Semaform and function

THE NEWS

Yesterday, Semafor—a much-discussed yet hitherto-nonexistent news site—finally launched. The brainchild of Justin Smith, formerly the CEO of Bloomberg, and his namesake-but-not-relative Ben Smith, the muckraking former editor of BuzzFeed News and media columnist at the New York Times, the site takes its name from semaphore, the arm- and flag-based messaging system, in part because the word is the same (or similar) in multiple languages and Semafor wants to signal that it is a global newsroom. (The Smiths did not end up going with taxi, tea, coffee, chai, sugar, pajama, radio, or soup, as the Times had speculated in advance.) In the same vein, the site’s homepage looks like a cross between an old-school newspaper A1 and the wall of a multinational corporate office, with clocks displaying the time in locales from Washington, DC, to Lagos. The design, which sits on a faded yellow background, quickly got tongues wagging online. It has already been compared, variously, to “a newspaper left out in the sun,” the cover of Taylor Swift’s album reputation, and “the Instagram intermediate photoshop flyers local DJs make for the events they have at their own house.” (FWIW, I like it.)

We first heard about the idea that would become Semafor in early January, when the Times and the Wall Street Journal dropped dueling scoops respectively revealing the departures of Ben Smith and Justin Smith from their previous jobs. Ever since those early articles, it’s been clear that the Smiths intend for their new venture to be global and to tackle the thorny media problems of declining trust and growing polarization. But their ambitions have sometimes been stated in wishy-washy or, erm, contestable terms, as when Ben Smith said, in the initial Times story, that the site would be pitched at the “200 million people who are college educated, who read in English, but who no one is really treating like an audience,” or added, in a later Times story, that it would seek to “take the black box of the news article, particularly a reported hard-news piece, and open it up on every axis” (by having big bylines and by visually separating out facts and opinion). As the months rolled by, Semafor often attracted feverish attention (and, sometimes, skepticism) from the media press—the Times ran so many stories on its former staffer’s new venture that Politico’s Jack Shafer begged it to stop—not least in July, when it held an inaugural live event that included Ben Smith in conversation with Tucker Carlson. Meanwhile, the site raised twenty-five million dollars and made dozens of impressive hires, adding Gina Chua, a top editor at Reuters, as executive editor; Yinka Adegoke, formerly of Quartz and Rest of World, as Africa editor; and Politico’s Max Tani as a media reporter, to name but a few.

Yesterday, we saw some of these hires’ first Semafor articles. We also got a better sense of what Ben Smith meant by opening up the black box of the news article as the site debuted a new story template that it is calling “a Semaform,” because of course it is. Author bylines are, as promised, as prominent as headlines, but the meat of the Semaform concept comes in the text of the story itself, which is broken into distinct sections, each preceded by a capitalized subheading: “THE NEWS” (or “THE SCOOP”), offering the “undisputed facts” of a given story; “THE REPORTER’S VIEW,” which is what it sounds like, with an emphasis on “analysis”; “ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT,” which is also what it sounds like; “THE VIEW FROM,” promising “different and more global perspectives” on the story in question; and “NOTABLE,” linking out to worthwhile related coverage from other outlets. Chua explained what Semaform is in an article (“ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT: More transparency may build more trust, but only for people who actually read our articles”) and a video. The site also posted a (vaguely messianic) video talking through the impetus for its new approach and featuring interviews about the state of news today with other journalists, some of them very respected, like Maria Ressa, some of them Piers Morgan, like Piers Morgan.

 

JON’S VIEW

If you couldn’t tell yet, I’m writing this review in Semaform (because of course I am), which means it’s time for the bit where I offer my analysis, though I may accidentally also have done that in the “undisputed facts” section above. My flippancy here has a serious point to it: my biggest problem with the Semaform, at least so far, is that it seems inflexible, particularly when it comes to the “reporter’s view” section. Some of the Semafor stories I read yesterday offered what was clearly analysis in this section, though it rarely seemed particularly pointed or personal and sometimes didn’t read much like a point of view at all, but rather a continuation of the reporting above; indeed, at least one story contained sources’ quotes in this section. If the separation of facts and analysis is supposed to aid clarity and boost trust, then the two need to be consistently distinguishable; where they blur together, the separation just adds more confusion. Of course, it’s still (very) early days for the Semaform; reporters from rigid news backgrounds, in particular, might take time to find their feet in the analysis space. But it’s not clear to me that separating facts and analysis is even possible. News, analysis, and opinion are fluid and often ill-defined modes, and the distinction between them can itself be highly subjective. Doesn’t a reporter apply “analysis” when they decide what story to write in the first place, or what facts to center?

