believed it to be off the record; but Smith said no one told him it was, and he proceeded accordingly.
As editor, he decided to publish the Steele dossier, when traditional outlets — including The Washington Post and the New York Times — held back because they couldn’t independently verify its contents. That opened him to plenty of praise for transparency, and criticism (including right here), but he always maintained that it was the right call and handled the criticism with grace.
“When Ben arrived in 2012, there was no news organization here,” Matt Mittenthal, BuzzFeed communications director, told me in an email. But during his tenure, the organization was twice a Pulitzer Prize finalist, an Emmy nominee and the winner of top awards, including the George Polk.
Among the highlights: an investigation into R. Kelly’s alleged cult that eventually led to criminal charges; a series on Russian-backed assassinations in Britain; and a searing letter from a Stanford sexual assault victim, read to her attacker in court, which prompted a national conversation on campus sexual assault.
BuzzFeed came under more critical scrutiny (including from both Rutenberg and me) after special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s office took the highly unusual step of challenging the accuracy of a BuzzFeed report. It said that President Trump had directed his fixer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress in 2017 about negotiations the previous year to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, that Mueller possessed documentation of this, and that Cohen had acknowledged those instructions in interviews with Mueller’s office.
Smith continued to stand by the story. And he told me that he wouldn’t change how he had handled either that story or the publication of the dossier.
More generally, Smith said that he’s proudest of two accomplishments at BuzzFeed News: proving that “tough, ambitious journalism” cannot only be done on the Internet but that “it’s a superior medium to print”; and fostering journalism about the Internet itself, telling the story of the spread of intentional disinformation, for example, with the viral story about Macedonian teenagers producing faked stories about the 2016 election for profit.
“In 2012, it would have been crazy to think that we’d be competing” with major legacy news organization to cover the biggest stories in the nation and world, he said.
It’s going to be more than interesting to see what Smith does in this new role. He won’t be boring, that’s for certain, and the role is clearly a great fit for him and the Times.
Smith and I have been friendly for several years, and I want to welcome him as a fellow media columnist. We need sharp-eyed critics, daring truth-tellers and clear heads in this increasingly crazy sphere. I’m confident he has all that and more.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan