Justin Smith and Ben Smith are not related, nor did it seem likely that they’d ever become partners; the first time they met, it didn’t go so well. It was 2008, at Big Nick’s Burger Joint & Pizza Joint Too, a narrow dive on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Ben had picked the place. Justin, with wavy blond hair and blue eyes, was thirty-nine, and had just been hired by David Bradley, the owner of The Atlantic, to make the magazine modern—and solvent. He was a jet-setter with fluent French and conversational Mandarin, an oenophile, an executive schmoozer. He floated in wearing a navy suit and tie, shoes polished, looking out of place. He took a seat at a cramped wooden booth by a wall of D-list celebrity headshots. Ben arrived soon after, in a rumpled, boxy blazer. (“An editor had told me that I needed either a suit or a beard to look like an adult,” he recalled. “And I couldn’t grow facial hair.”) He was thirty-two, an overcaffeinated former city hall reporter for the New York Daily News, by then a star blogger for Politico covering that year’s presidential race. He had brown hair and full cheeks. Recently, he had become a father of two; he was in the midst, he said, of “one of those moments in parenting when you are just melting down.” His wife, his toddler, and the new baby were camped out at his parents’ apartment on 77th Street and Riverside Drive, in need of sleep. Big Nick’s was around the corner.
At the table was a heaping bowl of pickles that had been sitting there for an indeterminate number of days—or weeks, possibly. Diners stuck their fingers in the same dish, night after night. Ben liked that about Big Nick’s. Justin got to the point: He was reinventing The Atlantic for the digital age and had exciting plans. He was going to drop the paywall and hire a Murderers’ Row of new writers. “The Atlantic really, as a brand, was always a vessel for the voices of its writers, going back a hundred and fifty years,” Justin said. “They published Longfellow and Emerson. So blogging was sort of a natural expression of that exact identity.” He already had Andrew Sullivan, Megan McArdle, and Ta-Nehisi Coates lined up. Would Ben like to join this “elite group of intellectual bloggers”?
Justin recalled Ben’s face: “looking past me, just a little distracted and not really attaching at all to any of my pitch.”
“No,” Ben told him. “I’m not really interested.” In retrospect, Ben figures, the idea went over his head. At that point, he said, “I had not thought ever in my life at all about the business of media.”
Justin was taken aback. “I remember just being like, ‘Wow, not only did my sales pitch to join The Atlantic totally fail, but he was incredibly direct with me about it.’ He didn’t just disappear over email.”
A lot can change in a decade. If, at the time of their first meeting, the Smiths inhabited different journalism worlds, the years brought them closer, as Ben left Politico for BuzzFeed, where he was charged with building a news operation from scratch. By necessity, he became an expert in digital media, and so joined Justin in the small, clubby pantheon of figures fumbling in the darkness for hope as the traditional news-business models collapsed. They encountered each other at various events for “thought leaders.” They stayed in touch. In 2017, Ben invited Justin, who by then was the CEO of Bloomberg Media, out to Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco, for a few days of mind-melding with other tech and media machers, such as Noah Shachtman (then of the Daily Beast, now Rolling Stone; Justin knew him in college), Lydia Polgreen (then the editor of HuffPost, now a New York Times columnist), and Jessica Lessin (founder of The Information, a technology-news site), among others.
In January 2018, Ben was at Davos, sitting on a bench outside a room in the main conference center. He was staking out Steven Mnuchin, the secretary of the treasury. Justin spotted Ben and took a seat beside him. “Do you think,” he asked, “there’s space in the media industry for a new independent global news outlet?” The conversation was to be the first in a series that would result, four years later, in Semafor, a website and newsletter outlet. Its debut, in October, was obsessed over by the media chattering class with the intensity of a British royal wedding.
The Smiths have billed Semafor as the product of their combined lessons from the front lines of digital media. It aims to serve what Justin describes as an “elite global audience” consisting of “two hundred million educated, English-speaking readers.” They have already raised twenty-five million dollars; hired about sixty employees, more than half of them reporters; and stockpiled whatever scoops they could. At launch, they unveiled an African edition, run by Yinka Adegoke, a seasoned Nigerian journalist, and have plans to introduce regional coverage in the Middle East, Europe, Asia (including Japan and India), and Brazil. Crucially, they have promised to call their shots straight down the middle, by introducing the “Semaform,” with section headers intended to distinguish among accepted facts, analysis, and alternate views. “You’ve got to have new information that nobody else has,” Justin told me. “But then, when someone sees that and is interested in it, they’ve got to come back to a product that they just are absolutely delighted by and will stick to.” He and Ben have committed to work at Semafor for ten years. Whether they’ll want to keep that promise is another question.
When he was a kid, Justin Smith’s father took him to a movie hall in Paris to see Lawrence of Arabia. Smith remembers being captivated by the Saharan landscapes, the epic scope and adventure. In spite of its colonialism, Smith said, “out of loyalty to my father” it remains his favorite film. Most of Justin’s childhood was spent in Paris, in the seventh arrondissement, a fashionable neighborhood of elegant homes along the left bank of the Seine. His mother, Patricia, was a sculptor, from blue-collar Manchester, England, who’d come to Paris as a secretary. Justin’s father, Damon, was New England–born, a Hotchkiss man and Yale graduate, an officer in the Navy who would go on to become president of the American University of Paris. They’d met when both were working at the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (unesco), the agency charged with promoting and protecting world cultures. As a boy, Justin was a daily reader of the International Herald Tribune, a “nerdy little international kid,” he said, who developed a “party trick” of sharing obscure news items with adults. During the family’s annual trip to Venice, he insisted that they keep CNN on in the hotel room.
When Justin entered the eighth grade, his parents sent him to the Fessenden School, in Massachusetts, which he attended for two years. Then it was on to Phillips Academy in Andover. There, Smith played on the soccer, tennis, and paddle tennis teams. He was also sportswriter and editor for the weekly Andover newspaper, The Phillipian, writing under the pseudonym Samuel Phillips to disguise the conflict of interest that arose when covering his own matches. On Thursday nights, he drove down to Harvard to oversee the printing of the paper, which he enjoyed watching roll off the press. (The Harvard Crimson has its own printing system that services local high schools.) One of his favorite classes was Mandarin, and he traveled through a student exchange program to Harbin, a city in northeastern China near the Russian border that required a three-day-long Lawrence of Arabia–like odyssey through airports, remote roads, and villages—an adventure he called a “life-transforming experience.”
For college, Justin attended the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. During an internship at the State Department, he caught the attention of Edward Brynn, a senior diplomat in the Bureau of African Affairs, who was later appointed ambassador to Burkina Faso. After Justin graduated, he headed for the capital city of Ouagadougou, to serve as Brynn’s assistant. Brynn, who did not have a deputy chief of mission, often sent Justin, then twenty-two, to represent the US at diplomatic events. When Justin eventually returned to Washington, DC—where he worked in the operations center, the secretary of state’s global monitoring office—he felt restless. “Honestly, it felt like it was just moving so slowly,” he said. “The government was so bureaucratic.”
He applied to law school, then fired off a letter to the publisher of his childhood newspaper, the IHT, asking for a job and noting that he spoke Mandarin. There was no place for him in the newsroom, but he was offered a desk in Hong Kong with a phone and told to figure out new ways to make money for the company outside of advertising and subscriptions. It was the early nineties, and the world was still reeling from the massacre at Tiananmen Square. China was isolated. Fresh out of the State Department, where Justin had watched high-level diplomacy play out in (painfully slow) real time, he suggested the IHT convene global business leaders in Beijing, invite high-ranking Chinese officials, and call it a “China Summit.” Other newspapers had held events before, but nothing on this scale. Justin’s summit drew five hundred CEOs from around the world along with Chinese leaders, including Jiang Zemin, the general secretary, and Li Peng, his deputy; it generated impressive sponsorship revenue for the paper. He followed up with similar summits in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and India. Within months, he was bringing so much money into the company that he was summoned to Paris to work as an assistant to the publisher; by twenty-four, he was traveling the world setting up new IHT printing sites in South Africa, Malaysia, Thailand, Israel, and Greece. Law school was out the door.
