Time Magazine Celebrates as Web Pioneers Wonder What’s Next

On Thursday, a week after BuzzFeed closed its Pulitzer Prize-winning news division and laid off 15 percent of its staff, Jonah Peretti, the company’s chief executive, predicted in a memo to his remaining employees that the future of the media business lay in “huge cultural moments” and “fun.”

Things that sow division will go out of style, he wrote. Social media will no longer drive traffic to websites. The algorithm that dictates online searches will favor feel-good entertainment in “a huge reversal from the social media landscape of the 2010s” and its reliance on “content that fosters toxicity,” as Axios reported in its description of Mr. Peretti’s memo.

Mr. Peretti has been wrong before, as evidenced by the cratering of BuzzFeed’s stock since the company went public in 2021. But his view that the business is heading toward a post-revolutionary period of restoration would not have seemed off-base to anyone who witnessed two very different media parties in Manhattan this week: the Time 100 Gala at One Columbus Circle and a book party hosted by the digital-news maven Ben Smith at a downtown restaurant.

More than 300 nicely turned out guests descended on Columbus Circle on Wednesday night for the party thrown by perhaps the legaciest of all legacy media brands, Time magazine. The flock included stars of recent streaming hits (Jennifer Coolidge, Aubrey Plaza, Ali Wong, Natasha Lyonne) as well as, for a bit of typically Time gravitas, the NASA astronomer Ed Reynolds and the executive director of the American Library Association, Tracie D. Hall.

“Isn’t this fun,” the bearded Mr. Benioff said as celebrities streamed into the 16th floor at One Columbus Circle — a dual-tower building that was called the Time Warner Center upon its opening in 2004 and that now goes by Deutsche Bank Center.

Toasts were made to the actress Angela Bassett and to Ms. Hall, the first Black woman to head the American Library Association. Mr. Spielberg spoke from the stage about the importance of journalism. “We need the news as much as we need food, water and air,” he said, before praising Time for retaining its sense of mission while adapting to a changing culture.

With the backing of a billionaire, Time can afford to wait out a challenging period in the journalism business, according to the journalist Kara Swisher. “It’ll stand as long as he wants it,” she said at the party. Chief executives of publicly traded media companies — like Mr. Peretti at BuzzFeed — have no such luxury.

The ups and downs (especially the downs) of the business were a main topic of conversation at Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy, the site of the Thursday night book party for Mr. Smith, who spent eight years as the editor in chief of BuzzFeed News before leaving for a two-year stint as the media columnist at The New York Times.

The restaurant was packed. Waiters served meatballs and other hors d’oeuvres. Former colleagues of Mr. Smith’s were stacked at the bar. It seemed that everyone present had been personally affected by the vicissitudes of the digital-news economy.

“What we were spending our money on was journalism,” said Ellen Cushing, an editor who worked at Buzzfeed from 2015 to 2018 and now plies her trade at The Atlantic, a publication whose majority owner is the Emerson Collective, an organization founded by the billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs. “Now it seems naïve,” Ms. Cushing continued, “but I’m glad we did it.”

Mr. Smith’s book, “Traffic,” provides an insider’s account of the 2010s race between BuzzFeed and Gawker Media while making the case that the online ethos that came into being in digital media’s early years has shaped much of contemporary culture, for better and for worse.

Mr. Smith, 46, said he completed “Traffic” last summer, when BuzzFeed News was on life-support. In the final chapter, he attributed its downfall to how “elusive and expensive” it was to attract and maintain a robust audience, particularly when the same social media sites that delivered readers to BuzzFeed were cutting deeply into ad revenue.

It wasn’t lost on Mr. Smith that the restaurant gathering, a kind of coming-out party for him as an author, came a week after Mr. Peretti pulled the plug on BuzzFeed News.

“It is weird timing,” Mr. Smith said.

The book party for Mr. Smith took place about a week after the shuttering of BuzzFeed News, where he was editor in chief for eight years.Credit…Gus Aronson for The New York Times

Jessica Coen, who was formerly the top editor of Gawker and one of its spin off sites, Jezebel, stood by the bar. “I don’t know what the new model is,” she said when asked to assess the media business. “TikTok?” She was kidding. Sort of.

Although he had opined on the media industry in his columns for The Times and had written a book on the recent history of digital news, Mr. Smith sounded far from cocky on Thursday night when asked to predict the next big trend in his chosen field.

“I’m just a reporter,” he said. “I don’t see the future.”

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