Ben Smith sets off Andrew Sullivan’s ‘Orwell bells’ in Flatiron fracas

Ben Smith; Andrew Sullivan. ()
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A standing-room-only crowd packed the hang-out area on the 11th floor of Buzzfeed's Flatiron District headquarters last night, draining plastic wine glasses and beer bottles, but tasting blood.

On the docket was a panel discussion featuring Ben Smith, Buzzfeed's editor-in-chief, and Andrew Sullivan, blogger of the first wave who recently hung out his own shingle, taking a blog that had lived previously at The Atlantic and The Daily Beast independent. The evening was part of a sometimes crushingly tradey Social Media Week series of events, but this one was staged as a duel.

Smith, recently profiled in the Styles section of The New York Times as a sort of wonder boy but really a long-time politics blogger who'd hung his hat at The New York Sun, The New York Observer, the Daily News and Politico before becoming the chief editor of Buzzfeed, is a vocal advocate of new models for news revenue like "native advertising" and "sponsored content"—"words that set off my Orwell bells," as Sullivan would put it during a rambunctious, more-than-an-hour-long debate that at times seemed uncomfortably heated, and of which the moderator, Atlantic business editor Derek Thompson, lost almost all control.

The stage had been set earlier in the day when Sullivan skewered Buzzfeed's next-generation advertorial model on his two-week-old subscription-based site, The Dish.

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It basically came down to this: The type of in-house, advertiser-funded content that Buzzfeed and other online publications label as sponsored yet publish in their standard editorial templates is anathema to Sullivan, who believes readers are being duped. Smith argues that discerning readers have no trouble distinguishing sponsored content from reportage and that Buzzfeed's church-state firewall has remained intact.

Sullivan wasn't buying it.

"The more I think about it, the more troubled I am by this," he said. "If journalism is not understood to be separate from advertising, then it has lost something incredibly important in a democratic society."

Later on: "I'm not being a fuddy-duddy about this," said Sullivan. "I think every possible avenue [for making money] is worth exploring. But I don't want to destroy the village in order to save it."

Smith fought back.

"I mean, this is a great argument," he said, "against virtually the entire media industry except The Dish," which does not accept advertising (yet) but managed to raise more than $500,000 in subscription sales prior to its Feb. 4 launch.

"Our writers aren't immersed in our ads," he added. "There's a real separation."

In the end, there was no clear winner (they more or less kissed and made up)—although you might say Sullivan, who grudgingly moved to New York from D.C. four months ago, nabbed the award for "Best Histrionics" with a few of his closing remarks.

"Some part of me just grieves, grieves at the thought that the magazine of Thoreau and Longfellow" is running full-page campaigns from corporations like Chevron, he said, referring to The Atlantic, which also recently came under fire for publishing a sponsored Scientology post on its website.

"I came to New York to understand how this business is trying to maintain," he continued a few minutes later, "and everything I've learned has really disturbed me."

You can watch some clips from the conversation below, courtesy of Jesse Ferrell: