Semafor Readies Entry Into Tricky Digital News Market

News articles will be divided into sections distinguishing fact from opinion. The signatures of journalists will be as important as the headlines. And journalists will be allowed to offer their analysis on social networks.

Justin Smith and Ben Smith surprised the media world earlier this year when they announced they were leaving senior positions at Bloomberg Media and The New York Times to create a global news organization, Semafor. They said it would solve the lack of trust in the media and compete for English-language readers at outlets like CNN, The Times and The Washington Post.

Coverage is expected to begin this fall, they said in a recent interview, with a team of around 30 reporters based in London, New York and Washington, D.C., and another international location, either in Africa or the Middle East. . Operations will initially be backed by approximately $25 million in investors, with early revenue coming from advertising and live events. They plan to eventually charge for subscriptions. They hired Rachel Oppenheim, head of advertising at The Times, to be the company’s chief revenue officer.

The money to start comes from various wealthy people, including crypto-billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried and his brother Gabe; Jessica Lessin, 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 introduced 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 people rather than venture companies 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 last for generations. Both have pledged to work on the project for at least 10 years.

He declined to provide a valuation for Semafor. (Axios earlier reported some details about Semafor’s funding.)

The company enters an industry with few successes. 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 international expansion.

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

Semafor will start with a website and email newsletters. Among its first recruits: Liz Hoffman of the Wall Street Journal, who will lead economic and financial coverage; Reed Albergotti of the Washington Post, who will lead technical reporting; and Kadia Goba, political reporter for BuzzFeed News. Ben Smith said he was about to hire a reporter to work with him on a media column.

The founders plan to begin by focusing on finance, technology, climate, international security, media, and American politics and politics.

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

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

Journalist bylines will be the same size as headlines, as part of an effort to cultivate direct relationships between Semafor journalists and its audience. Employees will be encouraged to offer their own perspective on social media “in a fair and analytical way,” Ben Smith said.

He said the company aims to have a relationship with its journalists that is different from that of other newsrooms, including ensuring that journalists receive “all or most” of the financial benefit from their intellectual property, like book deals or movie rights.

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

Semafor hired Steve Clemons, a fixture in the clubby world of Washington political breakfasts, to serve as moderator for the company’s on-stage interviews. Mr Clemons, who has come under fire for the harsh treatment of employees at The Atlantic, will also co-author a morning bulletin focusing on Washington politics and politics. Mr Clemons said he was “laser focused” on creating an inclusive culture at Semafor.

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

The first days were not easy. Caitlin Roman, Semafor’s product manager who joined 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 baby.

Semafor has hired Kellen Henry, product manager at Wirecutter, the Times-owned recommendations site, to replace Ms Roman.

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