In 2000, he moved to The Economist, where he started an array of specialty websites aimed at finance executives; he traveled Asia looking for acquisitions. After that, he was recruited to open a US edition of The Week. He landed at The Atlantic in 2007. Back in Washington, Smith distinguished himself for being bold, and occasionally for upsetting the journalists who worked for him. At a staff meeting in 2012, he described the print magazine as an “albatross around the neck” of the company. He told David Carr, who was writing the media column for the New York Times, that he hoped to transform The Atlantic from “the Royal Navy” into “the pirate ship attacking the Royal Navy.” He could be stubborn, a taskmaster, irritating to those standing in his way. C-suite executives loved him. Jay Lauf, who was brought on to serve as the magazine’s publisher, attributes Justin’s success to “an almost boyish charm,” a willingness to “wear his excitement on his sleeve.” While many media companies cemented their paywalls, Justin made The Atlantic’s website free, and focused on cultivating a well-heeled audience that advertisers would pay to reach. At a meeting, the General Motors CMO in charge of Cadillac was so spellbound by Justin’s pitch that he called up the GM marketing department and committed five hundred thousand dollars in ads to the site while they were still sitting across from each other.
Justin put together buzzy salons and parties. He likes to dance; he enjoys African music and the Grateful Dead. He started dating Uma Thurman, who told the Times, of their relationship: “I’m a news lover.” He tried to prove that even the staid-seeming Atlantic could be contemporary and surprising. To celebrate the debut of Quartz—“We named it Quartz,” Kevin Delaney, who ran the editorial side, said at the time, “after the mineral that’s a key component of tectonic shifts”—he hosted a raucous event at the Hotel Gansevoort, in the meatpacking district, featuring a pants-less go-go dancer with angel wings and a pair of identically dressed performance artists known as AndrewAndrew, who would soon appear on Girls. That year, Atlantic Media properties doubled their revenue; money spent on the magazine’s digital products accounted for 65 percent of its total advertising revenue.
While T.E. Lawrence captured the imagination of young Justin, Ben Smith’s childhood hero was his grandfather Robert Smith, a former journalist and novelist who ghostwrote a book for Mickey Mantle. He told his grandson, “I write for my friends, and my friends aren’t intellectuals.” Robert grew up in Irish Boston, dropped out of college, moved to Maine to become a logger, and ended up working as a night clerk in a hotel, where he befriended the publisher of the New York World, a regular guest. The publisher offered him a job, so Robert moved to New York, where he covered the 1929 market crash. Recounting the scene to Ben, Robert described watching ruined financiers hurling themselves out of windows as crowds cheered from the streets below—an exaggeration, maybe, but the image stuck in Ben’s mind. He dreamed of becoming a writer for a New York tabloid.
At home, on the Upper West Side, Ben’s parents disagreed on “pretty much everything.” His father, Robert, was a politically active Republican Christian lawyer, whom Governor George Pataki would appoint to the bench. His mother, Dian, was a bleeding-heart Jewish liberal who tutored neurodivergent children. At Trinity, an elite prep school in the neighborhood, Ben wrote for the student newspaper and played left field for the baseball team. He wore flannel, listened to grunge, and grew his hair long enough to pull back into a ponytail.
He went on to Yale, where he studied linguistics and wrote a column on New Haven for the Yale Herald, the scrappier, artsier rival to the main student paper. A colleague there was Molly Ball, now a national correspondent for Time magazine. “We were the underdogs to the snotty careerists at the Yale Daily News, so it was fun to scoop them regularly and be generally more cool and interesting,” she said. His junior year, Ben got an internship at the Jewish Daily Forward, where he was leaked opposition research on Eric Schneiderman, a candidate in the New York state senate race—his first big story, involving a shadow donation from a Saudi prince.
After graduation, Ben covered cops at the Indianapolis Star, then got a job in Latvia—“an interesting place in the late nineties,” he said—writing for the Baltic Times. While there, he also worked as a stringer for Dow Jones. As it turned out, Latvia wasn’t prime territory for an ambitious journalist: Ben happened to be out of the country when the Latvian government fell, and was surprised to discover upon his return that his editors were unaware of the news and didn’t seem to care that he’d missed it. He had to earn column space—which he did, for a while, but after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, coverage of former Soviet republics became an increasingly tough sell. He had been dating Liena Zagare, a Latvian publisher, and before long they married and moved to New York, where Ben landed a position at the New York Sun, a new conservative daily.
He was put to work in the basement of city hall, which housed New York’s second-string reporters (most of the heavies were upstairs). One of his office mates was Maggie Haberman, who at the time was a chain-smoking reporter for the New York Post and the Daily News, often wearing a leather jacket. “He was a very aggressive kid,” Haberman told me. “He wasn’t loud and aggressive in the way you would think about tabloid reporters in New York being aggressive. He was quietly aggressive. He’s incredibly persistent.” Ben was tasked with filing five stories a day, and the pace seemed to suit him. “Ben is often thinking on multiple tracks at once,” Haberman said. “So if you get him focused for, like, a good forty-five minutes, that’s a lot.”
