Ben Smith is the former and founding editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed News, the founder and editor-in-chief of Semafor, and the author of a new book called Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral, which is about the rise and fall of the social platform age in media, through the lens of Gawker Media and Buzzfeed and, in particular, their founders, Nick Denton and Jonah Peretti.
I say the fall of the social platform age pretty literally: just before we spoke, Buzzfeed actually shut down Buzzfeed News, saying it just wasn’t making enough money, Facebook and the rest are all in on vertical video, and the chaos at Twitter means a lot of baseline media industry assumptions are now up for grabs. Ben and I talked about a lot — where do journalists build their brands now? Where does traffic even come from anymore? What’s next?
Of course, we talked about Semafor as well. Ben and his co-founder, Justin Smith, raised $25 million and launched a news website, newsletters, and events covering the US and sub-Saharan Africa, with plans to expand into other regions. I wanted to know what lessons from Buzzfeed Ben brought into Semafor and, honestly, how he’s thinking about building an audience instead of just trying to get traffic.
This is a good one. The book’s great, too. Okay, Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of Semafor. Here we go.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ben Smith, you are the co-founder of Semafor. You’re the former editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News and the author of the new book, Traffic: Genius, Rivalry and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral. That’s a great title. Welcome to Decoder.
Thank you for having me, Nilay. I’m a longtime listener.
I saw you at South by Southwest. We were talking about the book a little bit, and you said this thing to me, which has been ringing in my head ever since. You said, “It’s a book about our childhoods,” which is really good. I think we both came up in a particular era of the internet. And it’s more apt than ever because we are talking just a few days after BuzzFeed News was shut down. Do you see this as the end of a particular era of the internet?
Yeah, I really do. I think part of the reason I wanted to write the book was it felt, I guess, in 2020-21, like this thing that I’d spent most of my career in was ending. And I think as we’re talking right after the shutdown of BuzzFeed News, which broke my heart, and also after Tucker Carlson getting fired, it does feel like the end of an era, of an assault on the gatekeepers. This wide-open, new digital media was a big part of it, but it was a massive social shift. And who knows what’s next? But I do think this era that maybe or arguably began in the early aughts does feel over, and we’re moving into some new place.
I’m really curious about that because I would actually break that into two pieces. The book is actually about this class of media innovators — in particular, Jonah Peretti, who started BuzzFeed, and Nick Denton, who started Gawker — in the early aughts, and their ability to see what the internet would do to media and how to harvest attention. But it carries forward, I think, into the 2010s and the teens, where — I was just putting my brain back there — where every day, there was a headline about what millennials would do to the world and how we needed to be ready for the wholesale change of this generation and whether they were going to kill the Olive Garden or whatever they were going to kill next. Do you think there’s a direct through line there? Because I see that early period, the late aughts when I started blogging, as actually pretty different than the 2010s, and I think you’re drawing a pretty direct line…
There is a direct line. It’s called time.
Yeah. No, I agree with you. The way I thought about the book was that there was this... You know how whenever you get to a scene, they tell you like, “Oh man, you should have been here a couple of years ago. That’s really when it was good.” And I started at BuzzFeed in 2012 and had been in New York since 2004 covering politics. I was adjacent to the Gawker world and copying a lot of what they did, but I wasn’t socially connected to it. And I think of that period, the first decade of the millennium, as the pre-history of what then, as you say, in the 2010s, became this huge explosion that we’re currently living in the aftermath of.
And that explosion in your estimation in the book, is the explosion of the social web, right? That’s in particular-
Yeah, social media.
... that’s the thing that you see.
Would you connect the strange implosion of Twitter to that thesis, that it’s the end of the era because, on top of BuzzFeed News shuttering, this dominant social media platform for journalists is undergoing some kind of cataclysmic change?
Yeah. If you think about your own media consumption and how you spend your time, here we are on a podcast, which is a very different kind of media than a viral, wide-open Facebook or Twitter post. Facebook exists, but it has lost a lot of its cultural power and relevance. It’s not growing in the United States anymore, I don’t think. It’s lost ground in the United States. And Twitter appears to be unraveling. Not that these things will totally go away.
And it’s interesting because when I started at BuzzFeed News, the thesis in 2012 was that these social platforms were kind of what cable had been in the ’80s. There were these new pipes to distribute content, and there was an opportunity to create a CNN, MSNBC, VH1, and ESPN for these new pipes.
And that’s what we thought we were doing at BuzzFeed and, I think, in some ways, quite successfully did. I think that’s true of a lot of what happened at Vox Media and a bunch of other places, too. Certainly Gawker. But then the pipes didn’t endure. It did not turn out that way. They were more like nightclubs or something, where people hang out there for a while, and then they get sick of it, and they leave. And I think Elon, I’m sure he’s accelerating its demise, but you can’t be like, “Oh. Wait, guys. We put in a new sound system. Come back.” That’s just not how it works. You go there because your friends are there, and then they get sick of it and go somewhere else.
There’s a pretty long history of tension between the people who make the content and the distributors, going back all the way to movie studios and movie theaters.
Why do you think this time was different? Because usually, once a type of distribution takes hold, it does last for a generation. That is just broadly true. And with social media, it does not seem to have persisted for more than five years.
Yeah. Well, we’re a little ahead of ourselves. It persists. These are big companies making a lot of money with a lot of attention on them. But I just think people got sick of them. That does seem to be what happened.
They persist, but they don’t persist in terms of distributing other people’s content. That’s really what you’re talking about when you’re talking about traffic. That’s the title of the book. And they would send millions upon millions of people to a webpage. To The Dress, which is the famous BuzzFeed example, the big BuzzFeed hit. “The last good day on the internet” is what people call it and what it’s called in the book. Facebook said, “A lot of people are going to click this link to go to this website,” and now they have just reclaimed all that content and all that attention for themselves. Is that the change, do you think?
“The end of the era itself is pretty clear.”
No, I think there’s a bigger change. Just people are moving away from these platforms toward particularly TikTok, which is a different kind of thing — it’s not as social; it doesn’t center around communicating with your friends. But they’re also moving to Substack and all sorts of other places. And the rise of video is part of it. The toxicity of... As with everything, there’s a million reasons, but I do think the end of the era itself is pretty clear.
You focus on Jonah and Nick in your book. They’re the two main characters. They are rivals. In some moments, they are aligned. In other moments, they are fiercely at each other’s throats. There’s another cast of characters from this era. There’s another set of sites: A.V. Club, Slate, and others. Why focus on those two to the exclusion of the others?
Yeah, that’s something I thought about a lot. And there’s also a whole thing called Vox Media and Jim Bankoff, who wanders in and out of the book a bit and, in some ways, I think, looks like the most successful entrepreneur of that moment. But-
You hear that, Jim? It happened right here.
