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.
The evening’s biggest star might have been Marc Benioff, the Silicon Valley billionaire who, with his wife, Lynne, bought Time for $190 million from the Meredith Corporation in 2018. It is likely that there would have been no Time 100 party, and perhaps no Time, if he had not swooped in to take ownership of the publication that was the pre-eminent newsweekly when newsweeklies were still a thing.
On Mr. Benioff’s watch, Time has struck partnership deals with streaming platforms for documentaries and ramped up its events business. The Time 100 party that was once an extension of the brand has arguably become its centerpiece. This year’s bash was part of a weeklong conference, the Time 100 Summit, that included onstage talks with Steven Spielberg; Kim Kardashian; the former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; the New Hampshire governor, Chris Sununu; and the W.N.B.A. star Nneka Ogwumike.
“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.
Mr. Benioff, 58, made much of his fortune in the software business, as the leader of Salesforce. Now he is part of a topsy-turvy business that, in the days leading up to the soiree, passed through a period of volatility marked by the suspension of operations of Paper Magazine, a fizzy chronicler of New York’s downtown scene; the firings of Tucker Carlson at Fox News, Don Lemon at CNN and Jeff Shell at NBC; and the decision by Fox News to pay its way out of a defamation suit filed by Dominion Voting Systems with $787.5 million.
Mr. Benioff brushed off a reporter’s question about all that, saying, “Let’s ignore the other stuff.”
Time published its first list of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2004 and quickly seized on it as an opportunity to generate publicity through an annual tie-in party filled with celebrity guests. (Think: Met Gala, with nerds.) This year’s bash was filmed as a special for ABC.
As Mr. Benioff settled in for the evening, Ms. Kardashian ambled by in a cream-colored John Galliano gown. On the red carpet down the hall stood Mr. Lemon, who had lost his job two days earlier, partly because of misogynistic comments he had made on the air. Unemployed but unbowed, he gave interviews to Access Hollywood, E! and Page Six TV.
Many of Mr. Lemon’s statements from the anchor desk were confounding, but there was something shrewd and of the moment about his decision not to lie low after taking a hit.
“People keep asking me if I’m OK,” Mr. Lemon said. “I come from tough Louisiana stock. I’m fine.” He added that he was looking forward to spending the summer on the beach.
Nicki Cox, a reporter for the Page Six column in The New York Post, stood off to the side, head tilted. Even this gossip writer seemed puzzled by the notion that a person who had been in the news for all the wrong reasons would show up on a red carpet as if nothing had happened. “When I saw him,” Ms. Cox said, “I actually thought there was something wrong with my eyes.”
The CNN chairman Chris Licht, who was largely responsible for the firing of Mr. Lemon, stood nearby, in the cocktail area, with Ms. Coolidge and the actress Tiffany Haddish. Soon the guests moved to their tables inside a tiered banquet hall. Waiters served red wine and a salad that looked as if it had been put together by a landscape architect.
Cameras hovered as Ms. Coolidge — in the role of M.C. — made self-deprecating jokes about how strange it was to be honored alongside climate scientists who are “calculating exactly how long it will take us to die.” She was referring to Britney Schmidt and Peter Davis, who have studied the damage done to the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica.
Another Time 100 honoree, Doja Cat, a singer and rapper who gained a record deal after coming to prominence through a viral TikTok video, performed her songs “Woman” and “Say So.” Because the event was as much a TV production as a party, she was asked to redo the second song because of a technical glitch.
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.
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.
In walked Arianna Huffington, who started The Huffington Post in 2005. Not long after it began, Mr. Peretti, one of her fellow founders, started working in his spare time on an experiment in viral media that would become BuzzFeed. Once the site gained traction with readers, it put a scare in established media outlets.
In 2011, Mr. Smith, then a reporter at Politico, came aboard as the founding editor of BuzzFeed’s newly created news division. He stayed until 2020, when he joined The Times. He returned to the start-up world last year with Semafor, a digital news site that he founded with the media executive Justin Smith.
BuzzFeed News won a Pulitzer Prize in international reporting after Mr. Smith’s departure from the site. But it was facing stiff headwinds, and his successor as editor in chief, Mark Schoofs, stepped down last year, as did two other top editors. In advance of going public, BuzzFeed acquired HuffPost (as the site was renamed) from Verizon Media. Since then, Ms. Huffington said at the book party, BuzzFeed News had become less of a journalistic force. And now it’s gone.
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.”