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BuzzFeed News is shutting down as part of companywide layoffs

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The website BuzzFeed is shutting down its Pulitzer Prize-winning newsroom. The company says 15% of BuzzFeed's workforce, or about 180 employees, will be laid off. We called Ben Smith to hear more about this. He's the former editor-in-chief at BuzzFeed News. Good morning, Ben.

BEN SMITH: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So you were the founding editor of BuzzFeed News. You worked there for almost 10 years. How were you receiving this, Sad, mad, surprised?

SMITH: You know, I mean, I think it's really sad. I'm really sad about it. I know a lot of my colleagues are, I think, you know, and I wouldn't say totally surprised. It's been - you know, BuzzFeed and BuzzFeed News, you know, we came up as Facebook and Twitter and social media rose and became this exciting new thing where you could - you know, where you could distribute stories to millions of people. And, you know, I think as consumers, as everybody, got a little sick of consuming news through Facebook, BuzzFeed in particular, which had probably been - we'd probably been better than anybody else at getting you those links on Facebook, you know, really struggled to continue to hold onto this huge audience.

MARTIN: So what do you think led to this? Could you be more specific about the specific factors?

SMITH: Yeah. Yeah. I think, you know, people - fewer people are on Facebook and Twitter than used to be. And really, particularly around the 2016 election, I think - you know, when we started out, there was this sense of, wow, isn't it neat to get, you know, hard news stories mixed up with funny quizzes, mixed up with baby Twitter pictures on Facebook? What kind of, like, a novel, interesting way to get your media. And I think, come the 2016 election, that started to feel actually incredibly toxic. And a lot of people hated it. And the social media companies, Facebook in particular, reacted to that by trying to get away from news. And if you look at your Facebook feed today, if you're still on Facebook, which a lot of people are not, you'll see a lot less news. And - yeah, and so for BuzzFeed and for other companies that rose with those social platforms, it's been a pretty tough few years.

MARTIN: So we are in a moment where both traditional and digital news outlets are laying off employees because of financial issues, including this one, including NPR - Vox, Insider, The Washington Post. Just to get your take here, what do you think this says?

SMITH: You know, I think we're in a moment of a big change in the news business. I think there was a kind of internet news that rose, you know, really, in the early 2000s. I just sort of spent a couple years writing a book about this. And you can really feel that there was this era that began with websites like Gawker and Huffington Post and BuzzFeed in the early 2000s and - you know, and shaped a lot of what we all sort of think of as news and media now. I think, you know, from The New York Times to NPR, people took a lot of those lessons about how to use the internet. And now the internet is changing a lot. People are watching short videos instead of going on social networks. They're consuming a lot in email. And they're going to events. I mean, it's sort of a different news world. And so I think a lot of companies are having to adjust.

MARTIN: And what do you think that means? And, I guess, how does that land with you? I mean, you are still with a media company. You're with a group called Semafor. Does this - do you think that this equally well serves the public, and if not, what might?

SMITH: You know, I don't think a lot of people think that the social media era did serve the public very well. I mean, I think we all wound up feeling overwhelmed, feeling that news was being fed to us through algorithms and - you know, and sort of pandered to in certain ways. And so, I mean, you know, I can't predict if the next thing will be better. But I do think what a lot of us in media are thinking about is, how do we reach - you know, how do we sort of have what feels like a more human, more direct conversation, something that is less mediated, less piped through these big digital pipes?

MARTIN: And perhaps less susceptible to manipulation. So OK, well, let's talk more. You got a book coming out. Ben Smith is a former editor-in-chief for BuzzFeed News. He's got a forthcoming book, "Traffic." It's about the history of digital media. Ben Smith, thanks so much for talking to us.

SMITH: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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