BuzzFeed News is ready for life without Ben Smith
Posted February 6, 2020 2:15 p.m. EST
CNN — Shortly after Ben Smith announced that he was resigning as editor in chief of BuzzFeed News to join the New York Times, staffers at the New York City headquarters gathered to pepper him with questions about the decision and about what comes next. One question in particular stood out.
"Since you'll be starting at the Times in two months, which BuzzFeed story from this week will you re-report first?" senior reporter Katie Notopoulos asked.
Notopoulos asked the question in jest, but the joke was telling because it's a reflection of how far BuzzFeed News has come as a global news organization. Since it launched eight years ago, BuzzFeed News has published award-winning investigations and broke news that some allege has been re-reported without credit by the New York Times. So while there are skeptics who say Smith's departure spells doom for the news operation, staffers on the inside told CNN Business that Smith has done his part to ensure that BuzzFeed News can continue to compete with the likes of CNN and the Times long after he is gone. The news shop is now focused squarely on finding a new editor in chief and on bringing BuzzFeed News closer to profitability.
Smith is leaving behind a global staff of about 200 people, including reporters, editors and producers, in which he has instilled a dedication to original reporting and a deep understanding of the internet.
"We really see ourselves as the leading news organization of our generation of media. BuzzFeed's defining stories are often the stories of the internet, of what young people care about," Smith told CNN Business Tuesday on the phone from Iowa. "I think people have a lot of confidence in their ability to compete without me."
Part of BuzzFeed News' plans for generating revenue took shape in October when the company announced that it had hired Sam Henig from the New York Times to be its first-ever executive editor. In December, Maggie Schultz, who spent four years on the editorial team announced that she was moving to the business side. Alana Zeitchik, who worked in product strategy for a year, also made the switch. They are now both on the sales team.
Then in January, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti revealed in a memo why this revenue push is needed: "With the exception of News, every content division is now operating profitably, and News is trending in the right direction," he wrote.
Smith told CNN Business that his department was never tasked with making money. Two other former BuzzFeed News executives told CNN Business that there was never a mandate to generate content for the sake of page views or for advertisers.
"We were investing in growing our audience," Smith said. "I think we've just in the last year invested for real in the business, have a sales team dedicated for the news business."
Henig brought to BuzzFeed News eight years of experience from the New York Times, where her most recent role as the paper's first-ever editorial director of audio involved launching the massively popular podcast "The Daily." At BuzzFeed News, Henig helped oversee the creation of "Impeachment Today," a daily podcast about President Trump's impeachment trial.
But Henig's role at BuzzFeed News extends far beyond podcasts. When the company announced her hiring last year, the press release said, "Henig will be charged with building out new revenue streams and bolstering the news organization, including news events, memberships, podcasts, syndication, and advertising sales." Henig told CNN Business that she plans on tapping into those revenue streams and cited ad sales and memberships as two obvious areas that could be improved. In other words, Henig is going to help BuzzFeed News grow up into a functioning news business.
"I think that there was a period in BuzzFeed's history which sounded really fun, and I'm sad that I wasn't here for it, where it was kind of like anything is worth trying," Henig told CNN Business. "As the business has matured, we are now in a position where it can't just be spinning up every little thing."
Henig said she wants to grow the membership program that launched in November 2018, which offers exclusive emails for $5 per month and additional perks for $100 per year. Henig sees potential in the program, but her plans do not involve a paywall.
"I think in that respect it's never going to be core to the business the way that it is to a place like the New York Times," she said. "That said, [the membership program] could be a bigger revenue stream than it is currently."
Smith's announcement last month came without a succession plan in place. The process to find a successor is being led by BuzzFeed's publisher Dao Nguyen. Henig said she will be involved as well.
Smith's exit was especially unexpected for Henig given the fact she asked him directly about it last year while she was interviewing for her current job.
"He didn't give like a yes or no to it," Henig said. "But I was surprised at how soon after it happened."
On the day of Smith's news, three staffers told CNN Business they also were surprised. But his new role as the Times' media columnist made sense to them.
News director Tom Namako says he agrees, given Smith's background as a reporter.
"I was surprised, and then he said what he was going to do and then I wasn't surprised. Ben is a reporter," Namako told CNN Business. "I think it would be a lot more suspicious if he was like, 'I'm jumping ship to go helm up this other publication,' or do this kind of thing that doesn't really fit."
Namako, who joined BuzzFeed News in 2014, said the next editor in chief should be someone who's comfortable leading big investigations as well as creating content that BuzzFeed has been known for such as trend stories about internet culture.
"We can write the definitive profile of what an e-girl is and then the next day the same team can write about horrific abuses of immigrants in ICE custody," Namako said. "The next person will come in here and they will find a newsroom that's ready to fight. They'll find a newsroom that isn't afraid, and they'll find a newsroom that's just like fun and funny and just wants to tell stories in a really engaging way."
Smith is also helping to recruit his successor.
"It's a great job, and we've had a lot of interest in it. I think there are going to be really strong internal and extra candidates." Smith said. "I'm telling everybody who will listen what a good job it is."