Yeah. Please promote this podcast widely. And there was an infinity of other people [from that era]. But I think what interested me about those two was that they were really personal rivals. They were there at the very beginning, and they were people who had thought really deeply, maybe too deeply; maybe they thought too hard about what they were doing to be good businessmen. Because they were pretty ideological, and they had these really clear views about what digital media would, could, and should do to culture. They cared a lot about culture and society and politics, sometimes too much and sometimes more than they cared about operating their businesses. But I think that is what makes them a really interesting place to tell a story that isn’t really fundamentally, to me, about the dollars and cents of the media business, although that runs through it and is ultimately what raises them up and brings them down. But it is also really about culture and politics and the whole world that we’re living in at the moment.
There’s a lot of moments in the book where you point out that the beginnings of the alt-right — and now what is just the normal far-right of this country — grew up in the incubators of Gawker and BuzzFeed and learned to use the tools. And what really strikes me about that is they ended up running better businesses. Breitbart appears to be a better business than BuzzFeed right now. Why do you think that is?
“The apogee of this digital media era isn’t about Obama’s election. It’s Trump’s election, right?”
I think I don’t buy the premise, but let me tell the story a little. Because it was, to me, the most interesting part of the book actually. It was certainly not where I planned to go with it, but as I’m reporting out just what was happening in this world that I had been kind of aware of and adjacent to but had never totally dug into, it’s like, “Oh, wow. In early BuzzFeed, there’s Chris Poole, who created 4chan, working out of the office, and there’s Andrew Breitbart co-founding Huffington Post, and there’s Steve Bannon coming through to check it out, and there’s Benny Johnson and Baked Alaska a little later. And I think there was this sense among people working in digital media… It wasn’t even a sense — it was just obvious that this was a progressive young person’s space. And the election of Barack Obama seemed like its culmination. Obama visits Facebook because he doesn’t have to explain that it’s a Democratic company. It’s just obvious that Facebook is aligned with the Obama movement. There’s no question about it. Because it’s the internet, and the internet’s for young, progressive people. And then it turns out, partly just because everybody else then got on the internet, that the apogee of this digital media era isn’t about his election. It’s Trump’s election, right? In the end.
And for the people who thought that they were the main characters, like me and you, it turned out it was Andrew Breitbart and Steve Bannon who were the main characters. I kind of disagree on the business front. These places aren’t particularly good businesses. It’s very hard to sell advertisements against anti-immigration screeds.
But they do. The MyPillow guy is there, right?
I haven’t seen the dollars and cents. They’ve also suffered massively from the decline of the social web. If you have Breitbart shares, I’m not sure, but you might want to sell them. The right-wing media winner of that era, who’s also wandering around this world, but it’s an adjacent story, is Ben Shapiro and The Daily Wire, who converted that Facebook scale that he built in a way that was in some ways learned from BuzzFeed and these other places to a subscription video service, which is the business he now runs.
That’s really interesting to me because, from my perspective as somebody who runs a tech publication, we were constantly watching these giant platforms just take in a fire hose of bad faith accusations about what they were recommending, when they were recommending it, to whom they were recommending it, what their moderation was like, and fully reacting to them without even taking a beat to understand if the accusations were bad faith or not. And it seems like BuzzFeed in particular, but Gawker to some extent, wasn’t aware that the fickleness of the platform that they were experiencing was actually the most enduring trait, particularly at Facebook. I always imagined Mark Zuckerberg with a knob in his office, and he would just turn it to “You Have a Business,” and at any moment, he could turn it to “You Don’t Have a Business.” In many ways, I was always just terrified of that.
I never saw it technically. I do think that’s part of it, but mostly, Mark Zuckerberg had every member of the baby boom generation on his website, and many of them really, really loved Donald Trump and loved everything to do with him. Some of them really hated immigrants. I don’t think that was artificial. There was a moment in 2015 when we were part of some trial that was obviously promotional for Facebook’s ad business where they gave us access to which political candidates in which states are being talked about most. It was supposed to be this fun little graphics feature basically. And every month, it was just Donald Trump and no one else. Number one was Donald Trump, and nobody else registered. And I think there was a moment when people thought, “Oh, this is some technical bug of Facebook.” I think now you look around the world, and it’s like, “Oh no, that guy got elected in every country in the world.” And that was not because of Facebook. Facebook was amplifying it, wrapped around it, and, in many ways, totally entangled with this new right-wing populism. But I think there were these very simple ideas about it being caused by some knob that was being turned that I don’t really think bears out when you look at what has happened in the world.
I wonder about that. I don’t think it was as simple as Mark being like, “We’re turning the knob to Donald Trump.” But I do think that in a previous media environment that did not feed you exactly what you wanted all the time, that at least the far-right populist movement would’ve been modulated. And maybe on cable news, it was modulated. Fox News exists, but also CNN and MSNBC exist, and you can switch between them pretty easily. But on a purely algorithmic platform like Facebook, you’re getting the stuff, and then because you like it, you get more of it. And there exists no force in the platform to modulate your flow of information. And every time they try to introduce those features, a Breitbart shows up or a Tucker Carlson shows up and accuses Mark Zuckerberg of being a socialist, and they back all the way down and they don’t actually step up to take that responsibility.
You mean the responsibility for suppressing Donald Trump?
No, I don’t. The responsibility for creating a healthy media environment. That does not seem to have been Facebook’s goal. Facebook’s goal was to make people engage and spend more time on the platform. And then, on the other side of it, you have this set of actors that you described in the book that were obsessed with traffic. And you were actually the modulating force at BuzzFeed because you’re on BuzzFeed News. There’s an anecdote in a book where I think Steve Bannon says, “Why don’t you go all in for Bernie Sanders? He’s where the traffic is.” And you’re like, “But I’m a newsman. That’s not my job.” And then there’s a set of actors that doesn’t give a shit, and they’re like, “Just more Trump stuff. That’ll get the traffic.” And at no point is there an adult who inserts their judgment into the mix. And every time that a platform tries to do that, the firestorm of bad faith allegations shows up, and they stop.
See, I don’t totally agree with you. I think that you’re calling people you disagree with bad faith, and some of them are in bad faith, and some of them are right-wing.
And I don’t really get why you think they don’t believe what they say. Some do, some don’t. And I do think Facebook was manipulated by people who were lying to them, and they were also just manipulated by ideologues. But I guess I don’t totally buy the premise. I also just think you look at right now, a world where Donald Trump is dominating the polling in the Republican primary, having been banned from Facebook, thrown off Twitter. We are sort of running an experiment where Donald Trump is not on social media. Do people still like Donald Trump? Yeah, Republican voters love Donald Trump. They like what he stands for. They like his message. They like his style of presentation. That was not fundamentally a technical feature of social media.
