Semafor prepares to enter the complicated digital news market

News articles will be divided into sections that distinguish fact from opinion. Reporter signatures will be as prominent as the headlines. And journalists will be able to offer their analysis on social networks.

Justin Smith and Ben Smith shocked the media world earlier this year when they said they would be leaving top jobs at Bloomberg Media and The New York Times to start a global news organization, Semafor. They said it would address a lack of trust in the media and compete for readers in English against outlets like CNN, The Times and The Washington Post.

Coverage is scheduled to begin this fall, they said in a recent interview, with a staff of about 30 journalists based in London, New York and Washington, DC, and one other international location, either in Africa or the Middle East. Initially, the operations will be backed by around $25 million from investors, with the first revenue coming from advertising and live events. They plan to eventually charge for subscriptions. They hired Rachel Oppenheim, an advertising executive for The Times, to be the company’s chief revenue officer.

The money to get started comes from a variety of wealthy people, including crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried and his brother Gabe; Jessica Lessin, the founder of The Information; David G. Bradley, Chairman Emeritus of The Atlantic; and John Thornton, co-founder of the American Journalism Project and The Texas Tribune. Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire founder of Bloomberg LP, took the plunge but decided not to invest.

Justin Smith, who had been CEO of Bloomberg Media, said Semafor’s decision to seek money from wealthy individuals rather than venture firms was a sign the founders weren’t looking to cash in anytime soon. In the interview, he said that he and Ben Smith, who was a media columnist at The Times, wanted to leave behind a news organization that would endure for generations. Both have committed to working on the project for at least 10 years.

He declined to provide a Semafor valuation. (Axios previously reported some details of Semafor’s financing.)

The company is entering an industry with few success stories. Digital media companies like BuzzFeed and Vice have struggled to live up to their lofty valuations, and economic pressure has forced them to scale back their international expansion.

“I think the business model conditions for global news outlets are better in 2022 than they have been since before the internet came along,” said Justin Smith, “and it has to do with the widespread and widespread adoption of subscriptions and the slowing control of technology platforms in global advertising markets.

Semafor will start with a website and electronic newsletters. Among his first hires: Liz Hoffman of The Wall Street Journal, who will lead business and finance coverage; Reed Albergotti of The Washington Post, who will lead technology reporting; and Kadia Goba, political reporter for BuzzFeed News. Ben Smith said he was close to hiring a reporter to work with him on a media column.

The founders hope to start by focusing on finance, technology, climate, international security, media, and US politics and policy.

Minimally designed with a pale yellow background and cobalt blue headlines, the news articles will be divided into sections to distinguish between factual information, reporter analysis, and a variety of perspectives on the news.

“We’re trying to take the black box of the news article, particularly a hard news story, and open it up on all axes,” said Ben Smith.

The reporters’ signatures will be similar in size to the headlines, as part of an effort to cultivate direct relationships between Semafor journalists and their audience. Employees will be encouraged to offer their own perspective on social media “in a fair and analytical manner,” Ben Smith said.

He said the company intended to have a different relationship with its reporters than other newsrooms, including making sure journalists receive “all or most” of the financial advantage of their intellectual property, such as book deals or copyrights. films.

Semafor partners with Gallup to use the polling organization’s data in coverage. Semafor has office space within Gallup’s spacious Washington headquarters and plans to use the location for events.

Semafor has hired Steve Clemons, a fixture in Washington’s political breakfast club world, to moderate the company’s on-stage interviews. Mr. Clemons, who has been criticized for harsh treatment of employees while at The Atlantic, will also co-author a morning newsletter focused on Washington politics and politics. Mr. Clemons said he is “laser focused” on building an inclusive culture at Semafor.

The company will hold its first event in July in Washington, part of a series on news and confidence. Gina Chua, executive editor of Semafor, will moderate a panel and Ben Smith will interview Taylor Lorenz, technology columnist for The Washington Post; John F. Harris, founder of Politico; and Tucker Carlson, the Fox News anchor.

The first few days have not been all smooth sailing. Caitlin Roman, Semafor’s product manager who joined from The Athletic, is leaving less than four months after being hired. In a LinkedIn post, Ms Roman said she was leaving to focus on raising her newborn.

Semafor has hired Kellen Henry, a product manager for Wirecutter, the Times-owned recommendation site, to replace Ms. Roman.

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