For Variety’s latest issue, we asked New Yorker editor David Remnick to write a tribute for BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, one of 50 people to make our New Power of New York list. Here’s why Smith represents a new generation of movers and shakers that capture the best of Manhattan.
For a youngish editor, Ben Smith has been around the block and around it again: The Indianapolis Star, The Baltic Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Sun, The Observer, The News, Politico, and a raft of city blogs. I say that not because it is unusual for a journalist of Ben’s generation or even mine, but because for years, it now seems, he was circling a runway that was only faintly visible through the fog. The internet, in its 2.0 iteration, the age of virality, provided it.
Smith landed at BuzzFeed; more to the point, he was instrumental in inventing it — a protean site that is morphing all the time. Ben is BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief, and he is politically astute and personally intelligent; that is, he is experienced in the world and he is warm and nimble with people. Along with Jonah Peretti, the tech brain behind the organization, and other editors like the preternaturally gifted Shani O. Hilton and Mark Schoofs, Ben is running an entity that is hard to define and always changing in interesting ways.
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One thing is for sure: the BuzzFeed that is read by Person A is likely radically different from the one favored by Person B. There is the mind-vacation BuzzFeed, the listicles such as “11 Real Life Moments That You Wish You Could Press Pause On” or the quizzes such as “Only a True Spice Girls Fan Can Score 75% on This Quiz.” But then along comes an affecting video on the order of “Being Queer in a Fraternity,” a sharp, moving series of interviews. And then there is the more ambitious work: Katie Baker’s reporting on sexual assault on campus; a sharp investigative unit run by Schoofs and Ariel Kaminer; and, amid the insanity of the 2016 race, Ruby Cramer and Rosie Gray’s political coverage.
Smith and his colleagues have been particularly good at hiring a young, smart, funny, and diverse staff, and I readily admit that, in a larcenous editorial spirit, I am always looking to see who is coming along, who has something to say. They hire poets, reporters, filmmakers, anyone, it seems, who’s ready to speak up and make a mark; it’s an interesting place. The truth is, I have no idea what BuzzFeed is going to be in a couple of years — I hope a large component of it will be the parts I like best, the ambitious journalistic bits, the best of the personal essays — but it is fascinating to witness Ben Smith & Co. trying to figure it all out. Dull is the last thing it’s going to be.
David Remnick is the editor of The New Yorker. Read our full New Power of New York list here, as well as tributes for Chelsea Clinton (by Bill Clinton), Ivanka Trump (by Jared Kushner) and Megyn Kelly (by Judge Judy).