Semafor is one of the most-anticipated news media launches of the year, partly because of the heritage of its founders — former New York Times media columnist and BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith and Justin B. Smith, former chief executive of Bloomberg Media.
Ben Smith says he’s been “drinking from the firehose” two weeks after the launch of Semafor his new project with former Bloomberg News boss Justin B. Smith and launch executive editor and former Reuters leader Gina Chua.
He talked to me about what he’s learned so far, the news climate Semafor launched into, hiring a team of top journalists — 30 so far — choosing a content management system, and how important the old idea of newsletters has become, plus what Semafor offers that the Sustack Inc model of individual publishing doesn’t.
The only way to drink out of a firehose is from the side, so Ben is taking a slightly sideways view of the climate Semafor has launched into — describing it as an almost post-social media environment in which he believes readers are embracing branded publishers they can trust and where traditional values of accuracy and transparency are valued.
“It’s really interesting to be operating in a world that’s not exactly post-social media, but where the news business is no longer dominated by social media,” Ben told me, noting that his background was driven by blogs and the importance of social media to drive traffic.
“I sort of rode the rise of the blogs and the rise of Twitter and Facebook. Now we’re starting a news organisation where obviously we hope people will share things on Facebook, and Facebook’s incredibly important, but it’s not the whole Internet.
“There’s this flight back towards essentially what used to be considered print values, like concision and hierarchy and include clarity of voice,” Ben said.
To the casual observer, Semafor is a relatively traditional mix of curated breaking news — a feed assembled by its own editors clearly based on agency material and other breaking news sources with wider networks than Semafor — and strongly reporter-led analysis and news stories with the emphasis on what American journalists call initiative reporting.
Stories are broken into segments to try to define what is reporting, opinion, and analysis. It’s not unlike the rigour of Axios’ smart brevity but without the same emphasis on brevity. Stories are longer but chunked into sections ike The News, Know More, Views, and the nifty Room for Disagreement, which seems to be a slot to bring in counter views without bothsidesing stories.
Ben declined to disclose initial numbers or targets but said the founders were pleased with the early take up and that he believed the site had already broken important stories.
The Semafor founders have claimed to have a global perspective and the site has some symbolic signals to that, from nifty time zone clocks from Washington DC to Lagos and Singapore and a top right map of the world that I suspect will become interactive. The home page — obviously depending on when you look at it — is strongly focused on U.S. news. It’s to some extent a window to drive sign-ups to the newsletters, from the Flagship overall wrap of news and Semafor analysis, to Media by Ben, Climate, and an Africa wrap.
Here’s the interview with Ben, presented in a question and answer format so you can absorb his words without too much intermediation from me. The interview has been edited for clarity:
INMA: What have you learned so far?
Ben Smith: We’re only two two weeks in so I haven’t learned that much, but I have learned that people are very particular about how much boldface (type) they want, and that we had served them a bit too much in trying to make the Web site and the newsletters match exactly, even though newsletter fonts are very limiting.
INMA: The newsletters really are the driver for what you’re doing?
Ben Smith: It’s really interesting to be operating in a world that’s not exactly post-social media, but where the news business is no longer dominated by social media. I sort of rode the rise of the blogs and the rise of Twitter and Facebook. Now we’re starting a news organisation where obviously we hope people will share things on Facebook, and Facebook’s incredibly important, but it’s not ... the whole Internet.
There’s this flight back towards essentially what used to be considered print values, like concision and hierarchy and include clarity of voice that kind of express themselves in newsletters and on the Web.
INMA: It seems that with newsletters and blogging platforms like Substack that everything old is new again.
Ben Smith: I think there’s something to that. I think that’s the nature of the media business, though, that the pendulum is always swinging and whenever anybody tells you they’ve totally totally figured it out, they never have. People’s preferences shift. You have to address the problems of the moment and then issues of what do people really want now.
INMA: Your adherence to a defined style with content broken into chunks reminds me a little of the rigor of the Axios model.
Ben Smith: Yeah, I have a lot of appreciation for Axios, too. They took seriously that consumers said stuff was too long. It was very literal. So in some sense, we’re doing something different but with some of the same psychology — which is that people feel overwhelmed, people say they don’t know what you can trust, and let’s try to address those with formats, with distribution, with a lot of the same ways of thinking.
(But) news being too long is not people’s only problem with the news. Fundamentally, we are trying to make it more transparent.
INMA: You also give the reporters’ bylines the same prominence as the overall brand and make clear what is opinion and what is reportage.
Ben Smith: There’s a lot of consumer research saying this, but also, you could just talk to anyone, that there’s this sense of people feeling that the news is kind of a black box, in that nobody’s telling you what are the facts and where this is coming from. We feel we run at that and solve that — or at least try to and give people a sense of clarity — that both elevates the individual journalist’s voice and makes clear what the facts are.
INMA: Your recruitment and the way you use the bylines are interesting given the way many well-known reporters have launched their own brands on Substack or Ghost.
Ben Smith: It’s a little different from legacy institutions. We are totally committed to the fact that it’s a talent business, that we’re totally dependent on great reporters. We want to elevate them and their brands. Their names are as big as Semafor. Our success is totally tied to our reporters’ success. We don’t see them as like, kind of cogs in some big machine.
INMA: What do you think you offer that the Substack model of individual publishing doesn’t?
Ben Smith: The kinds of reporters we’re trying to hire, who are the kinds of reporters who can break big stories, are going to wind up occasionally in huge fights with powerful people and institutions. It’s tough for that kind of reporter to be totally out on their own. They need legal support, they need a brand that can defend them.
And what I’ve been trying to offer people essentially is the best of both worlds: to say, we really are committed to like your voice and your identity and your connection to an audience and putting you front and centre. But also, we have the values and the support that comes with a great newsroom.
INMA: What CMS have you built the site on and why?
Ben Smith: This was such a revelation to me actually… . I’ve spent a lot of time playing with extremely powerful CMS. But, if you have your own CMS, suddenly you’re putting development resources against something and competing with these technology companies.
We use Sanity, which I’ve been incredibly impressed with. I’ve also really been blown away by Ghost. Sanity is a headless CMS. It’s really more for publishers who do both Web sites and e-mail, and it’s really good for both, which is obviously a huge asset.
INMA: Do you think you’ll go down the route of personalisation for users?
Ben Smith: I think I think personalising news is tricky. I think part of the value of news is knowing what other people are seeing. Like the front page of the newspaper is interesting because it’s what the editor thinks is important. But it’s also interesting because you know that all the other people are seeing it, and it’s what they’ll be talking about. That’s what people are paying you for. And if it’s hyper personalised, you lose that.
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