Considering he established BuzzFeed as a credible news site, has grown the news staff to 250 reporters and editors and has helped the site reach over 200 million monthly viewers, it’s incredible Ben Smith has never been an editor prior to his role at BuzzFeed.
The native New Yorker became the editor-in-chief of the news and entertainment site in 2012, but is no stranger to online journalism.
“I’d been writing for the internet since 2004, so it wasn’t much of a transition,” Smith said. “I think [BuzzFeed has] blurred the lines between traditional web culture and internet format and reporting. We’re trying to merge the values of journalism with some of the forms of the Internet.”
Smith said he had always wanted to be a writer, which stemmed from his admiration for his grandfather who was a novelist.
“I kind of romanticized the idea of what it would be like to be a City Hall reporter for a New York tabloid,” Smith said.
Before working for BuzzFeed, Smith was the senior political writer for Politico. Preceding that role, he was a columnist and blogger for the New York Daily News, started The Politicker and the political site Room Eight for the New York Observer and was the City Hall Bureau Chief at the New York Sun.
His many years of political reporting under his belt, Smith recently flew to Iowa to cover the caucuses. He said during an election year, he prioritizes campaign coverage.
“That’s sort of the thing I came up doing. I think one of the things you realize is that the presidential campaign is a central national story and you just fit everything else into it. You can resist that or really lean into it and [BuzzFeed has] tried to lean into it,” Smith said.
A Yale alumnus, Smith wrote for both The New Journal and The Yale Herald while he was an undergraduate. He said he used to be fairly shy and becoming a journalist gave him a “good excuse to talk to people.” Despite his reserved nature in his youth, he encourages journalists to be aggressive in their reporting.
Smith said he believes his greatest strengths as a journalist are his speed and his ability to find the key point of a story.
“Ben is a very graceful and engaging writer, but I think he’s a special talent because he’s both a gifted writer and a dogged reporter.”
“Ben is a very graceful and engaging writer, but I think he’s a special talent because he’s both a gifted writer and a dogged reporter,” former Politico editor-at-large Bill Nichols said.
Nichols, a friend of Smith, said Smith is “relentlessly curious” and is “always a step ahead of his competitors.” Some of Nichols’ favorites of Smith’s pieces are his profile of Richard Ben Cramer and his investigative piece on former mayor Rudy Giuliani. Nichols describes the former as a “lovely tribute” that only Smith would have proposed and only Politico would have done and the latter as “impeccably reported” and one of the most impactful of Politico’s first stories.
“Ben was a joy to edit, as he always had great ideas. He was always looking for ways to set the conversation in national politics and we just had a great deal of fun. When your job is to take a story that’s already an A and find ways to make it an A-plus, that’s tough to beat,” Nichols said.
BuzzFeed Associate Features Editor and Smith’s former assistant Anita Badejo said she believes Smith has greatly contributed to the company’s credibility and authenticity.
“I think one of the reasons we have a really positive and healthy culture at BuzzFeed is because we have leaders who genuinely have our backs,” Badejo said. “[Smith is] a kind and compassionate person and he cares about all of his reporters and editors and makes them feel appreciated.”
Badejo said she believes Smith has a strong sense of judgment and decisiveness. She said he is a very hands-on editor but is very trusting and supportive of his staff.
“There were times when I was his assistant when I had to report political stories and had no idea what I was doing. I was terrified because I had never talked to government officials in that capacity or had to ask questions like that before,” Badejo said. “He never even questioned whether I would be able to do those things. He never second guessed. He just said, ‘Hey, you’re going to write this story.’ I said, ‘Okay’ and I did it. I became a much, much better writer and editor because of it.”
Badejo said the editor-in-chief has taught her to be tougher, as he pushes the staff to ask sources challenging questions and eliminate any bias from their reporting.
Despite his busy schedule, Badejo said Smith maintains an admirable balance between his work and his family.
“He is incredibly good about balancing his home and his work life. He’ll leave the office at 4:30 and yet he’ll be on his email all the way home, but he’ll be home at 5:00 to have dinner with his kids,” Badejo said.