In 2004, Ben started the Politicker blog at the New York Observer; later, he and Haberman both began working for Politico. Ben, she said, “hears things at a frequency that not everybody else hears,” and she credits him for being among the first to recognize Barack Obama’s appeal in the 2008 presidential race, particularly in the New York area. She recalled being in the passenger seat of his car on the way back from a campaign event, listening to a Hillary Clinton aide “screaming at him” by phone. Ben seemed unfazed. “One of us is being crazy on this call,” Ben responded calmly, “and I’m pretty sure it isn’t me.”
Colleagues observe in Ben an appetite for conflict. “Ben is a messy bitch who lives for the drama,” as Saeed Jones once told New York magazine. Haberman told me: “Ben has a gene that a lot of people don’t have, which is—I wouldn’t say that it’s ‘all attention is good attention,’ but he recognizes that there’s value in most attention. He likes contact.” At BuzzFeed, where he arrived in January 2012, he applied his knack for attention-grabbing scoops to the virality machine; in 2015, when that infamous optical-illusion-dress post became the obsession of the internet, he popped champagne. In the newsroom, he could come across as both friendly and contentious; he once ate a cheeseburger off an employee’s desk while the person was gone, though he was kind enough to leave a few bucks behind. Rachel Sanders, a former editor at BuzzFeed, said, “He would just sort of wander around the newsroom and stare at people’s computers to see what they were working on over their shoulder, and would sort of chat and ask you what you were working on—and then, mid-sentence, just get bored and walk away.”
Sitting on the bench that day in Davos, Justin looked at Ben, hopeful that he’d see potential in the idea of a serious new global outlet, something like the International Herald Tribune for the internet age. “There might be room for that,” Ben said. “But only if it’s, like, really hardcore socialist. Or populist—but, like, really populist.” Social media, Ben remembers thinking, had “swallowed the news business,” and as long as social-media sharing remained a primary mechanism for distribution, it seemed hard to believe that a measured general-interest global publication could break through. Ben had recently spoken with Steve Bannon, who told him: “I don’t understand why you guys didn’t go all in for Bernie Sanders. You missed a huge opportunity, just to become a sort of partisan vessel.” A lot of readers “were stressed out about what they were being served on social media,” Ben said, and yearned for alternatives. But unless something changed, he told Justin, he couldn’t see his vision working out.
Ben would later conclude, as he told me, that change was already underway. For years, entertainment, news, family photos, and all the rest had been mixed together on Facebook. During the 2016 presidential campaigns, however, that was no longer the case; Facebook adjusted its algorithms to de-emphasize news, and was continuing to tinker. Turning off that spigot to Web traffic put publications such as BuzzFeed under strain. “You’re not seeing simultaneous global massively viral things get a hundred and twenty million views in a few hours, or whatever,” Ben said. By 2017, when BuzzFeed had been in business eleven years, it had raised five hundred million dollars but had rarely turned a profit. Investors were losing patience. In the months before Ben went to Davos, the company announced plans for an IPO, then missed its revenue targets by as much as 20 percent. The IPO was delayed. Ben recalled Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed’s cofounder and chief executive, suggesting to him that they would need to find a way to make the site’s news division profitable independent of quizzes and cooking videos.
By January 2019, BuzzFeed announced plans to lay off 15 percent of its workforce. The following month, the site’s employees formed a union. Ben kept a distance from them. Sanders, who was an organizer in the newsroom, viewed him as impatient and uncomfortable with the process, though she found his response consistent with his editorial sensibility. “I’m not qualified to weigh in on whether Ben has a strong moral compass—only he knows that—but I would say that I don’t think it’s the primary thing that motivates or guides him as a journalist,” she said. “He’s really just interested in, like, narrative drama; he’s got the classic political-horse-race mindset. Who’s on top, who’s not. And often, if you only care about that—if you only see things in that way—you stop seeing people’s humanity or their suffering. The fact that your employees are miserable and outraged—at least for a while, it was like it couldn’t quite get through to him.”
Ben didn’t comment on that. He was consumed, he said, with the question of how to make news profitable. Coming up short of answers, that fall, he thought of the recurring conversations he’d had with Justin, and decided to ask him to lunch. “I thought he was the smartest person I knew in the business of news,” he told me.
This time, Justin picked the place. They met at Vaucluse, an elegant French restaurant on 63rd Street and Park Avenue with white tablecloths and a wine steward. By now, Justin was having a profitable run at Bloomberg. Ben laid out his predicament. BuzzFeed, he’d realized, had a foundational problem. When Peretti had hired him to build a news team, they’d never established a parallel advertising team focused on monetizing it. Peretti was, as much as Ben, a “content guy,” with a genius for virality. He wasn’t a business guy. The company’s advertising team was focused on meeting sales targets, and it was far easier to close deals with ads that appeared beside cute cats than political investigations.
“Ben was just kicking the tires on, like, ‘Well, how would you make money on news here? And what revenue streams are better?’ It was just a kind of a casual conversation, as friends do, giving each other advice on the industry.” Justin saw in Ben someone who had been successful cultivating an audience. But commercial success had proved elusive because, as Justin put it, “he didn’t have a thought partner to help him monetize BuzzFeed News.”
Justin saw an opening. He’d gone through some turf wars with John Micklethwait, his editorial partner at Bloomberg (and a member of the CJR board), and suggested to Ben that it might be time for something new. Recent years had “flipped the general-interest subscription toward success,” Justin said. He had seen the data. Social media was losing its stranglehold on the business. There was opportunity to be had.
The Vaucluse lunch “was really both of us getting a sense of how each of us thought,” Justin said. “Him getting a sense of me commercially and strategically and operationally. Me getting a sense of him editorially. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, well, maybe these challenges are significant enough that Ben would consider talking to me some more about some entrepreneurial ideas.’”
In the months that followed, the situation at BuzzFeed deteriorated. “I was tired,” Ben said. “In a job like this, after some number of years, all of the mistakes you’ve made accumulate around you. And it’s good for somebody else to come in. Somebody else is going to do a better job, but also be more totally emotionally present, engaged. For whatever reason, I could feel myself slipping a little. And I was finding myself looking for excuses to go write articles—instead of, you know, do my job.”
In January 2020, it was announced that Ben was leaving BuzzFeed to become the media columnist for the New York Times. He wrote a story highlighting weaknesses in the investigations conducted by Ronan Farrow (“Is Ronan Farrow Too Good to Be True?”) and an article on drama at WNYC (“It’s the Media’s ‘Mean-Too’ Moment. Stop Yelling and Go to Human Resources”), among others. His pieces always made a splash, though they sometimes felt dashed off, with intriguing details that didn’t quite add up. His biggest hit was an exposé of Ozy Media, revealing that the company had misled investors and advertisers; the scoop led directly to Ozy’s collapse and a federal investigation.
Ben’s fun new job had left Justin hanging, however. A couple of months before the Times hired Ben, the two had met at a French bistro near Bloomberg headquarters and talked strategy. Ben, who often plays tennis with one of his sons, had recently blown out a calf; he entered on crutches. Justin came with a page of notes. “I was sort of hyperventilating,” Justin recalled, “because I felt like I’d kind of decided, at least in my head, I was really excited about this.” He said to Ben: “Imagine.” If Adolph Ochs, of the Times, and Ted Turner, of CNN, met in a bar to design a new media outlet now, “What would they draw up? What kinds of things would they be thinking about?” They both laughed. Then they started conceiving of something: global, digital, with video. There would be an Axios-like organizational principle to help overwhelmed consumers pick important stories out of the noise, a curation component. Justin spent half an hour sketching out plans. “I just remember being like, ‘Let me know what you think about this as a possibility,’” Justin said. The next morning, Justin opened up his email to find a four-page, single-spaced email from Ben, laying out an editorial strategy, with beats and thoughts on voice and focus. In the first sentence, Ben named the project “The World.”
“The World” eventually became “Semafor” with the help of a man named Howard Fish, a partner at Fish, a firm that specializes in dreaming up company names. Fish is a neighbor of Justin’s parents’; he also came up with the name for Quartz. Justin and Ben liked it because the word “semaphore” sounds about the same in thirty-five languages. By the summer of 2021, the project began to take shape in earnest: Justin, who was coming up on his tenth year at Bloomberg, asked for permission to explore his idea on the side; Ben, while writing his column, had maintained an interest in pursuing what they’d discussed. As the months went by, the Smiths started meeting on a regular basis and conferring often by phone. On January 4, 2022, Justin publicly announced his departure from Bloomberg and Ben resigned from the Times. Ben’s editor at the Times, Carolyn Ryan, told me she wasn’t all that surprised. He’s a guy who could not resist the “gravitational pull” of leading a newsroom, she said. “It’s like taking the idea of fun that you might have with your own story and multiplying it by five or ten or twenty or thirty times.”
The pair embarked on “the kitchen months,” as Justin told me. He’d send emails from his airy, sun-drenched home in the DC neighborhood of Kalorama, not far from the Obamas. Ben would reply from his home, in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. They made investor lists and put together a pitch deck, in which they promised to make money while solving some of the media’s worst problems (polarization, distrust of journalists). Breaking news would be “the tip of the spear.” There would be eight distinct newsletters—free at first, while the Smiths built an audience and a brand. For twelve to fifteen months, all of Semafor’s revenue would come from advertising and event sponsorship. Then they would transition to a paid-subscription model. They envisioned a business worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The pair met with Bradley, by now the former owner of The Atlantic; John Thornton, a cofounder of the American Journalism Project; Jorge Paulo Lemann, a cofounder of 3G Capital; and Lessin, of The Information—and secured investments from each of them. They also had a successful meeting with Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of FTX, the crypto exchange that recently imploded. (All investments were received “in full in USD,” a Semafor spokesperson told me. “While we are monitoring the evolving situation closely, we don’t anticipate an impact on our financial outlook or our business.”)
Then they did what they may be best at: generate press. For months, the Smiths held a series of forums on the future of the media. The first included an interview with Tucker Carlson from his closet; rows of ties were visible in the background. It was a cringe-inducing, news-making spectacle. Nick Pinto, a writer for the New York site Hell Gate, observed: “A great way to build buzz for your media start-up is to hold an event where you performatively interview a leading hate figure for a live audience and get the Knight Foundation to sponsor it.” Cue the applause and the onrush of Semafor takes that could make “a messy bitch who lives for the drama” squeal with delight.
When I visited Semafor’s New York headquarters, my walk from the Canal Street subway station had a distinctly international feel. To get there, I traversed Chinatown and Little Italy, on sidewalks bustling with tourists from all over. The office is five floors above a row of restaurants and a souvenir shop with a street-facing display of T-shirts bearing messages such as “Do I Look Like A Fucking People Person?” Upstairs, the newsroom is a long shoebox of a place with wood floors, track lighting, and exposed-brick walls. There are rows of communal desks stretching half the length of a football field to a back room that’s used for video production. In a corner, there’s a pileup of large, boxy white monitors that suggest a nineties art installation, a touch of irony that seems to suit Ben’s sensibility. Joe Posner, Semafor’s head of video, acquired them, along with a VCR and a single tape (Dirty Dancing). The name of every staff member has been rendered on a New York license plate; the collection adorns a wall, hanging above communal trash cans. There is a mauve suede couch and two lounge chairs with pink, blue, green, and mustard stripes, arranged around a pair of small coffee tables that might be reclaimed patio furniture. Hovering over the seating area is a painted-on logo for Semafor.
I arrived two weeks after the site went live. Ben and Justin were there, though Justin’s main office is in DC and has a different aesthetic: it’s situated in the F Street headquarters of Gallup, a sleek limestone-clad office complex with a central atrium, connected by three sky bridges to a historic Grand Hall of the former Masonic Temple. “We didn’t go after any type of journalist,” Ben told me. “We went after the journalists who really, really could command attention from original breaking news. The newsletters are powered by original information.” Authors’ faces are featured prominently beside their bylines on the Semafor site, which is topped with tiny clocks displaying the time in DC, Lagos, Brussels, Dubai, Beijing, and Singapore. The articles are set against a creamy yellow backdrop—ever so slightly different from the champagne pink of the Financial Times, with which Semafor invites comparison.
Early stories: TikTok starting an in-app e-commerce feature to compete with Amazon, the Wall Street Journal replacing its editor, a report that the Securities and Exchange Commission was considering dropping a controversial provision in proposed carbon-emission-disclosure rules. Adegoke, who previously worked at Quartz as Africa editor, wrote about the fate of a hundred-billion-dollar investment promised in 2009 by wealthy Western nations to developing countries, most of which has not yet been paid out. Ben used his inaugural column to weigh in on the challenges facing media, including the first interview with James Bennet, the former editorial-page editor of the Times, since he resigned, two years ago. All of these pieces were rendered in the signature “Semaform,” with topic headers: “the news” (or “the scoop”), “the reporter’s view,” “room for disagreement,” “notable,” and “the view from”—for global perspective. “Ben said we would know it was working if people parodied it,” Meera Pattni, who handles Semafor’s PR, told me. On day one, there were at least three parodies (one on CJR’s site), which were affectionate and yet seemed to underscore the inherent oversimplicity of the contrivance.
