Semafor news site makes debut, intent on reinventing news

Oct 18, 2022, 3:05 AM | Updated: 7:42 pm

NEW YORK (AP) — The media organization Semafor launched on Tuesday with no less an ambition than reinventing the news story.

Semafor is the brainchild of Ben Smith — former media reporter for The New York Times and, before that, former editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed — and Justin Smith, ex-CEO of Bloomberg Media. Since both men — who are not related — quit their previous jobs in January, Semafor has raised $25 million and hired more than 50 staff members.

Semafor’s website, with a distinctive yellow-tinged backdrop that looks like a newspaper left out in the sun, went live shortly after 6 a.m. Eastern time on Tuesday, with eight newsletters in place as well as an events business.

“We see, and are very excited about, a big opportunity to create a new and high-quality, independent global news brand that is obsessed with solving a number of big consumer frustrations that we see in the news business, primarily polarization,” said Justin Smith, the new company’s CEO.

The founders also believe people suffer from information overload. While another media organization may seem an odd way to deal with that issue, they envision Semafor helping consumers make sense of all that’s out there.

Stories contain separate sections that present the news, the author’s analysis, a counter to that viewpoint, perspective on how the issue is seen elsewhere in the world and a distillation of other stories on the topic.

“Really good reporters do analysis all the time,” said Gina Chua, executive editor, a post she formerly held at Reuters. “That’s great in a story but oftentimes readers don’t know where the facts stop and the analysis begins. What we’re doing is very clearly separating them out.”

It’s probably the highest-risk move Semafor is making, said Ben Smith, the organization’s editor-in-chief.

Among the stories Semafor offered at launch: a previously unreported accident at SpaceX that injured a rocket technician, by Reed Albergotti, formerly of the Washington Post; and an investor group’s campaign to force Coca-Cola into the garbage business, by Liz Hoffmann, formerly of the Wall Street Journal.

Ex-Washington Post writer David Weigel interviewed Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman and Ben Smith looked at his old shop, with a story about an identity crisis at The New York Times.

Ben Smith’s story was Semafor’s centerpiece on Tuesday morning, next to a welcome to readers that he also penned. A series of clocks on top of the site showed the time in various cities, including Washington, Dubai and Beijing. A map of the world sat in the upper right corner.

A breaking news column ran down the left side of the site and, on the right, readers were encouraged to sign up for various newsletters.

Ben Smith will author a newsletter on the media, and others will center on business, technology and climate. Semafor Flagship, the day’s main newsletter, will be written from London, while Semafor Principals will look at Washington’s power players.

The latter is currently considered the turf of Politico — another of Ben Smith’s former homes — and Axios, two of the century’s most successful media startups.

Events will also be a big part of Semafor’s business, and 11 have already been held. They include a series on trust in news, sponsored by the Knight Foundation, that featured Ben Smith’s interview with Tucker Carlson.

“It’s an extension of our journalism, it’s very very popular with clients and an important way to monetize news,” Justin Smith said.

Another event is planned for December, when many African leaders will be in Washington. Semafor is anticipating worldwide expansion, making Africa the first area overseas where it is investing in reporting.

At its start, the company is looking to make money through advertising and brand partnerships, said Rachel Oppenheim, chief revenue officer.

The news site, www.semafor.com, will be available for free initially. After a year, the company will look for ways to charge for its service, Justin Smith said.

“Ultimately, we believe we will have subscriptions over time,” he said.

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Semafor news site makes debut, intent on reinventing news