I’m not sure I would’ve been so confident in saying that five years ago. I do think you look at the world now in which these right-wing populist movements have won some national elections, have lost some, but are proving pretty enduring. And I think it’s hard to say that was... Whatever. History always has a million causes. It’s hard to untangle this stuff. Anyway, we don’t have to argue about it.
No. That’s why you’re here.
But I do think those guys channeled and inherited this energy of social media and took advantage both of technical features of Twitter and Facebook and pushed these often, in their hearts, not pro-Trump people running the platforms to back off, and they also then just actually appealed to lots of Americans who were on the platforms.
The post that’s on my mind as we have this conversation is not in the book, but it’s a very famous Gawker Media post from Gizmodo. “Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News.” And it was about one box on the right rail of desktop Facebook that showed trending topics, and [Facebook sent] some emails where they were like, “This is too shitty. Put some nice stuff in here.” And that blew up into a news cycle where Facebook took humans out of the loop, right? Immediate bad faith reaction.
“The operators of these platforms want to have an abstract schematic view of the world, and the world’s messy and complex and doesn’t match it.”
There is just this deep complexity to this, which is that conservative news is mostly commentary and media criticism. There is not a right-wing thing like The New York Times that has thousands of reporters gathering information, presenting it factually, and these platforms tried it. The operators of these platforms want to have an abstract schematic view of the world, and the world’s messy and complex and doesn’t match it. And I do think that’s a great example of something where, like, were these operators of platforms disdainful of people on the right and their politics? Sure, yes. But did this Gizmodo post have any impact on the world? No.
And this to me is also sort of maddening: when you look back at the history of the media coverage of social media — and this is partly because they were such black boxes — they were so deliberately un-transparent. Conservative anxiety about the platforms being biased against them, which may or may not have been true in other places, gets totally channeled into this one set of claims that is actually nonsense. And I would say progressive anxiety and democratic anxiety about Donald Trump having stolen the election through Facebook gets channeled into the Cambridge Analytica story, which is nonsense also.
Wait, explain to people why you think Cambridge Analytica is nonsense.
Cambridge Analytica was this scammy company that went around telling people it could use psychographic profiling on Facebook to manipulate voters into voting for them and then did not do that. There was a very detailed, extensive British government report that looked into it and found that this was not true. They did access data they shouldn’t have accessed. Facebook did leak out all sorts of personal information it shouldn’t have leaked out, but these particular guys did not then use it to help Donald Trump get elected, and it was widely believed that they did.
So the scandal there was Facebook leaking data. The thing that made the scandal resonate was—
The reason people cared was Donald Trump. Yeah.
The turn there that always grabs me is the promise of advertising on these platforms is that it is effective—
—that you can tell the platform, you can tell Facebook or Twitter, YouTube or whoever, “I want this set of consumers at this age and this location who have been in these places before, and I want to sell them Q-Tips” and go find them. And you will sell more Q-tips than ever before. And to whatever extent, that has been the past of internet advertising and is very much still the present of internet advertising. Unclear about the future due to Apple’s policies, but it’s the world we live in.
I don’t know if that promise has held true. I don’t know if that advertising is effective. I don’t know if people like it, but what strikes me is that when you write about BuzzFeed and Gawker, companies that were built to harvest attention, they did not build those systems. BuzzFeed, in particular, built this branded content apparatus that seemed to cut against the entire idea of the future of advertising that the platforms themselves saw. Where do you think that disconnect came from?
Well, I think there were a series of different mistakes and problems. One was that Gawker, I think, in 2003, launched this kind of pioneering weird little display advertising product that barely worked, and they charged $9 CPMs, and the theory was, “This is this weird little launch product, but obviously the prices are going to go up when we get good at this, and we’ll have more scale and higher prices. This would be great business.”
$9 CPM today is a pretty good CPM. The prices went down, and they had this idea that they discovered a kind of digital commodity, a digital oil and that if they could control it, they’d make a lot of money. But the point of commodities is they’re scarce. Traffic was not scarce; it was infinite. And ultimately, that model… All the digital publishers got kind of ground down by the falling ad rates or sort of flat-lined ad rates.
On the branded content item, I think what BuzzFeed was selling initially was, essentially, there are these new pipes, and we are the experts at making content for them. And so it made sense to say, “We’re CNN broadcasting news, and we’re an ad agency that makes television commercials,” because that’s a new form. What’s a television commercial on social media like? And there are these neutral pipes that we can pass them through, and maybe they’ll take a tax. I think it turned out the tax is 100 percent.
Why would Facebook ever pay anyone else to make content for Facebook when its own users are making it for free?
“Why would Facebook permit people to make content and make money from it on their platform?”
Well, I think the argument, which isn’t crazy, is not why would they pay anyone? It’s why would they allow people? Why would they permit people to make content and make money from it on their platform? Well, because they want to continue to be around because there’s quality content and not be dominated by low-quality garbage while people migrate over to Netflix, which is in fact what happened.
I think Facebook made a mistake. I think if they had created something where the quality steadily went up, and they managed to... They tried at times. They tried commissioning shows. They weren’t good at it. But I don’t think if you look at Facebook’s commitment to user-generated content and you look at where the blue app is now, you say like, “Wow, this all worked out perfectly and exactly as they hoped.” I don’t know. I think they tried really hard at various times to become Netflix. They failed at it. But they tried because it was good business.
I often think these platforms try because any other platform is doing anything, and they’re more terrified of each other, more competitive with each other than anyone gives them credit for. Facebook does Instant Articles, so Apple does Apple News, Google does AMP, and suddenly, the entire web has been colonized by proprietary formats.
Well, to me, the great original sin of this whole era is Facebook seeing little baby Twitter is growing at a rate where if you extend the line, it passes Facebook. And what does Twitter have? It has real-time news. And they’re like, “Alright, let’s get into the news business.” And Twitter and Facebook’s move to suddenly just turn that knob toward links to outside websites like ours, to traffic, it was actually driven, it turns out, internally by a sense of competition with Twitter, and they probably overdid it, don’t you think?
I feel like if anyone had just come around to publishers and said, “Does Twitter drive any traffic to you?” They would’ve quickly realized the answer is no, and it has never been yes. And I think that’s actually one of the more interesting things that’s happening with Twitter today. Most publishers have wanted their reporters off of Twitter for some time because it’s distracting and chaotic and all kinds of bad incentives. And then the platform kind of dying is like, “Well, we lost nothing. People weren’t even clicking on the links. They were reacting to the headlines or whatever anyone else was sharing, and then our reporters were getting harassed.”
Well, a lot of journalists got a lot of clout. There was a ton of value to individual journalists, which I would argue ultimately does accrue to their employers. A lot of employers would not agree with that, obviously.
