It was this time last year that New York Times media columnist Ben Smith announced he’d be giving up one of the most coveted jobs in journalism. The former BuzzFeed editor’s abrupt departure quickly sparked a guessing game among media-watchers and members of the newsroom as to who would take his place. While Smith went on to build and launch Semafor, his new media start-up with cofounder Justin Smith, the Times has yet to fill his old slot.
I’m told people involved with hiring have solicited beat memos from journalists both inside and outside the paper, though it’s unclear what, if anything, has come of them. A few names outside have emerged as contenders, including the Washington Post media writer (and former Vanity Fair special correspondent) Sarah Ellison, former CNN anchor Brian Stelter, and Puck media columnist Dylan Byers; all three had conversations with newsroom leaders, according to sources. (Semafor’s Max Tani reported earlier on potential candidates in Smith’s new media newsletter, which is now blasted out on Sunday nights around the same time his old Times column used to appear online.) I’m told that Byers was in talks with management about the job but took himself out of the running late last year. Stelter, meanwhile, has had additional meetings with the Times in recent weeks.
It’s surprising for such a high-profile perch—one that Smith made a weekly destination for media junkies not seen since the David Carr era—to be dormant for this long. A Times insider last year told me that Smith’s departure presented an opportunity “for rethinking the focus” of its signature column. And yet, one person who talked to the Times for the gig told me they got the impression that the Times was still trying to figure out what they were doing with the column—and looking for a columnist to come to them with a clear vision for it. “We continue to seek to fill the position,” a Times spokesperson told me, “but don’t have anything further to share on our personnel processes.”
Meanwhile, the paper’s media coverage is without a permanent media editor ever since editor Jim Windolf moved to a new role in Styles about a year ago. Joe Plambeck, an editor on the Business desk, has been editing a lot of the section’s copy in the interim. The Times approached Financial Times US business editor Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson about the media editor job, according to a source familiar with the information. (Edgecliffe-Johnson declined to comment.)
Perhaps, one contributing factor to the delay is the number of cooks in the kitchen—among those involved in the columnist hiring process is business editor Ellen Pollock, deputy managing editor Sam Dolnick, and, of course, executive editor Joe Kahn—and the fact that the Times doesn’t seem to know what it even wants the column to be. That’s in stark contrast to Smith’s appointment, which famously came together after then executive editor Dean Baquet, knowing exactly what he wanted, took Smith out to a midwinter Lambs Club lunch.