I have some other reservations—or, at least, potential reservations—about Semafor so far. The “room for disagreement” rubric, if not policed carefully, could slide into stale bothsidesism. (Joe Biden won in 2020. Room for disagreement?) More broadly, every story served to me on Semafor’s homepage yesterday, bar a story by Adegoke about an upcoming election in Nigeria, was either centrally about the US, or concerned the US as a global actor. There’s nothing wrong with either of these things—in a globalized world, certainly not the latter—and news briefs down the side of the homepage did cover an impressive array of international stories, albeit, well, in brief. Semafor has said explicitly that it’s still building out its global footprint, and that’s fine, too. It also says on its “About” page, however, that it is a “global news company at birth.” Comments that Ben Smith and Chua gave to Nieman Lab on this language suggest that they see it as reflective of a sensibility, not a finished offer. But the launch could have done more to centrally assert this sensibility. The site’s first top story being a Ben Smith column about newsroom drama at the Times did not scream global sensibility to me.

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ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT

There’s a lot to like about the concept of the Semaform, at least in theory. To assess it in reverse order, the existence of a dedicated section for linking to other outlets’ work is a hopeful nod away from the industry notion that something is only news when your outlet has covered it. “Room for disagreement” could go down a “both sides” route, but it could also easily be used more intelligently; along with the “view from” rubric, it could become a way to hardwire needed nuance into every story. (I try to bring nuance to this newsletter, and have found my contrived borrowing of the Semaform today to be, if anything, an aid in that.) Even if I have my doubts about the possibility of separating news and analysis, part of Semafor’s stated reason for attempting to do so—to communicate to readers that reporters do have views—is welcome in an industry whose higher echelons remain hooked on a caricature of objective journalistic detachment. Most important, of course, it’s way too early to judge any of this definitively. Indeed, Semafor has already demonstrated receptiveness to reader feedback. When it launched, its paragraphs all opened with distracting bold font. Within hours, that was gone.

 

THE VIEW FROM… MOSTLY ME AGAIN

The early reviews that I’ve seen of Semafor—and of Semaform—have often been positive, if not uncritically so. Ultimately, the site has hired a lot of excellent journalists and editors, and, if its launch-day slate is any guide, it looks as though it will do a lot of very good journalism. Still, if my initial reaction to the idea that would become Semafor was conceptual confusion about its target audience—English-reading college graduates are not an underserved demographic; often, they trust the media more than others—at least some of that confusion persists. In an interview with Insider to mark the launch, Justin Smith described the target audience as news “omnivores” and “opinion leaders” in business, finance, and tech. Again, hardly underserved.

And people involved with Semafor have made a lot of lofty claims that go beyond doing very good journalism. Justin Smith told the AP that the site “is obsessed with solving a number of big consumer frustrations that we see in the news business, primarily polarization” (others, he told Insider, include “bias,” “social media distortion,” “information overload,” and “the increasing blending of news and opinion”); he and others have also claimed to be reinventing a “core unit of journalism”—the article—that hasn’t really evolved in “literally hundreds and hundreds of years.” In fact, there have always been many ways of writing a news article. Even efforts to break it down into explicit components are not new; Axios literally just wrote the book on it.

In her interview with Ben Smith, Nieman Lab’s Sarah Scire asked him what questions he’d ask, as a veteran media reporter, “to try and gauge whether a newly-launched project was going to live up to its hype.” Smith’s suggestion: “Is the journalism you’re doing really aligned with the business that will support it?” That’s a good question. But it’ll also be fair to ask, eventually (and the Smiths have set a decade-long timeline for success), whether Semafor has made any meaningful progress toward “solving” the titanic, existential media crises name-checked by Smith. It needn’t do so to be a great site. But in selling itself, it has promised to try.

Below, more on Semafor… (Sorry, NOTABLE:)