Yeah. I think the default answer to every question in media in the platform era was Twitter, actually. It was not Facebook. It was not Google search, which I do want to talk about a little bit. But the default answer to every problem has been Twitter.
You mean to cultural problems like, “Why do we hate each other?”
“Why are our conversations incomprehensible to anyone who is not on Twitter?”
My daughter turned five the other day, and to a group of screaming children at her birthday party, I said a Twitter joke, and I was like, “What is wrong with my brain?” It’s bad. But I mean literally the nuts and bolts of making the news, the answers to all the questions were Twitter. “Where do the candidates release the statements? Where do the reporters keep their public notebook? If the site is down, where do we publish news?”
“Where do witnesses to a news event tell you what they’re seeing?”
I think the reason that we all picked Twitter is because it was the most real time, even though we accrued the least value in return from it, whereas over-indexing on Facebook was a very corporate thing to do. Over-indexing on search is a very corporate thing to do because the accountants can see, “Well, if we invest in this platform, we will get this many clicks back, and those clicks are worth it to us.” Whereas investing in Twitter has always been an emotional thing to do or a long-term thing to do because there’s an immediate feedback mechanism from other people, even if the business model hasn’t been there.
And Twitter is where brands get built, and branding in media is important, too.
What do you think happens when the default answer isn’t Twitter anymore?
It’s just a more complicated world. We’re just obviously already in a more splintered, more complicated world where I think, again, I don’t think these are technical changes. I think people got sick of the notion that you participate in this crazy giant space where everyone is screaming at the top of their lungs about what they think and yelling at you. For some shocking reason, we got tired of that and wanted to go to smaller, more private spaces where we mostly talk to like-minded people, which is how, for the previous several millennia of human history, people would mostly communicate.
When the answer isn’t Twitter anymore, where do you think media brands get built?
I mean it’s a lot of different places, but ultimately it’s got to be much more — and this is, I think, widely agreed — in kind of one-to-one connections with people, whether through email, at events. I think the web, social media, Twitter are still good places to say, “Hey, this is what we’re doing. Hello.” Which is essentially marketing, by the way. And to me, it’s sort of galling, but I remember watching the way the studios used social media, the Hollywood studios. And they always just viewed it as being in the marketing department, and it was just some random little marketing spend for them or whatever, and they never took it seriously. And I always found that kind of annoying [because for journalism], it was our distribution, not our marketing.” But in the end, I think what’s left of the social platforms for news brands is marketing. In fact, we advertise on Twitter.
I want to ask you about the Semafor Twitter ads. We’ll come to Semafor in a minute and how you’re building that organization, but I just want to stay focused on BuzzFeed News and Gawker for one more minute here. BuzzFeed was really built to be a distributed brand. It was built for every article to travel all on its lonesome throughout the various pipes of social media, paid or not, and convey a sense of generational taste, a sense of knowingness about the internet. To basically be, like you said, like a CNN or an MTV for a new generation. That unbundling of the brand was the innovation — to start with social media distribution at the core of the business. It also appears to have been BuzzFeed News’ undoing because you can’t ship your business model for news across the internet that way. The news department is not going to make branded content. Was there ever a turn inside of BuzzFeed where people said, “Whoa, we got to back this up. We have to build a direct audience to our homepage. We have to put an app on people’s phones,” whatever it is to avoid dependency on the social platforms.
Yeah, we were totally aware of the dependency. I mean, I’m sure if you look at investor decks from the beginning, I mean it was there. But it’s hard to sort of play away from your strength, and the scale and the audience were so huge there. And we built a pretty sizable email newsletter. We launched and folded an app, a quite good app that Stacy-Marie Ishmael built.
All of the things you mentioned. We launched a new homepage and invested in trying to get people there, but it was hard to draw people to homepages in the mid-2010s. It was hard, while you’re simultaneously just riding the tide, to attempt to swim against it. And we should have tried harder. I think that it turned out the scale at which BuzzFeed News was operating, I mean, which… we did amazing work, and an enormous amount of ultimately kind of venture capital went to really, I think, good independent journalism that I’m really proud of. But I think what Karolina Waclawiak, the editor-in-chief at the end, was trying to do, was to run a much smaller organization that was very commercially sensitive and trying to make money, and she was really making progress there. And they kind of ran out of time. But it would’ve been smaller.
Very small. The stock price was very low, and the investors were pretty mad, right?
Yeah, for just normal commercial reasons.
Did you ever have a sense of who the BuzzFeed audience was? One of the things that really jumped out at me as I read the book is Gawker is obsessed with traffic, but Gawker, to this day, is a brand that transcends its own current form. I hear people talk about old Gawker all the time, and it’s because I work in the media, and every now and again, someone will wistfully say, “I wish Gawker was still around to do this story.” And usually, what they mean is, “I wish someone was a lot meaner than I am being right now or had license to be meaner than I’m being right now.”
“Where have all the nihilists gone?” Yeah, that’s right.
But the brand stood for something. They knew who their audience was, they played directly to that audience, and they still managed to get traffic. BuzzFeed was a lot more diffuse.
It was more diffuse, and there were elements of it that sort of pulled away from having a single audience. There was a kind of content that was “28 Signs You Were Raised By Persian Parents In America,” that would get 600,000 views because 600,000 people grew up Persian in America. Samir Mezrahi, who wrote it, totally nailed that experience, and people loved it.
But yeah, you’re right. That sort of cuts against that. But actually, we did know who our audience was. I mean, the core audience, depending when you’d ask, was women in their 20s, 30s, millennial women, college educated, in cities. That’s the sort of core. And many, many other people because, at scale, BuzzFeed was reaching everyone. But that was the core of it. I think at our best, a lot of the hard journalism also really served and was thinking about that demographic.
Our first really huge investigation that I’m still really proud of was about women in Oklahoma whose — horrible stories. It was situations where their romantic partner had killed their child. The partner pled guilty. The woman pled innocent. The partner would get two years, and the woman would get 30. Terrible story. And the story wound up with a woman getting out of jail. It also was widely read by our audience in a way that was powerful.
The Stanford rape victim’s letter, if you remember that, was one of the really powerful things we published. A lot of Katie Baker’s work, Nasheta Jazz’s work. All sorts of investigations. There’s an investigation of Massage Envy that I remain pretty proud of. I think we tried, and I think really did not always succeed and sometimes really failed, to steer our coverage toward the stuff that our audience cared about. And the other thing our audience cared about was the internet. And so a lot of our coverage — Katie Notopoulos, Ryan Broderick’s work, many others — was about the internet itself and about the online conversation being very far ahead of that.
And so then that was a big chunk of our audience, too, just terminally online people who were really interested in what was happening on the internet.
