#SFSNYC: Investor Ted Leonsis and BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith on Media and the Local Economy

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Left to right: Ben Smith, editor-in-chief, BuzzFeed, speaks with Ted Leonsis, founder/partner, Revolution Growth
Left to right: BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith speaks with Revolution Growth founder/partner Ted Leonsis

The Street Fight Summit played host to a fireside chat between BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith and Ted Leonsis, co-founder of and partner in the “speed-up capital” Revolution Growth Fund II, which currently has investments in 12 companies, including Bigcommerce, Booker, RunKeeper, and sweetgreen. The wide-ranging conversation touched on Leonsis’s decades of local economy expertise, stemming from his many investments in and experiences with media ventures, professional sports teams, and ecommerce ventures, including Groupon.

Leonsis said there are four defining features of a community: universities, which represent “longevity, research dollars, and jobs;” iconic real estate; public space; and sports teams, which have “an essential role in community psyche and well-being.”

Asked whether he considered media an important local institution, Leonsis responded with a question: “Is the media pushing an agenda or reflecting what’s out there?,” adding, “New media like BuzzFeed really is more in tune and in touch with what matters, because it’s based more on muscle memory and clickstreams and the real-time zeitgeist of what’s going on.”

Still, Smith noted that new media companies are “shifting away from the cities,” and focusing on national coverage from day one, leaving a gap in local news. Leonsis, who lives in Potomac, M.D., used his hometown as an example of how old and new media are neglecting local. He mentioned the Washington Post as technically one of his local publications, but said it’s more focused on competing on a national level. “I’m really interested in what’s going on in my city,” he said. “It’s a center for our family, yet it’s not covered well. There’s opportunity there.”

Citing hyperlocal news network Patch, Leonsis noted that many local publications are struggling to make enough money to fund their journalism. Although he and Smith didn’t spend much time on the topic of media businesses models, Leonsis stressed throughout the conversation the importance of considering news and content alongside local advertising and commerce. Consumers spend the most money within 20 miles of their home, an interconnectedness that should, theoretically, make the components of a hyperlocal community come together and work in sync. Unfortunately, the winning formula for doing so has yet to emerge.

Leonsis tapped into his knowledge of local commerce by offering his view on Groupon, calling it “a very misunderstood company.” He added: “It scaled and grew very quickly — perhaps it got too hyperlocal. It’s in more than 700 cities, and when you spread that thin, getting density in the amount of offers becomes difficult. But local ecommerce will continue to grow, and Groupon is the only company that has reached some kind of scale.”

It remains to be seen whether the success of an online media company like BuzzFeed can be harnessed in any capacity on a hyperlocal level. Although there’s plenty of movement in the local economy in general, “no one has broken the code on good editorial on a hyperlocal basis,” Leonsis said.