Earlier this week, Ben Smith notified New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet that he was going to be leaving the company to pursue something different. On some level, the news couldn’t have been a shock. For months, in-the-know media people have been kibitzing about Smith’s potential next moves. Sure, many assumed, he’d probably enjoyed a liquidity event from the initial public offering of Buzzfeed, where he’d been the editor-in-chief for nearly a decade. But perhaps more importantly, Smith has the personality of a builder, and the Times, despite its world-beating digital growth in recent years, can have an academic culture.
But the news that he was teaming up with Justin Smith, the C.E.O. of Bloomberg Media, to create a sort of globalist, post-social media, creator-friendly and all-the-other-right-things-to-say journalistic beast was the media-world equivalent of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving joining the Brooklyn Nets, or Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez getting back together. And it was marvelously orchestrated through a double-barreled media rollout, with Justin declaring his news, replete with a Mike Bloomberg quote, in the Journal, and the Times getting the hometown scoop on Ben (albeit with little warning).
The news is interesting, but the backstory is perhaps even more compelling. The Smiths had been talking for years—in New York, at Davos, at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum—about the opportunities for ambitious global journalism, both men said in separate interviews on Tuesday morning. Those conversations took a more serious turn in early 2020, just months after Ben joined The New York Times. The two met at a French bistro in Manhattan to map out the strategy for a global publication that, according to Justin, aspires to become “the leading, multi-platform news brand for the whole English-speaking world.” They kept their conversations closely guarded for nearly two years. In early December, Ben dismissed an inquiry into plans for a new venture as a “rumor” that wasn’t true; and, as noted above, Times leadership didn’t learn about his departure until this week. (Reached by email, Baquet said of Ben: “He was a terrific reporter, and that made him a great columnist.”)
Becoming the world’s leading global news brand may take a decade, Justin told me, but he’s in it for the long haul. “I’m building this for forever, not building this to sell it,” he said. “I’m building this to create something meaningful and disruptive and important for the world.” Justin said he is currently funding the business himself, but that he is in conversations with a number of investors that will be announced in the near future. Neither he nor Ben would disclose who those investors were. They also declined to share the name of the new company, though Justin said they were close to a decision. As for how many reporters they would hire, Justin put the number in the hundreds, but said “the sequencing is going to be intelligently thought through. We’re not going to fall into the pitfalls that some less-sophisticated publishers have fallen into.”
While the specifics of this new publication remain nebulous, the general thesis reflects a larger evolution in journalism away from the social media-driven clickbait model and toward a subscription and premium ad-supported model that fosters a direct relationship between journalists and readers. “The era of social media journalism is basically coming to an end, and there’s a question of what’s next,” Ben told me. “The relationship of individual journalists to their audience is also changing, and I think [this new publication] will reflect that.”
Indeed, a number of new media companies have leaned into this direction as a previous generation of mediacos pivots, SPACs, near-SPACs, or pivots. “In some ways, I see this as a rejection of the Buzzfeed, click-bait common denominator model,” one media executive texted me upon hearing the news. “Further manifestation of the ‘quality is the best business model’ axiom.”
In their media unveilings, both Justin and Ben spoke about “an audience of 200 million English-speaking, college-educated people” who weren’t being adequately served by existing news services, a quote Ben also gave to the Times for its brief article announcing his departure. Neither one was able to speak specifically to what this new venture would offer that, say, the Times and Bloomberg weren’t already giving them. In terms of editorial focus, Ben just said “stay tuned.” And on some level, their homilies in the Journal and Times delineated a sort of new-wave, steroidal Quartz, which Justin masterminded a decade ago, and which also fell into disrepair after he left Atlantic Media for Bloomberg, and after it sold to Uzabase for a nine-figure sum.
But beyond the content itself, Justin pointed to innovations in format, noting that “Axios has built a huge business on a very simple format innovation, and voice innovation, and it’s fantastic. That’s why Axios is worth half a billion and has $100 million in revenue. I don’t see the relentless spirit of innovation and invention happening with a lot of the incumbents. Otherwise they would have been Axios, or they would have invented [Politico] Playbook.”
Justin had some more to share. “I don’t think the newspaper article has changed in a long time, and I think readers’ consumption habits have changed radically,” he continued. “What we’re going to unleash at this new company is an innovation hothouse for journalism that is consumer-centric, that will push the envelope on new journalistic innovations to deliver quality content.”
Perhaps the most reassuring aspect of Justin’s gamble is his selection of Smith as the publication’s editor-in-chief. Smith was responsible for giving BuzzFeed news cred during its meteoric rise in 2012, and restored the Times’ Media Equation column to the must-read status it enjoyed under the run of the legendary David Carr. (Those in-the-know media people are already speculating over his successor.) “He is both a coach and a manager of newsrooms as well as an individual player… a digital innovator and a next generation leader,” Justin told me. “If I were A.G. Sulzberger or Jeff Bezos, I’d make Ben the editor of my paper.”