Ben Smith thought that he’d be spending the end of April banking interviews about his book that goes on sale next week. It’s not working out that way. Instead, the celebrated news maven—who slung scoops at Politico, launched BuzzFeed News, covered media for Tea New York Times, and is now cofounder of the buzzy Semafor news startup—found himself bloviating on television and podcasts about the firing of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and CNN’s Don Lemon, icons of a 40-year-old cable news industry that predates the internet. In other appearances, he was asked to weigh in on his creation BuzzFeed News, whose plug was pulled so recently that its pixels are still ghosting the screen. The irony isn’t lost on him. “Here I am on CBS talking about the demise of BuzzFeed News,” he says, swilling coffee with me after doing a mornings hit. “CBS is still standing!” (Actually, the hosts didn’t ask him about BuzzFeed.)
Smith is enough of a hustler to understand that any exposure is an opportunity—hey, CBS host Gayle King did say she couldn’t wait to read his book—but the experience was in a sense sobering. Traffic: Genius, Rivalry and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral is an account of what once looked like an upbeat development in a news industry that’s been hobbled since the internet kneecapped it two decades ago. In the eyes of his protagonists, BuzzFeed cofounder and CEO Jonah Peretti and chief Gawker Nick Denton, the age of viral content presented an opportunity for a feisty, less fussy approach to journalism that would level barriers between publications and readers.
As the first editor of BuzzFeed News, Smith himself concedes he was among those who naively championed this dream, which is not a great look for a reporter whose work more characteristically benefits from a well-functioning bullshit detector. Fortunately, Smith removed his rose-colored glasses while writing Traffic, which artfully sketches the rise and fall of a movement whose decline is embodied in BuzzFeed’s woes and Gawker’s death. (When discussing his new venture, Semaforhowever, the pink-hued shows are very much in place.)
Smith had never thought of himself as an author—his normal impulse is to hit the publish button with the frequency of a carnival chicken. But he undertook the yearslong project motivated both by pandemic boredom and a desire to tell the story of two men who saw the rise of social media as a chance to supercharge content distribution and bypass legacy gatekeepers. In the course of reporting the book, Smith also uncovered an underreported wrinkle: The left-wingers behind the viral-news movement were aided and abetted by radical conservatives who wound up using those lessons to construct an alt-right establishment that rose all the way to the White House.
Steve Bannon and Andrew Breitbart were key figures in the Huffington Post, which Peretti helped lead even while launching BuzzFeed. Smith himself hired right-winger Benny Johnson. Another early BuzzFeeder, a meme-wrangler known as baked alaska, was among those storming the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Digital power once was celebrated as a force behind Barack Obama’s rise. Who knew that the viral juice of silly listicles and exploding watermelons would be effectively weaponized by Donald Trump and the MAGA right?
Nonetheless, Smith’s story of two East Coast news organizations is only a slice of a bigger phenomenon—about the power of tech platforms based in Silicon Valley. Geeks, not newsies, were the actual engineers of virality. In the closing pages of TrafficSmith admits his well-founded fears that his narrative—despite compelling characters and its capture of a moment when journalists began chasing traffic with the fervor once devoted to chasing scoops—might be like Tom Stoppard’s play about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which focused on peripheral characters in Shakespeare’s masterpiece who were prisoners to forces beyond their control. In that sense Mark Zuckerberg is Traffic’s Hamlet, glimpsed only fleetingly, but firmly in control of the fate of the news outlets that depended on his links.
BuzzFeed and Gawker—and way too much of the news industry—became addicts of dashboards whose numbers rose when Facebook and other platforms boosted their stories. (Nick Denton even tied his writers’ paychecks to page views.) But those stratospheric numbers were entirely dependent on social links, which soared or slumped depending on the whims of the tech companies.