Semafor, the Brainchild of Justin Smith and Ben Smith, Launches

From CJR’s The Media Today with Jon Allsop:

Yesterday, Semafor—a much-discussed yet hitherto-nonexistent news site—finally launched. The brainchild of Justin Smith, formerly the CEO of Bloomberg, and his namesake-but-not-relative Ben Smith, the muckraking former editor of BuzzFeed News and media columnist at the New York Times, the site takes its name from semaphore, the arm- and flag-based messaging system, in part because the word is the same (or similar) in multiple languages and Semafor wants to signal that it is a global newsroom.

The site’s homepage looks like a cross between an old-school newspaper A1 and the wall of a multinational corporate office, with clocks displaying the time in locales from Washington, DC, to Lagos. The design, which sits on a faded yellow background, quickly got tongues wagging online. It has already been compared, variously, to “a newspaper left out in the sun,” the cover of Taylor Swift’s album reputation, and “the Instagram intermediate photoshop flyers local DJs make for the events they have at their own house.”

We first heard about the idea that would become Semafor in early January, when the Times and the Wall Street Journal dropped dueling scoops respectively revealing the departures of Ben Smith and Justin Smith from their previous jobs. Ever since those early articles, it’s been clear that the Smiths intend for their new venture to be global and to tackle the thorny media problems of declining trust and growing polarization. But their ambitions have sometimes been stated in wishy-washy or, erm, contestable terms, as when Ben Smith said, in the initial Times story, that the site would be pitched at the “200 million people who are college educated, who read in English, but who no one is really treating like an audience,” or added, in a later Times story, that it would seek to “take the black box of the news article, particularly a reported hard-news piece, and open it up on every axis” (by having big bylines and by visually separating out facts and opinion). As the months rolled by, Semaforoften attracted feverish attention (and, sometimes, skepticism) from the media press—the Times ran so many stories on its former staffer’s new venture that Politico’s Jack Shafer begged it to stop—not least in July, when it held an inaugural live event that included Ben Smith in conversation with Tucker Carlson. Meanwhile, the site raised twenty-five million dollars and made dozens of impressive hires, adding Gina Chua, a top editor at Reuters, as executive editor; Yinka Adegoke, formerly of Quartz and Rest of World, as Africa editor; and Politico’s Max Tani as a media reporter, to name but a few.

Yesterday, we saw some of these hires’ first Semafor articles. We also got a better sense of what Ben Smith meant by opening up the black box of the news article as the site debuted a new story template that it is calling “a Semaform,” because of course it is. Author bylines are, as promised, as prominent as headlines, but the meat of the Semaform concept comes in the text of the story itself, which is broken into distinct sections, each preceded by a capitalized subheading: “THE NEWS” (or “THE SCOOP”), offering the “undisputed facts” of a given story; “THE REPORTER’S VIEW,” which is what it sounds like, with an emphasis on “analysis”; “ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT,” which is also what it sounds like; “THE VIEW FROM,” promising “different and more global perspectives” on the story in question; and “NOTABLE,” linking out to worthwhile related coverage from other outlets. Chua explained what Semaform is in an article (“ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT: More transparency may build more trust, but only for people who actually read our articles”) and a video. The site also posted a (vaguely messianic) video talking through the impetus for its new approach and featuring interviews about the state of news today with other journalists, some of them very respected, like Maria Ressa, some of them Piers Morgan, like Piers Morgan.

Jon’s View

If you couldn’t tell yet, I’m writing this review in Semaform which means it’s time for the bit where I offer my analysis, though I may accidentally also have done that in the “undisputed facts” section above. My flippancy here has a serious point to it: my biggest problem with the Semaform, at least so far, is that it seems inflexible, particularly when it comes to the “reporter’s view” section. Some of the Semafor stories I read yesterday offered what was clearly analysis in this section, though it rarely seemed particularly pointed or personal and sometimes it didn’t read much like a point of view at all, but rather a continuation of the reporting above; indeed, at least one story contained sources’ quotes in this section. If the separation of factsand analysis is supposed to aid clarity and boost trust, then the two need to be consistently distinguishable; where they blur together, the separation just adds more confusion. Of course, it’s still (very) early days for the Semaform; reporters from rigid news backgrounds, in particular, might take time to find their feet in the analysis space. But it’s not clear to me that separating facts and analysis is even possible. News, analysis, and opinion are fluid and often ill-defined modes, and the distinction between them can itself be highly subjective. Doesn’t a reporter apply “analysis” when they decide what story to write in the first place, or what facts to center?

I have some other reservations—or, at least, potential reservations—about Semafor so far. The “room for disagreement” rubric, if not policed carefully, could slide into stale bothsidesism. (Joe Biden won in 2020. Room for disagreement?) More broadly, every story served to me on Semafor’s homepage yesterday, bar a story by Adegoke about an upcoming election in Nigeria, was either centrally about the US, or concerned the US as a global actor. There’s nothing wrong with either of these things—in a globalized world, certainly not the latter—and news briefs down the side of the homepage did cover an impressive array of international stories, albeit, well, in brief. Semafor has also said explicitly that it’s still building out its global footprint, and that’s fine, too. It also says on its “About” page, however, that it is a “global news company at birth.” Comments that Ben Smith and Chua gave to Nieman Lab on this language suggest that they see it as reflective of a sensibility, not a finished offer. But the launch could have done more to centrally assert this sensibility. The site’s first top story being a Ben Smith column about newsroom drama at the Times did not scream global sensibility to me.

