Will Ben Smith's new 'global' media empire include Indigenous news?
Native populations are growing, but Ben, as a newsroom leader, has in the past missed the trend and all the possibilities that go along with it.
I like Ben Smith.
I liked the news yesterday that he’s leaving The New York Times as its pithy media critic to start a new global media outlet with Justin Smith, the former chief executive of Bloomberg Media.
I liked Ben back when I met him in late-2006 when he was joining a start-up, scrappy journalism outlet as a political blogger working under then-esteemed journalists Jim Vandehei and John Harris and now-very, very rich businessman Robert Allbritton. I was the first web editor for their new media enterprise, which, thanks to input from Jim’s wife, Autumn, was soon to be called Politico (styled as THE POLITICO in those days back when Jim envisioned it as the ESPN for politics and wanted four streaming videos of talking heads on the homepage at one time). I discouraged Jim from that idea. I think I discouraged him for a lot of other reasons, too, which maybe I’ll get into someday, and some of those reasons are probably why I couldn’t work with Jim for all that long. I am not alone; many others have stories. The stories from some of the non-White journalists are among the most interesting I’ve heard.
I digress. This is about Ben. He was quite personable in that early Rosslyn, Va. newsroom, especially in comparison to journalist Jonathan Martin — hired around the same time — and Ben told me he’d read and enjoyed my D.C.-focused blog that was a tiny bit popular at the time for competing with Gawker’s Wonkette for various gossip-y political scoops and satire.
Ben was a flatterer, at least back then. Case in point: Tucker Carlson really liked him, I knew from personal experience, and Ben would later go on to mine that relationship for gold at the Times. Tucker later complained. Who was surprised?
When Ben moved on to Buzzfeed from Politico in 2011 to become its lead editor and a major stockholder, I saw an opportunity. I knew he was interested at least a little bit in Indigenous politics, given his past coverage and connections, so I reached out to him to see if we could reconnect, and perhaps I could contribute some Native-focused scoops his way.
“It would be great for Buzzfeed to pick up on some Native American political angles, such as President Obama’s recent million-dollar fundraiser with tribal leaders for less than a half hour of meet & greet (a first for tribes that's a sign of pride for some tribal members, while a symbol of all that's wrong with American politics for others),” I wrote to Ben in a long-winded email. “While some tribal members rank among the poorest citizens in the nation, [a few] tribes are among the biggest campaign donors in the country and run a nearly $30 billion and growing combined gaming empire.”
“They are having amazing input in all branches of government, as well as in the world of lobbying,” I continued, on and on. “This Native politics and policy area is ripe to be covered more broadly in the mainstream -- and, surprisingly, no mainstream publications to date have filled this gap and potential audience (and revenue) driver. I hope Buzzfeed may be interested in leading the field, and I would love to chat with you more about this possibility.”
Ben was gracious, telling me he had a reporter working on a story focused on reservation bullying, but he didn’t think Native politics and policy would be an immediate focus for Buzzfeed. Listicles, yes. Endless cat pics, for sure. Unverified dossiers, check. Federal-tribal corruption and complexities, no — just not enough clicks in that business.
“I'll keep in mind,” Ben replied, getting me out of his hair, noting his lack of sleep given his intense new gig.
“If we are on your turf, can I hit you up for advice on the beat?” he asked, and I said yes. I would send Ben occasional tips, but they never really led to anything. Then he moved on from Buzzfeed, to media criticism at the Times in 2020 — an area we both enjoy — and I didn’t bug him anymore. I just reveled in reading his columns.
But now Ben is at a new juncture. According to the Times’ report, they are losing Ben as an employee as he and Justin Smith plan “to build a global newsroom that broke news and experimented with new formats of storytelling.”
Ben “did not provide details on what beats or regions would be covered, how much money they planned to raise or when the new organization would start,” according to the report.
Ben had in recent times turned down an offer from Substack, he had written in a previous column, saying that he had been presented a deal with an “advance well above [his] Times salary.” But he wanted an editor, he appreciated the Times’ platform, and he didn’t think he could make enough money, he wrote in citing his declination. So this new thing he’s doing doesn’t sound like it’s a newsletter or blog venture. But maybe?
“There are 200 million people who are college educated, who read in English, but who no one is really treating like an audience, but who talk to each other and talk to us,” Ben told the Times in explaining what he’s doing next. “That’s who we see as our audience.”
Good start, but not really clear.
“The pressures of social media and polarization have a lot of news organizations talking down to their audience,” Ben added.
“Audiences feel really connected to the person writing the story or making the video,” Ben continued. “That’s a challenge for big institutions.”
Again, yes, but I have no idea from reading those quotes what the “global news outlet” he will edit will look like.
Global news does sound like it could and should include Indigenous news, though, right?
As a Twitter follower told me yesterday, after reading my intro post in which I talked about the longtime difficulty of getting Native voices into mainstream newsrooms: "World out there [is] hungry for Indian (sic) country news.”
I agreed and asked, “Are we (Native journalism) part of the growing streaming, cultural and political trends, or not?”
I, of course, fervently believe we are, so why wouldn’t we be included in a new global media empire the likes of which Ben is planning?
I’ll let you know if I receive an answer from Ben on that question. It’s an answer we need to hear from most mainstream newsrooms, new and old.
Editor’s update: Upon reading this piece, Ben subscribed for the year to Indigenous Wire, and he shared, “I spent some time talking to Amy McQuire about this when I was at Buzzfeed, but we never pulled off a global beat.” (Amy produces aboriginal rights-based journalism on Substack.) Ben certainly seems to know that there’s plenty of room for his new venture to do much more than has been done by the mainstream press to date in this area. Onward.
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