The Verge newsroom experienced many moments of just unbridled envy at the work covering the internet that Katie and Ryan and others did there. It was top. Charlie Warzel covering the far right…
And I mean, I think this is the stuff you do not win prizes for because the prize juries are just confused about it. But Craig Silverman broke all these stories, the kind of defining Macedonian teenager misinformation stories that would win Pulitzers four years later once the Pulitzer boards could kind of figure out... Once The New York Times would do it a few years later, and in a way, the Pulitzer would be like, they’d say, “Oh, this is what those people were talking about.” But that was stuff that we were really proud of.
About that sense of identity: you know who your audience is, but it’s mostly coming at you through social media. Was there ever a worry, “This is the audience social media wants us to have”? And I will give you a very specific example. We publish to YouTube. We do our very best to make content for people who love tech. On our website, our audience is closer to 50/50 percent men-women than not. Maybe it’s like 60/40 percent. On a bad day, it’s 70/30 percent. YouTube has decided that only men like tech, and our audience there is 90/10 percent. And it’s not for a lack of trying; it’s not for us programming it for that audience. It’s just that platform has decided that they’re going to recommend our tech content to mostly men, particularly young men, and that’s who our audience will be. And I worry about that feedback loop constantly, that I can’t convince YouTube, even with my own data on our own site, that people come to us directly, that the audience is much bigger—
Do you think YouTube is wrong about who is watching your videos to completion on YouTube?
I think YouTube is incorrectly recommending our videos to people. I think it has decided that some subset of the audience is not interested in technology and thus will not show our content to them algorithmically. I think when we look at our own site and we see who’s interested in our own work, and we do the more qualitative surveys of our audience, we find that it’s a lot closer. And that’s a feedback loop that I constantly worry about.
Yeah. And I know what you mean.
If you program to an algorithmic audience, you are programming to an algorithm — you’re not actually programming to people.
Right. But the algorithms are themselves responding to the feedback, maybe imperfectly from people. Like I guess, and these are different ways of thinking about it. I’ve always thought that people... Not that you’re wrong, not that the algorithms can’t go wildly haywire and really mess things up for everyone or really, more, maybe there are lots of women for whom they’d like your videos, but it’s not the first thing they would like. It’s not the most sticky thing. And the algorithm always feeds you the most sticky thing and kind of narrows and narrows and narrows your perceptions of the world.
And I agree that those are real issues. But I also don’t know. I’ve always thought that one of the sort of misreadings of social media was that its problems were fundamentally technical rather than fundamentally about human nature.
But the follow-up question there is when you were thinking about programming BuzzFeed and how to build a more loyal audience, and then actually when Jonah was thinking about how to pay for it, the idea that you didn’t have an audience, you only had what Facebook would send you is sort of pervasive in the end state of BuzzFeed that we see today. I look at buzzfeed.com today, and I see the absence of taste. I see the knob has been turned all the way toward whatever the algorithm wants.
No. I think if you, let’s look at BuzzFeed... I mean, I think it’s funny, it’s interesting you say that, because this was a running argument that I would have with my very brilliant colleagues, Jonah and Dao Nguyen who was sort of running product and tech and entertainment at various points, who, I think, where I have very strong taste, and they would say, “Well, look at the numbers. You’re wrong.” And I think the sort of DNA of internet culture is to kind of reject tastemakers and to reject elitists. And I think BuzzFeed totally embraces that. I agree with you, but I don’t think that’s new.
Do you think that’s what led to its demise here?
No. I think we were building for a social media ecosystem that has kind of declined. This was in the biggest picture. It’s a story about an ecosystem company whose ecosystem turns away from it.
But the point was to build media—
But that said—
... the reason I’m pushing on this is maybe it’s self-serving, right?
Yeah. I mean, obviously, The Verge is... No, but I think you’re right. Obviously, it turns out that the social networks were not the cable pipes, programming for them did not work. Building a brand-loyal audience who loves you and is connected to you and will follow you across platform is incredibly… it is the name of the game right now, and the world keeps changing, distribution keeps changing. That’s obviously where things have landed.
The last pipe that exists for any of these companies is search. You and I have talked about this before.
“Search is the next domino.”
I want to hear what you have to say. I think you have much more interesting and sophisticated... I mean, I have an intuition that search is the next domino, and Google, which seemed like this unchallengeable, unchallenged feature of the universe suddenly feels very old and broken. But Nilay, you have an actual sophisticated point of view on this. What the hell is going on?
I think most companies are addicted to search because it’s the last reliable source of traffic. If you look at the ecosystem of companies that came up alongside Gawker and BuzzFeed, and you look at their content, you look at their pages, most of them have become something like demand media companies. They look at Google trends all day long, and they feed the beast. Maybe the most famous example of this recently is CNET, which is layingpulling off reporters and investing heavily in AI to write answers to Google queries.
I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I don’t know if that’s good or bad for Google. I know it’s bad for CNET reporters. I don’t know if it’s a good business decision for CNET and the company that holds it. BuzzFeed has so far resisted this a little bit. The company that owns Gawker now has definitely not resisted this at all. Do you think there’s a business left there? Do you think that’s the next thing to go as the platform companies wither, as the platform era ends?
I don’t know. I mean, I trust you when you say it is. I mean, I do think that the combination of the ability of AI to turn these things out in a much more personalized way, among other things, they can make a million of them. I want to separate... I mean, there are a lot of folks doing quite good hard work getting paid not that much, cranking out several posts a day that sort of present expertise about a thing. But it’s hard to have expertise in all those things. And so, those are not the most thoughtful, well-written posts. And Wikipedia, I would say, is usually better than your average kind of SEO farm content.
So you’re building Semafor now. It’s a new media company you started with Justin B. Smith [former CEO of Bloomberg Media Group]. You’ve hired a bunch of fancy reporters.
So fancy. If you only saw the office I was sitting in upstairs from an Italian restaurant on Mulberry Street.
I mean you’re going to romanticize that to the nth degree when you write the next book about the Semafor era. Don’t play me for one minute. The Mulberry Street office above the Italian restaurant, if all goes well, will become legendary. But you’ve put a bunch of money in at the top, right? You’ve hired great people. What’s the plan? How are you going to get traffic?
I mean, email is the most important platform for us, for sure. And events are a huge part of our business and of how we see ourselves both creating interesting moments to go out into the world and connecting with people. I mean, it’s a totally different world than the one that we were living in 10 years ago.
It’s a much more expensive world, right? Like every newsletter subscriber—
I don’t think so.
... you have to go pay for marketing and find them. Your cost of customer acquisition is high.
No. No. Well, we certainly do marketing to reach people, but also [we try to break] a big story. I mean, journalism is better than paid marketing. Big scoops are the best way to find people. We’ve had a great week in that regard with all this Tucker Carlson coverage. And I mean, I actually find it pretty satisfying, but it’s a different moment.
