Last month, during the blessed pre-holiday-party moment before Omicron descended, I headed uptown from Puck’s cozy West Village office to grab coffee with Ben Smith, the former editor of Buzzfeed News and, at the time, the feared and revered media columnist for The New York Times. Ben and I have known each other, off and on, for years. Back when I founded The Hive, in 2016, I sought his advice while he was the steward of Buzzfeed’s colossal journalistic ambitions. At the time, he had become the industry’s favorite digital media pin-up—a charming former byline beast equally comfortable in a reporting bullpen or a Central Park West parlor. Ben once described his upbringing to me as “that kid from Metropolitan,” the Whit Stillman classic about a Manhattan prep school outsider. I’ll admit that I’d used that line once or twice to describe my own sociological bildungsroman. A friendship was born.
In the years since, we’ve become off-and-on, coffee and gossip pals. I was elated when I learned that he’d taken the job as the Times’ media reporter back in pre-Covid 2020 for a number of reasons. First, it was obvious that he’d restore the cynical good cheer and harumph to the column. Second, it was clear that Buzzfeed was losing altitude from its original, Herculean ambitions, and his creative talents would have been wasted in managing the decline. I also assumed that, unlike the late and great David Carr, Ben didn’t have the temperament to reign in that throne for the rest of his days. Anyone who has spent any time with the guy knows he is a restless, entrepreneurial spirit, an underdog-sider, an irrepressible post-institutionalist.
I had no agenda for our coffee date other than to catch up, trade observations, exchange a little dish, and wish him well for the holidays. The chat ended up being shorter than planned—I’d gone to the Sant Ambroeus on 61st, where the LionTree executives hang out; he’d headed to the one on Madison, where the real socialites roamed—and we both had things to attend afterwards. Even truncated, however, the conversation was enjoyable, convivial, hilarious, fun—and, of course, off the record.