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March 2, 2020, 12:59 p.m.

In his first media column for The New York Times, Ben Smith says journalism’s problem might be The New York Times

“The New York Times is going to basically be a monopoly” vs. “What I actually think you’re seeing is not a winner-take-all dynamic — what you’re actually seeing is a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats dynamism.”

Well, that was meta. The former editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, Ben Smith, made a splashy debut in his new gig as The New York Times’ media columnist on Sunday night, a position most famously held by the late David Carr.

Amid some light self-aggrandizing — Smith makes much of his six-years-earlier job offer to New York Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger — Smith argues that the Times’ incredible success doesn’t look like a tide that will lift all newspaper boats. (If you’ve read Nieman Lab much over the past half-decade or so, you’ve heard that before.)

The Times, which has more digital subscribers than The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and all 250 local Gannett papers combined, may evolve into something like a monopoly, he argues, vacuuming up top talent from competing newsrooms and crowding out competitors with overwhelming resources (like a starting salary for reporters in the six figures, though the NewsGuild gets much of the credit for that).

The Times so dominates the news business that it has absorbed many of the people who once threatened it: The former top editors of Gawker, Recode, and Quartz are all at The Times, as are many of the reporters who first made Politico a must-read in Washington.

(Those former top editors would be Choire Sicha, Kara Swisher, and Kevin Delaney, who are the editor of Styles, a regular columnist, and leader of some secret project in Opinion, respectively.)

The piece was published online on Sunday night and the Times sent a push alert to promote the column, evoking the days when a Carr column’s Sunday p.m. reveal would set the tone of the week’s discussion around media. Journalists and media types on Twitter starting chiming in immediately — once it got past mocking Smith’s Twitter evolution from @BuzzFeedBen to…@benyt? (BeNYT? BenYT?)

Smith also broke some interesting news from inside the house. Though The Wall Street Journal had reported in January that podcasting company Serial Productions was for sale and that the Old Gray Lady was considered a potential suitor, Smith confirmed the Times is in “exclusive talks” to purchase the company behind the true-crime podcasts Serial and S-Town — for “significantly less” than its initial $75 million sale price. (Our Nick Quah recently noted some internal shuffling that seemed to augur a sale soon.) Smith also says the Times’ audio offerings, led by flagship podcast The Daily, could become a paid product, like the company’s subscription-based Cooking or Crossword packages, “that executives believe could become the HBO of podcasts.”

(Flashback to 2015: “Gimlet wants to become the ‘HBO of podcasting,'” in the quality-content sense. And Luminary was supposed to be the “HBO of podcasting” in the charging-money sense, and it’s now run by an HBO guy.)

BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti sounded less than impressed that Smith managed to publish his first scoops before his first official day at the Times.

BuzzFeed PR had its own tongue-in-cheek styleguide concerns.

We know that Americans are more willing to pay for local news if they know local outlets are struggling. The very visible success of the Times, some suggested, might prevent people from noticing that newspapers are struggling in their own towns and cities.

Smith also got some pushback from editors with a vantage point outside New York City.

POSTED     March 2, 2020, 12:59 p.m.
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