These are the Decoder questions now. Welcome.
You made a pretty huge decision at BuzzFeed News to publish the Steele dossier. You talk about this extensively in the book. This leads into the classic Decoder question. You’ve had all these experiences. You’ve made some monumental decisions. You’re now at Semafor. How do you make decisions? What’s your framework?
I guess I think of journalism much more as a trade than as an abstract theoretical framework, and so I think a lot of, in each situation that I say is a great example, is so different. In the big abstract, should people see a document that’s being talked about? I don’t know. By whom? Exactly. Well, two presidents of the United States and then also see each situation is so distinct, and I make a lot of decisions on instinct that I hope I’ve had a lot of experience that informs that.
It’s great to actually ask a journalist this question. I ask a CEO that question every week, and I get a different 10,000-word response, and you’re like, “It’s my gut.” And that’s great because, honestly, that’s how I do it, too.
So you’re the co-founder, you’re also the editor-in-chief?
How is Semafor structured beyond that?
I run the newsroom, and Justin runs the business side. And it’s a pretty traditional structure. Actually one of the things I think I learned about myself at BuzzFeed is that I’m not a business operator. I’m a journalist. I know my limits.
How many people are on either side there?
Somewhere in the ballpark of 30 on each side. Maybe 35 journalists, 25 commercial.
And then, on the journalism side, how’s that all structured?
We’re built primarily around verticals, each built around a journalist or two, mostly one. And I do think part of our thesis that is different, but I think has to do with how the world is organized, is just that people are more likely to connect to an individual journalist than they are to come to a brand. And so we were able to hire, to my mind, the best Wall Street reporter from The Wall Street Journal, a brilliant tech reporter from The Washington Post, great political journalists and try to put them out into the world to some degree and have people connect with them.
I always thought the BuzzFeed newsroom — for all the great reporting and the insight and sort of being ahead of the curve on what to cover — did have a pretty traditional kind of hierarchy there. It looked more like a newspaper than anything. And that was because there was a bunch of venture money pumped into it, and if you’ve got to spend all that money, you’re going to borrow an existing structure, but you’ve lived through that now. Is that still the same structure you’re trying to grow into?
“The words “influencer” and “personal brand” make a lot of journalists throw up in their mouths.”
I mean, I do think that the words “influencer” and “personal brand” make a lot of journalists throw up in their mouths. It’s not our jargon. And also, if you look at, for instance, television news where that really is the structure, it can create really toxic cultures and star systems. That said, I do think that readers are feeling very connected to individuals in this moment, partly because it’s so hard to know who to trust and what to trust. And these faceless institutions no longer look like monoliths. You can just see that they’re just a bunch of idiots like everybody else. And so, you kind of want to know which idiot is your idiot.
I think my deal with the reporters that I’m hiring is that we’re going to try to give you the best of both worlds. And this is the deal with the audience, too. You know who’s writing the story, and the journalist is putting their reporting out into the world, they’re putting their opinion on the reporting out in the world in a very transparent way here. That’s sort of how our stories are structured. Here’s the news. Here’s what I think about it. Here’s somebody who disagrees with me.
But good reporters want a great editor. They want great colleagues. They want a great newsroom. And I think there’s a reason there are people breaking news on Substack, but it’s not really what Substack is for. It’s pretty hard to be out there on Substack getting scoops, and you don’t see a lot of that.
And so, I think for a kind of hard news reporter who can break news and can kind of help you understand what it means — we’re trying to build this sort of ideal best of both worlds for them and for audiences and for an audience who wants them. The other thing that I’m very focused on is that in this moment of feeling just so overwhelmed that there’s a real opportunity to curate and distill and aggregate in a way that has kind of gone out of fashion. This was actually something very popular back in the day.
And so, our morning newsletter flagship, which is run by Prashant Rao, Tom Chivers, and the team out of London, is, I think, a very high-order version of that.
Do you think about those formats as being old or new?
Oh, nothing is old. I mean, I remember when somebody told me that we’d invented the list. I was like, “I think maybe the 10 Commandments was the first one,” but there’s probably one before that. I mean, we’re not doing genetic engineering here.
But do you think that that format is new for a new audience?
Yeah, I do. Yes. I do think that that format is trying to solve the problem of the audience right now, which is just that they face this kind of uncanny valley of who is talking to me? Do they know this stuff, or are they just guessing? I mean, honestly, what is driving me most crazy in this regard right now is the Tucker Carlson coverage. It’s like, “Are you guessing? Is this just the Fox press office lying to you? Is this a real source, or are you wish casting?” I have no idea.
Right. Actually, if you read all those reports, the sourcing is hazy in all of them, right?
Even to the point where if you were moderately informed, you wouldn’t be able to guess. You’re trying to solve this with what I have come to call the “Semaformat.”
We like “Semaform,” but I’ll take it.
Semaform is good. You lay out, okay, these are the facts. Here’s Max’s view. Max Tani I read the most. Here’s the view from a reporter; here’s the other side. Just editor to editor, sometimes when I look at this format, I’m like, “This format is actively fighting against the story.” You’ve launched it; you’ve been in it for a minute. Have you thought about evolving it? Are you committed to it? What’s happening?
We’re evolving it all the time and sort of tweaking it and improving it and adding sections because, as you say, you don’t want to have the format fight the story. And in fact, every format finds stories that it fights. I think that the one that really fights stories these days is the traditional New York Times article, where it’s like, “Here is a statement of facts. Here is some analysis that we’re not sure from whom. Here is a quote that restates the analysis,” which is actually the reporter’s opinion but they found a pundit who will say it.
I mean I think it’s something we’re thinking about all the time. We’ve found people really like the format and what the format is doing in terms of saying, “This is the factual part. But this is a sophisticated reporter who’s been on the beat for a long time. They’re, in fact, an expert. They don’t need to quote an expert,” although they can. And I’m interested in what they think of all this stuff they gathered, but they should know the difference between facts and opinions. And I think that spirit really is imbuing everything we do and exactly the way it’s expressed. I’m sure it will keep evolving.
The deal you’re saying you’re making with reporters, which was like, you get the best of the newsroom, but you’re going to be a brand unto yourself. If you go all the way to the top Substackers or the top YouTubers or, even in odd ways, the top people on Twitter, they make a lot of money. Being a full-on influencer on a social platform can be a very lucrative move. Are you doing anything to address that disparity? “Come on our platform, be the star, be the face, and we’re going to pay you industry-standard reporter rates,” or are you going to say, “Hey, there’s a rev share here. There’s unlimited upside here in this deal.”
