Who Wants to Be the Next New York Times Media Columnist?
Ben Smith’s departure for a media startup opens up one of journalism’s plum jobs. Potential successors tell us what they’d do if they were tapped next.
When The New York Times announced on Wednesday that media columnist Ben Smith was leaving his job to start a new global news organization with also-resigning Bloomberg Media CEO Justin Smith (no relation), questions began burbling about who would take on one of the most prominent roles in American media reporting next. The column rose to prominence after David Carr launched it as The Media Equation. After Carr died in 2015, the column was rechristened the Mediator under Jim Rutenberg in 2016, but its prominence ebbed as he focused on investigative work around Donald Trump’s dealings with the tabloid media. But Smith brought it back with a fury after he left his job as editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News to take on the column, re-dubbed The Media Equation, in January 2020, delivering a run of scoops, from the storythat took down Ozy to the revelation that Harper’s brought its staff back to the office at the height of the pandemic. While there’s no indication The Times is in any hurry to find a replacement, the first question among the media-savvy readers who lapped up such scoops was: Who’s next?
Whoever takes on the column will have big shoes to fill but will also have to take it in their own direction. It’s also difficult to overlook that, so far, the only authors of the column have been white men. Many names have been bandied about, and, to sort out the fantastical from the realistic, The Fine Print talked with a few potential columnists to ask if they’d be interested in the job and what they think the future of the Timesmedia column should look like.
A correspondent at CBS News, contributing editor at The Marshall Project, and contributing writer at GQ, Lowery playfully hinted that last weekend Smith had tried to tip him off about his departure. “Should have taken the ‘lets talk tomorrow’ that you sent me on Sunday more urgently,” he replied to Smith’s tweet with the announcement. Lowery has made waves of his own as a media critic. His opinion piece in the Times in June 2020 fueled a conversation around the longstanding journalistic shibboleth of objectivity, which even roped in Times executive editor Dean Baquet. Though Lowery demures when asked whether he would want to take over the column, he doesn’t entirely dismiss the idea. “I have a ton of jobs,” he said, “and am not actively looking for any more of them although I always answer my phone when it rings… the Times media column is, of course, one of the best jobs in the business.”
Though he’s not campaigning for the role, he knows how he wants whoever takes it to approach it: “The most memorable Times media columnists have been reporting-oriented, outsiders to ivory tower journalism — David Carr and his alt-weekly sensibility, Ben Smith and his digital-first, chaos agent sensibility,” he wrote. “I’d hope that whoever ends up in the role next continues in that tradition of deeply reported columns and, given the disappearance of the ombudsman role, focuses significant energy on holding to account the increasingly small number of outlets that hold an increasingly large monopoly on media resources (NYT, WaPo, WSJ, Fox News, CNN, Facebook).” He also knows what sort of person he’d like to see take over it. “Given the tough conversations happening in newsrooms across our industry, it would be great to see a non-white-guy in that role,” he wrote. “There are tons of smart, qualified folks who fit that bill. Personally, I much prefer to do journalism than to write about journalism.”
Karen K. Ho
One sharp writer who fits that bill — and wants the job — is Ho, most recently a senior reporter at Insider covering sustainability, who was immediately shouted out on Twitter as a potential replacement. Ho has previously written about media for the Columbia Journalism Review, but she’s not sure that the Times would even consider her. “My experience doing media reporting quickly showed me that when people think of media reporters, they don’t think of people who look like me,” she said. “Even with the support that I have from people like Erin Overbey or Margaret Sullivan, I think I am too many other things: I am an immigrant, queer, Asian woman, with non-obvious disabilities.” All of that adds up to a much harder path. “We have to remember the way that Ben Smith got the job wasn’t even the normal way that someone like me would,” she said. “They didn’t have to rally people that they knew in and outside of the company to be like, ‘You should really strongly consider Karen.’ Ben was offered the job over lunch. That just doesn’t happen for people like me. It really doesn’t.”
But those hurdles would also shape the way Ho would approach the beat. “A lot of people would be excited if I got hired as a media columnist,” she said. “Ben came from a position of absolute power and management, and I am much more of a person who has experience at the very bottom, in terms of vulnerability as a freelancer or what it’s like to be subjected to discrimination, quite frankly. Often you only get to be a media critic when you’ve been at a very high level.” The first project she throws out when asked what she’d do in the job is putting together an interactive atlas of the parental leave policies across news organizations in the U.S. “We’re talking about huge issues regarding things like a slowing population growth rate in the United States, and real childcare issues, and whether journalists can afford to have children in 2022,” she said. “But on a fundamental basis, people shouldn’t have to only figure this out through who they know, in networks, or during a job interview.”