In addition to early reviews, Semafor faced its first social media controversy: the climate-focused newsletter, which debuted with a piece covering a crackdown on greenwashing, ran with Chevron’s logo at the top. Outraged climate journalists soon went viral on Twitter; as the criticism swelled, the Smiths removed the logo from its prime spot. (A Chevron advertisement remained farther down on the site.) Chevron is one of what Justin identified as “ten founding launch partners who have committed for six-, twelve-, and fifteen-month periods.” Other advertisers include Verizon, Pfizer, and Tata, an Indian conglomerate. “There’s a lot of attention on us,” Justin said. “We believe strongly that contextual advertising, if it follows our guidelines—which are guidelines derived from the industry standard—is the right way to go.”
Of perhaps greater concern was the question of what Semafor had to offer that was really all that new. The Smiths declined to release metrics, saying only that they were seeing lots of traffic and have been pleased with the initial numbers; a piece on Elon Musk performed especially well. “My impression of Semafor is that what they’re trying to do is to be international in the way that the FT is international, which is to say, not defaulting to America as the frame for every story,” Jonathan Shainin, an editor at The Guardian, said. “Axios for FT people is a good analogy for it.” Robert Allbritton, who founded Politico, had heard the Smiths’ pitch and decided not to invest—he would have considered it, he told me, but he’d recently sold Politico to Axel Springer for a billion dollars and thought that Semafor was too close a competitor. Chris Roush, the dean of the School of Communications at Quinnipiac University, hasn’t been persuaded to include Semafor in his media routine. “I think what they have going for them is their name recognition—I’m just not sure what else they have going for them,” he told me. After checking out some early articles, he said, “I’m not seeing anything that’s noticeably different from everything else that is out there, except for how the stories are presented.”
As for Ben’s “ethical compass,” it remains to be seen how that will ultimately be reflected in Semafor’s coverage. For now, the Smiths are continuing to host events, including one in mid-November featuring, among the headliners, both Karine Jean-Pierre and Anthony Scaramucci. The invitation to “Media, Government, & a Healthy Democracy” promised that after the program, guests could “stick around to mingle with Semafor’s reporters and editors and enjoy charcuterie & cheese executed by Michelin-star chef Brad Deboy, cocktails, and a selection of wines.”
When Semafor debuted, CNBC’s Alex Sherman spoke with Rachel Oppenheim, the company’s chief revenue officer, about their business plan. “We’re operating in a specific part of the advertising market, which is corporate reputation and brand advertising,” she said. Recent big-money digital-media sales have given Semafor “a path toward building and selling a business for hundreds of millions of dollars,” Sherman wrote, “though Justin Smith said he hasn’t had any conversations about selling at a specific valuation with Semafor’s investors.” When I asked the Smiths about this—namely, the idea that they were setting themselves up for a major sale, akin to Politico’s—they waved me off. The next step, they said, will be expansion into overseas markets; the day I came in, Ben was meeting with Kai-Fu Lee, a former Google China executive and blogger. They reminded me that, as they’ve said before, they are committed to sticking with Semafor for the next decade.
It’s hard to predict the future, though the Smiths seem comfortable trying anyway. “The social media era of journalism is over,” Ben told me. “There’s still elements of it. Twitter still matters, for sure. But the pendulum swung back toward having a direct relationship with your audience. Email is a proxy for that. And in that environment, you can build a business for people who don’t like that sensation of being manipulated by people who are trying to game you.”
I wondered if they were still in the honeymoon phase of their odd-couple relationship. “I stay at Justin’s house every time I go to DC,” Ben said. “Justin prides himself on the wonderful coffee he makes in his silver stovetop espresso maker. He does a wonderful job and always offers to make me some. But I’m so impatient that I ordered a ten-ounce jar of Nescafé instant coffee that he now keeps for me.” They have not yet played each other in tennis. Ben’s afraid; he suspects that Justin would beat him handily. But Ben has been taking tennis lessons from a former Soviet Olympian. Perhaps he’ll reconsider.
TOP IMAGE: Photos courtesy of Semafor. Photo illustration by Darrel Frost.