Can Ben Smith Fill David Carr's Shoes at the Times?

| 03 Feb 2020 | 03:43

Ben Smith, who is leaving as editor of BuzzFeed to become the media critic for The New York Times, faces several mammoth challenges. Smith's most daunting task is to make fans of David Carr, inside and outside the paper, accept his new status. Carr, the beloved media critic for the Times until his death in 2015. (Many people still can't believe it will be five years, next month, since Carr passed.)

Carr's biggest asset was his exuberance. Even when he was griping about this or that – and he did so often – he conveyed a hopeful spirit. He had all of the gifts of a successful columnist: timeliness, wit, conviction and a sense of authority. He knew his stuff. You could follow his lead.

Jim Rutenberg, who is vacating the media-columnist position to become a writer-at-large for the paper and the Sunday magazine, certainly had the gravitas necessary for the job. He has served as the paper's White House reporter and national political correspondent. He is a poster child for the Times, given the breadth of his experience. But Rutenberg had the Herculean assignment of trying to live up to Carr’s accomplishments. Maybe it was simply impossible to expect that anyone could.

Carr would probably be stunned at the media landscape during the Trump administration. He would have warmed to the job of answering charges that the media ecosystem is "the enemy of the people." He would have had a field day contesting accusations of "fake news," too.

Beyond Cat Videos

But Ben Smith is not a classic Timesman, just as BuzzFeed is not an Old Gray Lady of journalism. BuzzFeed, famously, initially earned a reputation in media circles as an opportunistic 21st century vehicle that achieved what seemed to be its goal of wooing eyeballs for its goofy but hard-to-turn-away-from cat videos and mindless listicles. Smith rode the BuzzFeed-hip wave and his operation quickly became one of the dream jobs for ambitious millennial journalists. (Trust me on this – I teach college students who would gladly surrender their Yik Yak accounts for an opportunity like working at BuzzFeed.)

Commendably, BuzzFeed grew up under Smith’s leadership and wanted to be better known for its political coverage and investigative excursions than its tabby video treats. Only a fool would not put BuzzFeed in the same conversation with the respected "Old Media" watchdogs.

So, Smith would seem to have the chops for the big job at the Times. But can he establish himself as a Timesman, and not a BuzzFeed master in exile in the Establishment? That will be a key question as he tries to gain a following with the online subscribers (who are more important to the Times than the newspaper's older-demographic print readers) and a new reputation among the prickly, finicky media establishment, particularly in New York and Washington.

Experts and Matinee Idols

What's in it for The New York Times and its parent company? Smith is a star, which makes all the difference. He can be a new piece in the Times Co.'s shiny marketing machine to young readers and prospective subscribers to its crucial online business.

Today, it seems, prestigious outlets like the Times and The Washington Post are almost as eager for its big bylines to be able to translate to cable television news shows and are a lasting impression as experts and matinee idols. As the Trump presidency continues to be all-important on cable, the networks are clamoring to find respected journalists who can become full-time contributors and keep viewers from reaching for the remote control.

Smith will no doubt be opinionated and carry a sense of moral and journalistic authority – perfect for the panting executives at MSNBC (and, yes, CNN). The Times would presumably like nothing more than to see Smith's mug appearing regularly on one of those channels. All he'd have to do is recite one of his columns or speak with the appropriate sense of outrage about one of the anti-media proclamations of President Trump or his cohorts (see the recent dustup between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and NPR).

Ben Smith won't have the luxury of a learning curve in NYT 101, or a trial period in which he can grow on readers before making his presence felt fully. He'll have to make his mark on day one and not look back.

I suspect that he will. This is not his first rodeo. And, I'm pretty sure, he knows how to find Ukraine on a map.