Ben Smith, the former top editor of BuzzFeed, on Monday inaugurated his first media column for the New York Times by nibbling the hand that now feeds him — suggesting the Times is becoming a monopoly that’s “bad news for journalism.”
Smith noted that the paper had recovered from its financial slump of just six years ago by selling off businesses and focusing on growing digital subscriptions — a gambit that has paid off since the company, he noted, currently has more digital subscribers than The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and 250 local Gannett papers combined.
And as much of the news media has seen mass layoffs of reporters and editors and major slump from investors, the Times has tripled its share price since 2014 and added 400 new employees — and now has an industry-high 1,700 journalists on staff.
“The Times so dominates the news business that it has absorbed many of the people who once threatened it,” Smith wrote, noting that the paper has hired former top editors at digital upstarts such as Gawker, Recode, Quartz and (in his own case) BuzzFeed.
“I worry that the success of The Times is crowding out the competition,” Smith wrote, adding a prediction by Axios founder Jim VandeHei that the paper “is basically going to become a monopoly.”
And some feel that the paper already holds that status as industry consolidation has mushroomed in recent years and local papers have either shut down or scaled back coverage. “The moat is so wide now that I can’t see anyone getting into it,” former Vice News SVP Josh Tyrangiel told Smith. “There’s no new thing coming. And the editor of BuzzFeed News, who was probably the chief insurgent, is now writing this column for you at The New York Times.”
Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger — whom Smith said he once tried to hire to join BuzzFeed — shrugged off the suggestion of a Times “monopoly” even as the paper is now seeking to expand its influence in the podcast space with the likely purchase of Serial Productions.
“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,” Sulzberger told Smith.
But one sign of the Times dominance is the very fact that Smith is no longer working at a digital upstart in the media space. “I’m proud to be leaving BuzzFeed News as one of a handful of strong, independent newsrooms still standing amid the rubble of consolidation,” Smith wrote in his column. “But I miss the wide open moment 10 years ago, when we were among a wave of new players reimagining what news meant.”
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