  • The business side: According to Justin Smith, Semafor will plan to transition toward a paid-subscription model within the next year to eighteen months, though to start with it will be free to read and funded by advertising, with debut ad partners including Verizon and Pfizer, CNBC’s Alex Sherman reports. “We’re operating in a specific part of the advertising market, which is corporate reputation and brand advertising,” Rachel Oppenheim, Semafor’s chief revenue officer, told Sherman. Recent big-money digital-media sales have given Semafor “a path toward building and selling a business for hundreds of millions of dollars,” Sherman writes, “though Justin Smith said he hasn’t had any conversations about selling at a specific valuation with Semafor’s investors.”
  • Day one: Yesterday evening, CNN’s Oliver Darcy spoke with a “delirious” Ben Smith, who had been up since 4am, to find out how he felt Semafor’s debut had gone. “It was remarkably smooth,” Smith said, adding that he was “really pleased that people seemed to like the format” of the articles given that the site had made a “big bet” on it. Smith also confirmed that Semafor had consciously junked the use of bold text at the beginning of paragraphs in response to feedback. (Readers had previously noted the change online.)
  • Bennet Smith: While Smith’s article on the Times yesterday may have struck me as an odd debut for a global news site, it did contain plenty of interesting nuggets about the paper for media-watchers, not least the first on-the-record interview that James Bennet—who was fired as the Times’ opinion editor in 2020 amid a staff revolt over a controversial op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton, and now writes for The Economist—has given since his ouster. At the time, Bennet was conciliatory about the decision to run the op-ed, but he told Smith that he now makes no apology for it. He also excoriated A.G. Sulzberger, the Times’ publisher, claiming that Sulzberger missed a chance to make clear that the Times “doesn’t exist just to tell progressives how progressives should view reality,” and that “he set me on fire and threw me in the garbage.”
  • Trust in news: In an introductory note to readers, Ben Smith cited new data from Gallup, a partner of Semafor, showing that Americans’ trust in the news media remains near its all-time low. Only 34 percent of respondents believe that the media will report the news “fully, accurately, and fairly,” just two points higher than Gallup’s lowest-ever recording, in 2016. Faith in the media, meanwhile, remains sharply divided along partisan lines, with 70 percent of Democrats, 14 percent of Republicans, and 27 percent of independents expressing a great deal or fair amount of trust.


Other notable stories:

  • NewsGuild units representing journalists at nearly a dozen papers in New York and New Jersey found that the median salary for journalists of color across those titles is eleven and a half thousand dollars less than that of their white counterparts, and identified significant gender pay gaps, too. Poynter’s Angela Fu has more. In other media-union news, journalists at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette walked off the job in solidarity with non-journalist colleagues striking over healthcare—but the strike vote was contentious and some journalists have reportedly refused to honor it. And for CJR, Gabby Miller asks whether unions can save newsrooms from cost-cutting by their corporate owners.
  • Perry Bacon Jr., a columnist at the Washington Post, laid out an ambitious vision for reviving local news, arguing that the US should invest ten billion dollars to ensure that every congressional district has at least one news organization with at least a hundred staffers. (Bacon doesn’t say who should pay for this plan, though he suggests that the outlets should be nonprofits and that they could be government-funded.) He also believes that each community should have smaller outlets that come at the news from a defined point of view, albeit not “partisan Democratic and Republican news outlets.”
  • Matt Pearce, Dorany Pineda, and Melissa Gomez, of the LA Times, explored how local Latino media outlets responded after leaked audio revealed senior Latino members of the city council making racist remarks and discussing redistricting “as a zero-sum racial struggle for power.” The recording “wasn’t just a Watergate moment for a slice of LA’s political elite,” Pearce, Pineda, and Gomez write, but “an MRI that revealed some ugly masses long festering in the body politic: anti-Blackness and anti-Indigenous racism.”
  • Jay Solomon, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who was fired in 2017 after leaked emails suggested a cozy relationship with an aviation-executive source, is suing a major US law firm, alleging that it worked with hackers from India to steal the emails then circulated them in an attempt to destroy his journalistic reputation. The law firm pledged to fight the suit; Reuters has more (and ICYMI, Solomon wrote about his firing for CJR).
  • Last year, Saad Ibrahim Almadi, a seventy-two-year-old dual national of the US and Saudi Arabia, was arrested while visiting family in Riyadh over critical tweets that he posted from inside the US, including one about the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Recently, Almadi was sentenced to sixteen years in prison. Now his son has spoken out to raise awareness of the case, alleging inaction on the part of US officials.
  • Marina Ovsyannikova—a Russian journalist who famously protested the war in Ukraine live on state TV, then was placed under house arrest following a subsequent, in-person protest—has fled Russia and sought safety in an undisclosed location in Europe. The Guardian has more. Ovsyannikova joins hundreds of thousands of other Russians who have likewise fled the country since war-mobilization efforts escalated in September.
  • On Monday, Indian authorities blocked Sanna Irshad Mattoo, a Kashmiri photojournalist, from traveling to New York to receive a Pulitzer Prize for her work covering the pandemic in India for Reuters, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports. Since Indian officials revoked Kashmir’s autonomous status in 2019, several Kashmiri journalists have reported being banned from international travel—including, on a prior occasion, Mattoo.
  • And Rolling Stone’s Tatiana Siegel tells the mysterious story of James Gordon Meek, a star national-security investigative producer at ABC News whose home was raided by the FBI in April, and who has since resigned from ABC and “fallen off the face of the earth,” as one colleague told Siegel. The circumstances of the raid remain murky, but observers believe that it could be the first targeting a journalist since Biden took office.

ICYMI: The BBC at one hundred

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Screenshot via Semafor