Semafor Readies Entry Into Tricky Digital News Market
News articles will be broken into sections distinguishing facts from opinion. Reporters’ bylines will be as prominent as headlines. And journalists will be permitted to offer their analysis on social media.
Justin Smith and Ben Smith surprised the media world early this year when they said they were leaving prominent jobs at Bloomberg Media and The New York Times to start a global news organization, Semafor. They said it would tackle the lack of trust in media and compete for English-language readers against outlets like CNN, The Times and The Washington Post.
The coverage is set to start this case, 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, either in Africa or the Middle East. The operations will initially be supported by around $25 million from investors, with early revenue coming from advertising and live events. They plan to eventually charge for subscriptions. They hired Rachel Oppenheim, an advertising executive at The Times, to be the company’s chief revenue officer.
The money to get started comes from a variety of wealthy people, including the 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, was pitched but decided not to invest.
Justin Smith, who had been the chief executive of Bloomberg Media, said Semafor’s decision to seek money from wealthy individuals rather than venture firms was a sign that the founders were not looking to cash out 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 last for generations. Both have committed to work on the project for at least 10 years.
He declined to provide a valuation for Semafor. (Axios earlier reported some details of Semafor’s funding.)
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 cut back on international expansion.
“I think the business model conditions for global news media are better in 2022 than they’ve ever been since before the internet arrived,” Justin Smith said, “and it has to do with the ubiquitous broad adoption of subscriptions and the loosening grip of tech platforms on global ad markets.”
Semafor will start with 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 head tech reporting; and Kadia Goba, a political reporter from BuzzFeed News. Ben Smith said he was close to hiring a reporter to work with him on a media column.
The founders expect to start with a focus on finance, technology, climate, international security, media and US politics and policy.
News articles, minimally designed with a pale yellow background and cobalt blue headlines, will be broken down into sections to distinguish between factual information, analysis from the reporter and a range of perspectives on the news.
“We’re trying to take the black box of the news article, particularly a reported hard-news piece, and open it up on every axis,” Ben Smith said.
Reporter bylines will be sized similarly to headlines, part of an effort to cultivate direct relationships between Semafor’s journalists and its audience. Employees will be encouraged to offer their own perspective on social media “in a fair, analytical way,” said Ben Smith.
He said the company aimed 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 movie rights.
Semafor is partnering with Gallup to use the polling organization’s data in coverage. Semafor has office space within Gallup’s airy Washington headquarters and plans to use the location for events.
Semafor has hired Steve Clemons, a fixture in the clubby world of Washington policy breakfasts, to serve as a moderator for the company’s onstage interviews. 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 focused 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 July in Washington, part of a series on news and trust. Gina Chua, Semafor’s executive editor, will moderate a panel, and Ben Smith will interview Taylor Lorenz, a tech columnist at The Washington Post; John F. Harris, a Politico founder; and Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host.
The early days haven’t been all smooth sailing. Caitlin Roman, Semafor’s product chief who joined from The Athletic, is departing less than four months after she was 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 at Wirecutter, the recommendations site owned by The Times, to step in for Ms. Roman.