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Oct. 18, 2022, 2:51 p.m.

The media startup Semafor launches with a “more honest” article format and lots of global ambition

“At some point, you get sick of pretending that this expert you’re quoting knows more than you do. Or that you have no opinion or you have no analysis of your own.”

Semafor has been buzzy from the beginning. Co-founders Ben Smith and Justin Smith left high-profile gigs as media columnist at The New York Times and Bloomberg Media CEO, respectively, to announce a joint effort designed to revive trust in journalism and revolutionize the news article format, with college-educated English speakers around the globe — all 200 million of ’em — as the audience.

Nine months, $25 million in private capital, and many Twitter ads later, Semafor is here. The news site launched on Tuesday with stories on a gruesome accident at SpaceX, House Republicans’ plan to investigate the Biden White House, and a third-party candidate on the rise in Nigeria, delivered in a new article format designed to be more transparent and trustworthy for readers than the traditional style. A roster of eight newsletters and a left-hand column of quick hits on stories like the artist formerly known as Kanye West’s planned acquisition of Parler and the Sri Lankan novelist Shehan Karunatilaka’s award of the Booker Prize round out the homepage.

Semafor debuts with a spiffy design that is vaguely European and distinctively yellow. (I’d hoped Semafor had a quirky name for the shade internally — “facts in flax”? “old lemon”? — but head of design Al Lucca said, “We call it Semafor Yellow.”) With clocks set to Washington, D.C., Brussels, Lagos, Dubai, Beijing, and Singapore time in the site’s header (sorry, London), Semafor shares more than a little design DNA with outlets like Quartz and Monocle that cater to a global business class crowd. You could faithfully describe the look as the Financial Times but yellow.

Two of the news startup’s biggest bets are that a new article format can improve trust in media and that it can be “a global news company at birth.” I spoke to co-founder and editor-in-chief Ben Smith and executive editor Gina Chua about both on the eve of their launch.

The Semaform structure — c’mon, it’s not a bad name — includes sections for straight facts, the reporter’s analysis, and various counter-narratives. There will also be some aggregation, or what Semafor refers to as “distilled news, analysis, and opinion from a global range of sources,” summarized so “readers don’t have to search the internet trying to triangulate the truth.” (“We read the beltway newsletters so you don’t have to.”) For fast-moving news, the “facts” section will be published first and the other sections will be filled out afterward.

The Semaform is preceded by other efforts to improve the news article to boost readability and trustworthiness. Some of those formats (Axios’s bullet point-heavy Smart Brevity style) have stuck around longer than others (Vox’s card stacks). And it should be noted that Semafor’s intended audience — namely, readers with college educations — already have higher levels of trust in media than those without degrees.

Smith and Chua were genuinely enthusiastic about the Semaform and said they’d found the structure complemented the newsroom’s natural workflow.

“My biggest worry was that reporters would be like, ‘This is incredibly clunky and I hate it,'” Smith said. “But we’ve found it’s a format that follows how you talk to your editor about a story.”

“I think this is exactly what editors do all the time,” Chua agreed. “Good editors take your story and hold you to account and say, ‘Well, have you thought about this? Have you thought about that?’ And what we’re doing here is taking that and putting it down in writing.”

From Politico to BuzzFeed News to The New York Times, Smith has been known, loved, and occasionally feared for his scoop-heavy style. How does he feel about delivering on that reputation given Semafor’s emphasis on this new, more structured format? (His inaugural media column on Tuesday follows it dutifully.)

“I definitely am obsessed with scoops and spent a lot of my career totally focused on getting scoops,” Smith said. But he’s more focused on addressing readers who feel overwhelmed by and distrustful of media than he has been in the past. “It took me awhile to realize that the reason people hate the news isn’t [that] we’re not giving them enough scoops.”

According to Chua and Smith, there hasn’t been much agonizing from the newsroom — about 60 people, more than half in editorial roles — over the Semaform structure categorizing some of the journalist’s own reporting as analysis or opinion.

“At some point, you get sick of pretending that this expert you’re quoting knows more than you do,” Smith said bluntly. “Or that you have no opinion or you have no analysis of your own.”

“Let’s face it, this is just more honest,” Chua said. “It’s just a much more honest way of looking at information and what reporters bring to a story.”

Along with the Semaform, the media startup’s other defining claim is that it’ll operate as a global newsroom.

Semafor’s About page describes the startup as a “global news company at birth,” but the international mix felt somewhat uneven on launch day. The outlet has made major hires to cover Africa, but on a staff list provided by Semafor, there were seven people listed as covering Washington, D.C. and just six grouped under “Global.” There are two separate newsletters that focus on American politics and one to cover the continent of Africa. Another newsletter, “Flagship,” will aim for a global outlook and be written from London.

The opportunity to hire editors Alexis Akwagyiram (formerly of the Financial Times) and Yinka Adegoke (previously an editor at Rest of World) helped convince Semafor to build out its Africa coverage first. Semafor also has open job listings for reporters based in Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa.

“We have a real size team that, frankly, rivals most of the major news organizations outside of the wires and the BBC” in Africa, Chua said. “We’re not foolish enough to say we’re going to cover the entire world as reporters from day one. We’re going to build that out over time, but this is a model for how we do it.”

“It’s a place we feel we can be competitive with other global organizations on day one,” Smith added.

Semafor Africa launches with “a real advertising business attached to it,” as Smith put it. (The U.S.-based chipmaker Qualcomm is listed as a launch partner for the vertical.)

“As we think about launching globally, we are trying to think about not just where’s the industry going to be, but where’s the world going to be?” Smith said. “The center of gravity is moving south and east. Obviously, if we were launching 40 years ago, we might have set up a headquarters in Paris.”

The Smiths have said news organizations can’t afford to be “ideological” about their business models. At launch, Semafor reported a revenue mix of 75% advertising and 25% event sponsorships with companies like Mastercard, Verizon, and Hyundai. There is an equity program to share profits with staffers. And co-founder Justin Smith, who will run Semafor’s business side as CEO, told CNBC that the news startup will introduce a paywall and subscriptions within the next 18 months.

“I think you have to do work that people really appreciate and then you do the math on what the best way is to support it,” Smith said recently. “The notion that you come in with a really strong view about which kinds of dollars are nicer than which other kinds of dollars just adds a huge, unnecessary obstacle to your survival.”

I asked Smith, who has done his fair share of media reporting, what questions he’d ask to try and gauge whether a newly-launched project was going to live up to its hype.

“Well, we’re all sort of scarred by our own past experiences,” Smith said. “I think the question probably is: is the journalism you’re doing really aligned with the business that will support it? That’s the real thing.”

POSTED     Oct. 18, 2022, 2:51 p.m.
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