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Trafficking the News

What Ben Smith's book "Traffic" gets right, and wrong, about media.
May 11, 2023
Trafficking the News
Ben Smith in the newsroom at BuzzFeed headquarters, December 11, 2018 in New York City. (Composite / Original photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

There’s a moment in Barry Sonnenfeld and Ed Solomon’s cinematic treatise on human nature and man’s place in the universe, Men in Black, that spoke to me profoundly as a teenager and has reverberated through my head in the decades since.

Veteran alien hunter Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) is sitting on a park bench with James Darrell Edwards (Will Smith) and explaining why his agency keeps the public in the dark about the existence of extraterrestrial life. “Why the big secret,” James asks. “People are smart, they can handle it.”

“A person is smart,” K responds, Tommy Lee Jones channeling a world-weariness that comes with age. “People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals. You know it. A thousand years ago everybody knew Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat. Fifteen minutes ago, you knew that people were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

It’s as succinct and accurate an explanation of human social psychology as you’re likely to find. It came to mind last night as I was reading Ben Smith’s Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral, when Smith was explaining his and BuzzFeed’s decision to release a document detailing wild accusations about Donald Trump’s involvement in various Russian schemes and, uh, sexual deviancy that was making the rounds in official Washington.

“I find it easiest to explain [my decision] not in the grandiose terms of journalism, but the more direct language of respect for your reader,” Smith writes of the call to release “the dossier” in full with a disclaimer at the top saying that it was unverified. “Don’t you, the reader, think you’re smart enough to see a document like that, understand that it is influential but unverified, without losing your mind? Would you rather people like me had protected you from seeing it?”

As another cinematic stalwart might say: “Admirable, but mistaken.” Because if we look at what actually happened with the dossier—how it was immediately stripped of its context on social media and shared as if true and used to feed multiple conspiracy theories at once in a way that wound up weakening the case against Trump’s various misdeeds because someone could point to the dossier and say “well it wasn’t as bad as all this, so he’s fine”—I think it’s fairly obvious that while a reader may be smart, readers are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.

And we all know it.

This is the central flaw of the obsession with “traffic”—that is, the quest for raw visitor totals and virality—suffered from by Jonah Peretti, Nick Denton, and others chronicled in Smith’s book. To be clear, I kind of loved Traffic, and not just because it’s a well-constructed narrative full of in-depth, on-the-scene reporting. It also serves as a way for me to sort and sift through my own personal professional journey, to help understand what I was seeing when I watched Gawker implode following an ill-advised obsession with publishing illicitly obtained dick pics and sex tapes and BuzzFeed ride the wave of traffic that helped fund an impressive but ultimately doomed effort to merge internet idiocy with real reporting.

Having now worked in journalism for almost 20 years (he typed, arthritically, bones turning to dust at the mere thought of it) and having lived through various cycles of how journalism pays for and propagates itself, I’ve never been more sure of anything than the idea that chasing traffic for traffic’s sake has been disastrous and that cultivating a base of subscribers is the only way forward. But there are dangers there as well.

The problems with chasing traffic are manifold, but the biggest issue of all is that traffic in and of itself isn’t that valuable. It’s advertisements that create value. And the advertising market has become brutally efficient over the last 20 years, necessitating more posts and more virality, leading to all sorts of unexpected and negative outcomes, like rage-click bait, and essentially turning once-proud news outlets into little more than adjuncts of Facebook at the mercy of algorithmic changes that can decimate entire business models in a second. (Indeed, some of the most interesting parts of Traffic involve Peretti’s subtle manipulations of those managing the Facebook algorithm to devastate competitor sites.)

Chasing subscriptions gives news outlets greater freedom in certain ways—freedom from the vicissitudes of Twitter and Facebook; freedom from the need to chase the lowest common denominator—but there are tradeoffs here as well. First and foremost is the sheer difficulty of generating enough paying subscriptions in an era where local news outlets no longer have a monopoly on local advertising.

And then there’s the worry of audience capture.

Consider this tweet:

The whispered threat here is fairly obvious: the New York Times is a paper that is subscribed to and read by, predominantly, center-left individuals around the country. If you publish too many things that are true but that they may not care for—like, for instance, the fact that Alvin Bragg’s case against Donald Trump is far from airtight and may well backfire just as releasing the dossier in full backfired—you risk generating a wave of cancellations. Just as you risk generating a wave of cancellations if you allow a conservative senator to publish an op-ed espousing a view supported by half of the country. Just as you risk generating a wave of cancellations if a group of loud and angry people on Twitter gets mad at how you’re covering any controversial topic on which the public is either divided or in disagreement with prevailing orthodoxies hewed to with religious fervor on Twitter dot com.

There are similar forces at work on the right; one of the striking results of the Trump ascendancy was the ferocity with which conservative readers wheeled on long-time favorites such as George F. Will as a sellout for maintaining a consistent stance about Donald Trump and his unfitness for office. I guess I shouldn’t have been shocked that a not-small number of Weekly Standard readers were less interested in uncompromising reporting and analysis and more interested in having a magazine that provided intellectual ammunition for “their side,” regardless of the venality of that side. But it was still a little surprising to see play out in real-time. The shift from “Against Trump” to “Eh, Trump’s Not Great, But the Other Guy Is Worse” was fairly depressing.

One of the reasons I love writing for and podcasting on The Bulwark is that the community of readers understood more or less what they were signing up for when they, uh, signed up: a weird little collection of folks who broadly agreed on the importance of protecting democracy and not a ton else. I know I’m not to every reader/listener’s political or cultural taste (I read the comments!), but I don’t think any of our writers are to everyone’s taste. Offering that weird mixture might limit our total addressable market (as they say in b-school). But at another level, I suspect it leaves the overall product stronger and more resistant to audience capture because people know that they’re going to read stories they disagree with going in. The heterodoxy isn’t a bug; it’s a feature.

Of course, every silver lining has a cloud—even heterodoxy has its dangers, and we’ve seen that professional contrarianism can be just as lucrative, possibly more lucrative, when it comes to creating and cultivating a community of readers. There’s no shortage of Substackers and nü-Blue-checked tweeters who have fallen down the anti-vax, pro-Putin rabbit hole; whether their flight from reality is an audience-building gambit or passionately believed lunacy, I leave to you to decide.

But all of this is a very long way of saying that Traffic is a fascinating book because it lays out the important ways that traffic was a god that failed. It’s no surprise that Ben Smith moved to the New York Times after BuzzFeed and is now running a newsletter empire in Semafor. I hope they succeed, just as I hope Puck succeeds and The Ankler succeeds and, yes, The Bulwark succeeds. Audiences that are more engaged, more committed to the product being turned out, and more willing to pay for what they read are, frankly, better audiences.

Even if they end up being smaller.

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association