Semaphor Readies Entry In Tricky Digital News Market

News articles will be divided into sections that distinguish facts of opinion. Reporters’ bylines will be as prominent as headlines. And journalists will be allowed to present their analysis on social media.

Justin Smith and Ben Smith surprised the media world earlier this year when they announced they were leaving prominent jobs at Bloomberg Media and The New York Times to start a global news organization, Semafor. They said it would address the lack of trust in media and compete for English-language readers against stores such as CNN, The Times and The Washington Post.

The coverage is set 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 another international location, whether in Africa or the Middle East. The operations will initially be supported by about $ 25 million from investors, with early revenue coming from advertising and live events. They plan to eventually pay for subscriptions. They hired Rachel Oppenheim, an advertising manager at The Times, to be the company’s chief revenue officer.

The money to start 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, emeritus chairman 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, was fired, but decided not to invest.

Justin Smith, who had been the CEO of Bloomberg Media, said Semafor’s decision to seek money from wealthy people instead of venture companies was a sign that the founders were not looking to exchange quickly. In the interview, he said he and Ben Smith, who was a media columnist for The Times, wanted to leave behind a news organization that would last for generations. Both have committed themselves to working on the project for at least 10 years.

He refused to give a rating to Semaphore. (Axios previously reported some details on the financing of Semafor.)

The company enters an industry with a few success stories. Digital media companies like BuzzFeed and Vice are struggling to live up to their high ratings, and economic pressures have forced them to cut back on international expansion.

“I think the conditions for business models for global news media are better in 2022 than they have ever been since before the advent of the Internet,” said Justin Smith, “and it has to do with the ubiquity broad acceptance of subscriptions and the loosening grip of technology. platforms on global advertising markets.

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

The founders expect to begin with a focus on finance, technology, climate, international security, media and American politics and policy.

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

“We try to take the black box of the news article, especially a reported hard news piece, and open it on every axis,” said Ben Smith.

Reporters’ bylines will be similar to headlines, part of an effort to cultivate direct relationships between Semaphore’s journalists and their audiences. Employees will be encouraged to offer their own perspective on social media “in an honest, analytical way,” Ben Smith said.

He said the company intended to have a different relationship with its reporters than other newsrooms, including by ensuring that journalists receive “all or most” of the financial upside of their intellectual property, such as book deals or film rights.

Semafor is working with Gallup to use the polling organization’s data in coverage. Semafor has office space inside Gallup’s airy Washington headquarters and plans to use the location for events.

Semafor has hired Steve Clemons, a fixture in the club world of Washington policy mornings, to serve as a moderator for the interviews on the company stage. Mr. Clemons, who has been criticized for harsh treatment of employees while at The Atlantic, will also be one of the authors of a morning newsletter focusing on Washington politics and policy. Mr. Clemons said he is “laser-focused” on building an inclusive culture at Semafor.

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

The early days did not all go smoothly. Caitlin Roman, Semafor’s product manager who joined The Athletic, leaves less than four months after she was hired. In a LinkedIn post, Ms. Roman said she left to focus on raising her newborn.

Semaphore has hired Kellen Henry, a product manager at Wirecutter, The Times’ recommendation site, to step in for Ms. Roman.


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