On Monday morning, Buzzfeed IPO’d on the NASDAQ as BZFD by way of a SPAC deal — an annoying way of saying that, because the media brand merged with a blank check company, you can now buy their shares for about $10 a pop, depending on when you look at the chart. (Notably, when Buzzfeed’s shareholders officially voted on the initial public offering last Thursday, the entire staff of Buzzfeed News walked out over the company’s refusal to budge on several contract issues, including a salary floor of $50,000).
Because Buzzfeed is now a publicly traded company and because New York Times media columnist Ben Smith numbers among its most well-known shareholders, we are running an installation of How Much Money Do You Have? on Twitter’s favorite media columnist.
First, some backstory: as many readers will know, Ben Smith served as the Editor-in-Chief of Buzzfeed News from 2011 until 2020, when he left to become the guy media executives really don’t want to see on their caller-ID. As part of his compensation package at Buzzfeed News, Smith accepted some amount of stock options in the company — a fact we know because he has disclosed it in many of his media columns since he joined the Times in April of 2020.
As Justin Peters recently noted in Slate, Smith has been unusually coy about his decision not to sell his stock options, which occasionally presents a conflict in his media coverage. He has agreed not to report on Buzzfeed until he divests his stake, but the subject has come up now and again. In his coverage of Ozy Media, for example, Smith had to disclose that he had met its CEO, Carlos Watson, during some talks about a possible acquisition. On the Longform podcast recently, he declined to answer several questions about his holdings, suggesting that the apparent conflict of interest was ultimately up to the Times to navigate.
Not long before the Slate piece came out, Smith was working on a story about this website. The piece, which was published in September, featured a nice photo series of my boss, Leah Finnegan, sitting scrunched on a window sill, as her/our boss, hat-buyer Bryan Goldberg, lounged in a plush leather chair. Nothing to read into there. In any case, while reporting the story, Smith sat in on one of our weekly pitch meetings. He described it like this:
Story ideas that came up during a pitch meeting on Zoom last month, which I was invited to join, veered from YouTube videos in which men eat potato chips in their cars (“I guess it would be interesting if they were alt-righters or insurrectionists,” chimed in one writer) to gorillas (“When you think about it, they’re the craziest animal,” said the writer Sarah Hagi) to the way in which identity on the internet is used as a rhetorical weapon (the writer Jenny Zhang said she’d avoid going so far that “Fox News will be reblogging this”).
There was another pitch that didn’t make it into the article. It looked like this in our project management system:
Smith forgot to include this crucial and hard-hitting question in his piece, but here’s how he responded at the time:
Ben Smith: I was sure this would take some kind of turn, but I don’t really want to chime in.
Fair enough. This morning, on the occasion of BZFD’s birthday, we took the opportunity to follow up with Smith via Twitter DM, asking if he had anything to add and whether he planned to sell his stock. As of press time, Smith has not responded, but we imagine he’s quite busy at the moment.