Semafor is Two Months Away From Trying to Change the News Biz

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Sixty staff, $25 million, and two prominent mainstream media defectors with the profile and the clout to attract well-heeled investors and journalist stars.

That’s what it takes to get a global media organization off the ground these days, at least in the case of Semafor. The new news publication, helmed by former Bloomberg Media CEO Justin “No Relation to Ben” Smith and former BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Ben “No Relation to Justin” Smith, is readying for an October launch in the face of a market downturn, not to mention an abundance of skepticism. Details are starting to trickle out.

Trust, But Verify

Semafor, whose name is an unusual Greek word the Smiths say is the same in “25 to 35 different languages (even if it is unfamiliar in most of them), hopes to challenge the world’s English-language general interest news juggernauts like the New York Times, CNN, and the British Broadcasting Corporation at a time when public trust in the media industry is at a nadir.

A report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, released in June, found that just 42% of Americans said they trust most news sources most of the time. For Semafor, that’s an opportunity:

  • “There are just these blindingly obvious consumer discontents with the news business,” Ben Smith told the Financial Times. To encourage reader trust, Semafor will separate the news in stories from the reporter’s own analysis and include opposing views — the publication will also debut as free-to-read, relying on ads and live events for revenue until moving behind a paywall in one to two years.
  • Semafor raised $25 million from wealthy individuals, including Brazil’s wealthiest man and 3G Capital co-founder Jorge Paulo Lemann, whom its founders believe will have the patience to stick with its early growth phase.

Year of the Toothless Tiger: The downturn in the economy has put pressure on media businesses, which already had enough on their plate competing for ad revenue against highly sophisticated Big Tech firms like Alphabet and Meta, which together account for nearly three-quarters of all global digital ad spending. Ben Smith’s former stomping grounds, BuzzFeed News, conducted a round of buyouts earlier this year following an unspectacular SPAC merger and, last week, Vox Media laid off 39 employees and said it plans to slow hiring.

Know Which Way the Wind Blows: A YouGov poll conducted in March found that the most trusted name in news among Americans is The Weather Channel. Though hot air has been plentiful at the startup, still no word yet on who will serve as Semafor’s chief meteorologist.