Room for Disagreement

There’s a lot to like about the concept of the Semaform, at least in theory. To assess it in reverse order, the existence of a dedicated section for linking to other outlets’ work is a hopeful nod away from the industry notion that something is only news when your outlet has covered it. “Room for disagreement” could go down a “both sides” route, but it could also easily be used more intelligently; along with the “view from” rubric, it could become a way to hardwire needed nuance into every story. (I try to bring nuance to this newsletter, and have found my contrived borrowing of the Semaform today to be, if anything, an aide in that.) Even if I have my doubts about the possibility of separating news and analysis, part of Semafor’s stated reason for attempting to do so—to communicate to readers that reporters do have views—is welcome in an industry whose higher echelons remain hooked on a caricature of objective journalistic detachment. Most importantly, of course, it’s way too early to judge any of this definitively. Indeed, Semafor has already demonstrated receptiveness to reader feedback. When it launched, its paragraphs all opened with distracting bold font. Within hours, that was gone.

The early reviews that I’ve seen of Semafor—and of Semaform—have often been positive, if not uncritically so. Ultimately, the site has hired a lot of excellent journalists and editors, and, if its launch-day slate is any guide, it looks as though it will do a lot of very good journalism. Still, if my initial reaction to the idea that would become Semafor was conceptual confusion about its target audience—English-reading college graduates are not an underserved demographic; often, they trust the media more than others—at least some of that confusion persists. In an interview with Insider to mark the launch, Justin Smith described the target audience as news “omnivores” and “opinion leaders” in business, finance, and tech. Again, hardly underserved.

And people involved with Semafor have made a lot of lofty claims that go beyond doing very good journalism. Justin Smith told the AP that the site “is obsessed with solving a number of big consumer frustrations that we see in the news business, primarily polarization” (others, he told Insider, include “bias,” “social media distortion,” “information overload,” and “the increasing blending of news and opinion”); he and others have also claimed to be reinventing a “core unit of journalism”—the article—that hasn’t really evolved in “literally hundreds and hundreds of years.” In fact, there have always been many ways of writing a news article. Even efforts to break it down into explicit components are not new; Axios literally just wrote the book on it.

In her interview with Ben Smith, Nieman Lab’s Sarah Scire asked him what questions he’d ask, as a veteran media reporter, “to try and gauge whether a newly-launched project was going to live up to its hype.” Smith’s suggestion: “Is the journalism you’re doing really aligned with the business that will support it?” That’s a good question. But it’ll also be fair to ask, eventually (and the Smiths have set a decade-long timeline for success), whether Semafor has made any meaningful progress toward “solving” the titanic, existential media crises namechecked by Smith. It needn’t do so to be a great site. But in selling itself, it has promised to try.

Below, more on Semafor

  • The business side: According to Justin Smith, Semafor will plan to transition toward a paid-subscription model within the next year to eighteen months, though to start with it will be free to read and funded by advertising, with debut ad partners including Verizon and Pfizer, CNBC’s Alex Sherman reports. “We’re operating in a specific part of the advertising market, which is corporate reputation and brand advertising,” Rachel Oppenheim, Semafor’s chief revenue officer, told Sherman. Recent big-money digital-media sales have given Semafor “a path toward building and selling a business for hundreds of millions of dollars,” Sherman writes, “though Justin Smith said he hasn’t had any conversations about selling at a specific valuation with Semafor’s investors.”
  • Day one: Yesterday evening, CNN’s Oliver Darcy spoke with a “delirious” Ben Smith, who had been up since 4am, to find out how he felt Semafor’s debut had gone. “It was remarkably smooth,” Smith said, adding that he was “really pleased that people seemed to like the format” of the articles given that the site had made a “big bet” on it. Smith also confirmed that Semafor had consciously junked the use of bold text at the beginning of paragraphs in response to feedback. (Readers had previously noted the change online.)
  • Bennet Smith: While Smith’s article on the Times yesterday may have struck me as an odd debut for a global news site, it did contain plenty of interesting nuggets about the paper for media-watchers, not least the first on-the-record interview that James Bennet—who was fired as the Times’s opinion editor in 2020 amid a staff revolt over a controversial op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton, and now writes for The Economist—has given since his ouster. At the time, Bennet was conciliatory about the decision to run the op-ed, but he told Smith that he now makes no apology for it. He also excoriated A.G. Sulzberger, the Times’s publisher, claiming that Sulzberger missed a chance to make clear that the Times “doesn’t exist just to tell progressives how progressives should view reality,” and that “he set me on fire and threw me in the garbage.”
  • Trust in news: In an introductory note to readers, Ben Smith cited new data from Gallup, a partner of Semafor, showing that Americans’ trust in the news media remains near its all-time low. Only thirty-four percent of respondents believe that the media will report the news “fully, accurately, and fairly,” just two points higher than Gallup’s lowest ever recording, in 2016. Faith in the media, meanwhile, remains sharply divided along partisan lines, with seventy percent of Democrats, fourteen percent of Republicans, and twenty-seven percent of independents expressing a great deal or fair amount of trust.

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