en Smith had a hundred-and-forty-four unread text messages when we talked for a sometimes-digitally distracted sixteen minutes, just after noon on Tuesday. (Fifteen minutes after we hung up, he responded to an e-mail I’d sent asking if he’d like to talk.) He hadn’t checked his Twitter mentions, either, which seemed pertinent information since the news had just dropped that Smith, the current media columnist for the Times, would be leaving to start a new venture with Justin Smith, Bloomberg Media’s chief executive.
What the Smiths’ project is exactly isn’t entirely clear just yet. Smith told me throughout our conversation that he was still thinking through the concept. Global business and politics site? Maybe? The precise mediums in which reporting would appear? Too soon to reveal. But the Smiths’ venture seeks to cater to “200 million people who are college educated, who read in English.
Ben Smith Can’t Say What His New Media Venture Is.
Puck launched, Axios announced its expansion into more local markets, and Politico has eyed its own move into more global markets. Smith, the former editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, whose scoop-laden media columns have provoked and titillated for the past two years, seemed—predictably for those familiar with him—delighted to be getting in off the sidelines.
When the news about his project broke, I texted Smith and left him a voice mail (on top of the e-mail I’d sent him). He returned my call and started talking right away. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
Why are you doing this?
Who no one is really treating like an audience,” as Ben Smith told his employer in a piece relaying the new company’s formation (or, at the very least, its ideation). The venture does seem on trend: in recent months.
There’s an opportunity to reach a new audience to deliver stories in new ways.
Great journalists in a way that can be hard for legacy institutions. And I think the other thing sorry. I’m just going to kind of riff a little—I just think the other is that we’re coming out in this moment in which the news business wrapped itself around social media for better or for worse.
There’s lots of interesting stuff that happened, obviously, but also, I think sometimes that a lot of news is sort of stuck in a feedback loop. But that there’s a big audience, and I feel like this is something I’ve to some degree learned at the Times, that the stories that hit hardest are the ones that actually get the truth of a complex, real story.
Is this your way of saying, “This is the publication where Twitter isn’t real life,” to use the trite line?
No, no. I mean, lots of things have happened on Twitter that are really important. And Twitter’s a real part of the world, I would think. It’s a good line.
So it’s more about the amped-up conversation Twitter stories can take on?
Um, no—I think it’s the extent to which . . . sorry, my son is FaceTiming me, just a second. [On the other call.] Hey, what’s up? Did I call you by mistake? Is that why you’re calling me? I can’t hear you and I’m on another call. Text me?
You know, he and I follow each other on Twitter.
Yeah, I was gonna come down on the train today and I just asked him to come and get me because, like, I’m obviously going to be totally glued to my devices.
O.K., so, what can you tell me right now about what this is?
Right now it’s me and Justin making plans with a lot of ambition, and, I think, hopefully, a fair amount of experience.
Do you have any people whom you see as competitors in mind? For those of us who are not in your and Justin’s mind—the two Mr. Smiths—what is it?
We’re thinking more about the audience than about competitors, I would say. And I think there is a big audience of people who are dissatisfied with their current options. There’s a lot of research that suggests that, for sort of a range of overlapping reasons.
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Like what? Tell me more about that.
I think there are a lot of people who want to be treated with respect. We want to serve the highest common denominator, and I think there’s an opportunity for that.
Honestly, if you want to know what kind of I like, I’ve done a lot of it in my career, and so I would probably just point to that rather than try to . Although I do think that the one thing that I’m excite about is how much innovation there’s been in how stories get told and delivered. And we’re eager to push the envelope on that.
Can you give me an example of what that means?
Again, I don’t want to go comparing my imaginary product to somebody else’s, you know what I mean? I haven’t started yet.