I think we pay competitively, for sure. And there’s also, I mean, we’re a startup, and so people have equity. But I agree with you, that’s a challenge. Although, I think when you talk about the top Substackers, there’s very few reporters who break news in that tier. Not zero, but I mean I think Heather Cox Richardson, who I think is the top Substacker, is this brilliant American history professor who writes an essay every night. It’s not totally comparable to what we do.
Yeah. You say you have equity. That implies that there will be an exit that makes that equity worth money. You just experienced the chaos of BuzzFeed’s equity. Is that a good deal to be making? Are people buying that there’s going to be a meaningful exit here?
That’s a good question. Yeah. I think people are, but honestly, I don’t think... I have not found that journalists are making career decisions based on that. Maybe they should. We all should be thinking more about our long-term—
You, in particular, should, maybe—
We should all be thinking more about our long-term financial prospects. But I think, in fact, many of us enjoy the work.
Do you have venture money in the company?
No. And that is actually a lesson I learned. I just think this isn’t an industry that ought to be promising massive returns on a four-year timetable. I mean, Justin and I have told each other and told investors and told everybody that we have sort of made a commitment for 10 years. The thing we’re building, we just can’t build that fast.
Yeah. But there’s an exit in the books, right? You’ve said at some point…
I mean, honestly, you know me. I don’t think about that. I just genuinely don’t think about this stuff.
Yeah. I was just curious. Because when you say equity — now, especially — just a host of baggage accompanies that word because right before we started talking, I went and looked at BuzzFeed’s stock price, and I thought, “Boy, it would’ve been better to sell the company to Disney.”
“This has to be one of the dumbest decisions in the history of American business.”
We published that chapter as an excerpt from Vanity Fair, so it’s been kicking around, and I think if you look at the sort of dollars and cents of it… I mean, this has to be one of the dumbest decisions in the history of American business. And I was certainly telling Jonah we shouldn’t sell. And I think if you were thinking about shareholder value, if you’re thinking about any normal thing, it was an idiotic decision in retrospect not to sell.
I mean, I think it was a moment when people like Jonah were looking at Mark Zuckerberg’s refusal of Yahoo’s money, which looked like the most brilliant decision of that era. And we’re looking at all these arrows pointing up into the right. I think any business person who looks at any of these companies now thinks, “Well, they obviously should have sold.”
I mean, I personally remain, because I know I’m an idiot, ambivalent about it because we’d been doing it for a year and a half. We were doing all this exciting stuff. We felt like we were just really getting our stride and getting traction. And we did a lot of independent journalism that I’m really proud of — I was there for another six years and other people after me — and I think that the core mission at Disney would’ve been helping ABC News and Disney modernize and get onto the internet. A totally appropriate and worthy project, but I would’ve been terrible at it and hated it.
What did you think about Semafor when you were pitching and launching it? A lot of the focus was on how global it would be.
That there’s this ill-served audience of young, sophisticated people around the world, and they don’t have a news source that they can trust. How are you making money on them? Are you selling them subscriptions? Are you putting ads in front of them?
So right now, advertising and events are how we’re making money. And I think we didn’t explain this perfectly when we launched, and we are in this situation where we have this very long-term ambition to be global, but we’re also experienced people who have some experience with biting off more than we can chew in the past and don’t want to do that again. At least I have that experience.
And so we launched in two places: in the US and in sub-Saharan Africa. And I think if you look at our Africa coverage — which, by the way, you probably won’t if you aren’t really interested in Africa or live in particularly Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, that’s who it’s for — you’ll see that we’re really trying to produce something that is not for everybody in the world. And I think our version of globalizing is to build a platform where you have great high-quality journalism for a number of different places. We don’t imagine that that’s all the same place. I think there are really interesting, valuable dynamics in being good about reflecting how different the views are from these different places in the journalism and not trying to resolve the differences but exposing them. And the first place we did that at launch was this sub-Saharan African regional edition that Yinka Adegoke is editing. But yeah, that’s our theory of it.
Do you think that as you expand that model, that the economics in each of your regions will be the same? This was always the question.
Oh, no, of course not. I think you could totally imagine that in some regions paywalls are what you do and in others, it’s almost entirely events. I do think — and this is something that drew me to Justin and that we totally agree on — that people are way too ideological about the news business. It is a tough business. You have to execute incredibly well, and you can’t go thinking that one kind of dollar is [best], that advertising dollars are ethically pure and subscription ones are tainted or vice versa. You should just do the journalism and build a business around it.
As you think about that and being flexible in how you grow, you’ve had the BuzzFeed experience — what is the dependency that you’re most worried about right now?
Oh gosh. We aspire to be in a place where we don’t have dependency of that scale. It’s not as simple a world. It’s not a single-channel world anymore. Certainly, right now, many, many media companies are going to have to navigate an ad market that’s heading into a recession, a place we’ve probably both been before, and the ad market is cyclical, and that’s not a dependency in the classic sense, but I do think it’s something everybody’s girding their loins for.
Are you measuring how many of your readers are loyal readers versus how many are bouncing in off of Twitter or whatever?
Yeah, we are certainly measuring our web traffic. My primary goal with the website is to get you to sign up for an email.
Yeah. Why do you think email endures? It’s, in many ways, the weirdest of all the mediums, and it’s the most limited, of course.
And it’s so clunky.
Actually, part of the reason that people like it right now is because of its limitations. Editing for email is so interesting because it really is like print. There are design limits. There are word limits. There are font limits that drive me nuts. But it does force you to swing. I don’t think print is exactly going to come back, in some bespoke places, maybe. But print values, which is to say hierarchy, concision, aggregation, these things that went out of fashion, I think are things now that people are like, “No, no, please do tell me the most important thing first. Do summarize for me.”
Do you think it’s generational? Do you think that the millennial audience has now grown up, and they’ve got some money, and they’ve experienced this weird unbundled atomic news, and they’re like, “Can someone just do the work for me?”
I think it’s more that culture changes and reacts against the last thing, and I don’t really buy these profound cleavages between generations. Younger people sometimes are in a different place in their lives and want different things than older people, but I think the subset of obsessed news consumers maybe aren’t that different from each other.
Yeah. We got to wrap up here. We’re entering a very strange news cycle with this election. It’s going to be two very old people running for president. That seems very clear to me. There’s a line in the book, I think it’s John that pitches you to come run BuzzFeed News, or he’s thinking about doing it, and the claim is that great news organizations are made in presidential election cycles, so BuzzFeed News is rushed out to this. I will tell you that I was the managing editor of Vox.com, and we kicked that thing off to go hit the next one. It was real. It was very real for us.
Semafor is a new news organization. It’s coming up on a presidential election cycle. The media industry as we know it — that’s what this whole conversation has been about. The end of the social platform era is here. God only knows what role Twitter will play in this election. Tucker Carlson has been fired. Don Lemon has been fired. The CEO of NBCUniversal has been fired. What does this cycle look like for you?