Ho has a pretty definite idea of who she thinks will get the job. “I already have a shortlist of people. I think that they’re going to try to scoop The Washington Post media reporter or someone from CNN, because those are people who either have the right kind of Rolodex, or they come from recognizable names,” she said. “I would be very surprised if I even got an interview for this position, because, if the goal of the media column is to help drive subscriptions or to fill Ben Smith’s shoes, rather than set forth a new pair, then I am definitely not that person.” She added, “I would love to be wrong. I would really love to be.”
If The Times wants to stay closer to home, Lorenz, who covers technology and the creator economy for the business section, could be a fun pick. By choosing her, The Times would indicate that they’re looking beyond the flailing legacy institutions that have traditionally been at the center of the beat to what might replace them. “Ben and I already write about such similar stuff. So much of my beat is the future of media, but I think we both come at it from different areas,” she said. “Ben was so good at getting these incredible inside baseball scoops and I feel like my coverage is more focused around young people and what the media ecosystem is evolving into, more than the power players. It’s more like the future power players.” But, currently on leave to write a book titled Extremely Online: Gen Z, the Rise of Influencers, and the Creation of a New American Dream, she claimed she’s not champing at the bit for a new role. “I feel like I have the best job in media already,” she said, “unless they want to give me a huge raise, in which case, I’ll take over any column.”
The founding editor of Popula, who wrote about MSNBC in the Columbia Journalism Review’s public editor project, is interested in the column. “I admit the thought immediately crossed my mind,” she wrote in an email, “as I’m sure it did the minds of many of our colleagues.” And she knows exactly what she’d do with it. “I would write much more on media ethics, that is, investigating the media’s obligation to inform the public truthfully and responsibly,” she wrote. “In my view, the Times’s worst failings are attributable to its gullibility with respect to market forces. The business-first standpoint may seem pragmatic and factual, but in the case of the paper’s media analysis, the results speak for themselves. For example, we somehow ended up with a tacit acceptance of the firehose of propaganda at Fox News, largely because that organization makes a lot of money, so that central ideological and ethical questions were routinely pushed aside.”
What she’s proposing is a more crusading approach to the column. “The moral compass that might lead to a denunciation of plain lies and charlatanism is effectively absent. If I could, I’d use the megaphone to change that,” she wrote. “There would be a lot of simple declarative sentences, e.g. ‘Yup, that was a lie,’ and ‘Hell no.’”
A former media reporter for The Times, Stephanie Clifford has gone on to be a bestselling novelist and freelance features writer. Her December 2020 Elle piece on the journalist who gave up her profession after falling in love with Martin Shkreli was one of the strangest and most compelling media stories in recent memory, lodging deep in the minds of readers who’ve never even heard of Ben Smith. But as much as we’d enjoy reading a steady stream of stories in that vein, she has other priorities. “I love my alma mater, but I’m up to my chin in story assignments and final edits on my second novel,” she told us. “I feel like I’ve already had my at-bat chance at media coverage at The Times — and hope I did it well — so I will remain a fan from the sidelines.”
The creator of HBO’s The Wire and former Baltimore Sun reporter is no stranger to dramatizing the stories of journalists. Unlike most potential media reporters, he’s not mired in the desperate fiscal realities of the media industry and may bring a fresh perspective. But that also means he too has too much on his plate to take on the column, even hypothetically. Asked how his tenure as The Media Equation columnist would differ from his potential predecessors, Simon promptly told The Fine Print, “Interesting question, but I am up to my ass in deadlines and can’t think straight on work I owe.”
He’s pretty busy himself, but the executive editor of The Times will have a lot more time on his hands once he retires, which is expected to happen sometime before he turns 66 in September. (Stick around below for updated NYT Succession Odds on who will replace him.) But executive editors don’t just evaporate after leaving the post. A common post-retirement pursuit for people who have overseen one of the biggest operations in news is to offer up opinions on the media industry. After stepping away from the Timesexecutive editor perch in 1994, Max Frankel spent five years writing a media column for the Times Magazine. Howell Raines wrote a media column for the short-lived business magazine Condé Nast Portfolioafter leaving the executive editorship following the Jayson Blair scandal in 2003. And Baquet’s immediate predecessor Jill Abramson, who left the Times in 2014, published a book on the media business in 2019.
Some of Baquet’s current staff would be excited to see him take over the column. “That would be so interesting,” Lorenz said. “One thing I loved about Ben is — because he was an editor himself and he’d worked at a really senior level of media organizations — it was interesting to hear the way that he would frame stories. He was just so in the know. So it would be cool to get someone else like that.” Who could be more in the know than Baquet?