Certainly, we’re going to cover the hell out of the presidential campaign. And David Weigel and Shelby Talcott and Benjy Sarlin and others are very, very focused on it. And I think media is always very much part of presidential politics, and so I do think our identity and everybody’s identity will be shaped around it to a degree. [In terms of] American presidential politics, it’s not 2016 — it’s more 2012. I think many reasonable people will be panicked about Donald Trump and very, very focused on him. I don’t think we’re in a moment of all-consuming interest in politics, whether you like that or not. I fundamentally think citizens of healthy countries do not wake up every morning and think about politics. It’s a sign of a real social disaster when everyone is obsessed.
Yes. This was an Ezra Klein thesis that I always found very interesting.
Yeah. And it is interesting. The biggest stories of the last six months have not been about politics, to my surprise. It’s been Silicon Valley Bank. It’s been Sam Bankman-Fried, it’s been Tucker Carlson, it’s been media, and it’s been AI. The way I’m thinking about coverage a little bit is that it’s actually going to maybe be most interesting when it crosses into those spaces because I think watching Donald Trump and Joe Biden trudge toward confrontation inexorably is tough to watch.
One thing that really struck me in the last cycle was Donald Trump and Joe Biden both had the same position on Section 230, which is that it should be repealed, which is just a blunt instrument, right?
I think no one [else] actually thinks that.
Right, but they’re like, “We’ll just wield this weapon until Facebook adjusts its moderation to our favor, or we’ll threaten them with an existential risk,” and then that’s all they were doing, and that’s why you end up in the same position. At least that makes sense, right? It’s like, “Alright, Joe Biden or Donald Trump, how would you like to wield leverage over Mark Zuckerberg? Say this incantation and you will have this leverage.” I think they get it. They’re political operators. I have no idea how they’re going to think about AI. There’s not a mechanism in there that makes the same sense.
Let me slightly argue with your last point. I always thought it was insane and ludicrous that tech journalists and techies thought it was inappropriate that the government regulate a business. And that it was some evil coercive threat when a politician said, “You shouldn’t do this.” No, that’s politics. And also, it’s going to be super partisan, insane politics, and that’s the world every other business has navigated through all of history in every country. And there was this weird idea that, no, Facebook shouldn’t have to face pressure from politicians. Anyway, put that aside.
Yeah. Well, there’s an important reason that the pressure looked the way it did, right? Because everything else is blocked by the First Amendment.
Yeah. No, I agree with you. Section 230 is this quirky, specific thing. No, I do think that the notion that these guys in Washington are too dumb to get AI or whatever is overstated. There are lots of smart people thinking about policy. I do think the partisan polarization in the United States makes it very, very hard to pass anything, and so I’m pessimistic that Washington will do much unless and until there is some high-profile disaster, probably involving teenagers.
Chatting through this, you have just a very pragmatic view about all of these things. You’re a realist. I think you’ve gotten some scars that make you less prone to hyperbole than others. But I look at what’s happening to Fox News and to CNN to some extent. I look at the future of the cable industry writ large and where Gen Z attention is going, and I say, “Oh, this center of American politics has been cable news for at least my lifetime.”
Incredible. I thought it would’ve been gone by now, and it’s still here.
It’s still here. Does it have a life?
It’s interesting. I guess my view on this has also evolved and gotten more complicated. One of the reasons that cable news remains so important is because it generates all this money, which it pays to political actors like Tucker Carlson. If you could pay Tucker Carlson $20 million a year, then you would be more relevant politically, right? It’s circular, but it’s...
I got to start a GoFundMe.
But these slowly decaying business models. The president of a cable network told me a little while ago that he was okay because his network was melting in the shade.
That’s pretty good.
Do you think...
How much longer are we going to have to put up with cable news? I don’t know. I hate to say this because I wonder if it didn’t actually [already] survive. Maybe the last decade of the internet was the true existential threat to that kind of media, which is to say theatrical, polarizing live television, and that now as streaming looks more and more like TV and the transition to streaming just is turning us back to television, essentially. Those channels won’t just make the leap.
I always thought that if you view cable news through a very different lens, you just have very long podcasts that are designed to be cut up for Twitter, and that’s this podcast.
That’s what we’re making. And the realization that that’s what they’re making actually makes you see it differently.
Yes. It’s all about the clips. It’s all about your viral confrontation with Chris Best. Classic cable news moment.
So let me ask you about that. Not about Chris Best, but the thesis of Substack and all the others is that we’ll have subscription media. We need a new kind of media that’s better than the partisan warfare that the social platforms have enabled, and I hear this all the time. You are a new media entrepreneur. This is exactly the pitch that you could be making to raise money, gain customers. “You’re going to be smarter if you read Semafor because we’re outside of the noise, and we’re going to send you a print-quality email every couple days.”
I look at Fox News, and I’m like, “Well, that’s a subscription product.” At the end of the day, people pay a lot of money to get Fox News in their home, and they love it. They love it the most, and the economics of the business did not make it any less polarizing or crazy or any more or less driven by social media than your average free product that is totally ad-supported. Do you think that recognition exists anywhere inside of Fox News, that they’re as driven by the whims of social media as BuzzFeed once was?
I don’t think self-awareness is really their specialty over there. But I do think, again, one of the interesting things about Fox is they did try to launch a subscription streaming service called Fox Nation that bombed, and I think their strength is that they have all these people who have cable packages and, by the way, are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. The audiences of these cable networks are really quite old, and Fox is the oldest, and it’s folks who navigate to the channel by speaking out loud to their remotes, and so it’s not people who, if Tucker Carlson says, “Hey, come download my app and join me in this new place…” It’s a very tough audience to pull over to that new place.
Yeah. I will say that I once installed the Blaze app on a family member’s television, so they could watch Glenn Greenwald.
I’m sorry. So they could watch Glenn Beck.
You’ve forgotten his name. No, that’s it. He was the most powerful broadcaster in America, and you get him confused with some other blogger.
That’s what happens when you give up your perch.
I couldn’t tell if I was doing a service or I was furthering the decline of the nation. I was like, “I’m doing a nice thing for an older person. Also, I think I should burn their TV to the ground. I’m not sure this is great.” We’ve got to wrap up. You’ve given me much more time than I deserve. I appreciate that. What’s next for Semafor? You’re entering this crazy cycle. The media is reorienting itself. How do you see the next turn? What’s the next thing you need to build, or what’s the next insulation from change…
I think we just launched, and we’re really focused on just making it better, making the product better, making the events, which we are in love with, better and doing a lot more of those.
Yeah. Well, Ben, thank you so much for coming on Decoder. We should just hang out more often.
Thanks, Nilay. This was fun.
Decoder with Nilay Patel /
A podcast about big ideas and other problems.