Semafor won’t launch until October but we’re getting a clearer picture of what the news startup with global ambitions has planned.
The media company hosted the second forum in a series on “the future of news” sponsored by the Knight Foundation on Wednesday morning. (The first event featured, among others, Tucker Carlson.)
Justin Smith and his fellow co-founder Ben Smith — no relation, though there’s jokes about getting a 23andMe test to confirm — were joined by Semafor executive editor Gina Chua, The Washington Post’s investigative political reporter Josh Dawsey, AP White House reporter Seung Min Kim, and others who report from Washington, D.C. About an hour into the event, 25 people were viewing the Twitter live feed and another 80 were streaming via YouTube. A few hours after the event concluded, the total number of viewers had climbed to nearly 2,000.
There were panels on the 2024 elections, an “offshore view” of U.S. politics, and covering Congress after the violence of January 6th. And about halfway through the schedule, Justin Smith gave a pretty straightforward pitch about the “meaning and purpose of Semafor.”
As CEO of Bloomberg Media, Smith said he became obsessed with the “precipitous decline in trust levels across the global news industry” and “the lack of innovation being directed at solving this existential crisis.”
His assessment of the situation is “relatively simple,” he explained:
Intelligent news consumers, if you just stop and listen, are unhappy and are screaming from the rooftops. They’re overwhelmed by too much news and too many sources. They no longer know which sources to trust, if any, but at the same time they feel a deep responsibility to be extremely well-informed and, in fact, are searching for ways to make sense of the second-by-second blizzard of news and commentary that we’re all experiencing every day.
Each of us has been there, I’m sure, as news consumers in 2022. You read the latest piece about the Ukraine war in a major U.S. publication. You think you understand, but then you start to wonder — who’s this journalist and what’s their background? What’s their story? What’s the European or the Russian perspective? Am I only getting the view from the U.S. liberal establishment? And then, of course, you plunge into Twitter or onto the web, to spend 10 to 15 minutes that you definitely don’t have, trying to triangulate the news. This pattern repeats itself over and over and over again, on international as well as domestic issues. The Mar-a-Lago classified documents scandal, the Inflation Reduction Act, China’s zero Covid policy, rinse and repeat.
Smith said Semafor would be a global news organization dedicated to solving these frustrations for news consumers. How? Their efforts will include “reimagining” the traditional article form to distinguish facts from opinion and including “curation and distillation” of outside sources on its news site.
Here’s how Smith tried to sum up Semafor in one (albeit lengthy) sentence.
What we’re gonna bring to you in just a couple of weeks this fall is a global news brand dedicated to helping you manage this complexity through, on the one hand, quality original news from leading trusted journalists presented in new, more transparent article forms alongside intelligent, comprehensive curation of other sources across the ideological and geographic spectrums resulting in more profound, deeper insight in less time.
Here’s a couple of other things that stood out:
Semafor isn’t ready to give up “bothsidesism”
Pew Research Center has found journalists have different views on “bothsidesism” than the general public. A conversation between co-founder and editor-in-chief Ben Smith and Mehdi Hasan, a host at MSNBC, showed reporters have different ideas about presenting “both sides” to every issue.
“There are two words we need to remove from our media vocabulary right now and that is ‘both sides,’” Hasan said. He said the idea could be “lazy” and, at worst, “deeply dangerous,” before adding: “There are a bunch of major issues on which there are not both sides. There are not both sides on climate change. There are not both sides on white supremacy. There are not both sides on democracy. There are not both sides on the Holocaust.”
Smith agreed the example from Southlake, Texas was “offensive and stupid.”
“But,” he added, “I think that there’s also a lot of pressure on us to say ‘there are not both sides’ at all times. You saw all last summer people saying there aren’t both sides on whether Joe Manchin is a corrupt fool.”
Becoming less U.S.-centric could be an uphill battle
“News that can deliver global perspective and viewpoints is pretty crucial to our mission at Semafor,” said Meera Pattni, head of communications for Semafor. “That means news that doesn’t ask, ‘What does this all mean for America?’ at the end of every story. I’m calling this panel the geopolitical reality check that no one asked for on a Wednesday morning.”
Still, much of the “offshore view” panel focused on how Americans perceive news media, whether Americans are interested in news from other countries, how the U.S. is perceived overseas, etc.
At one point, Yinka Adegoke, Semafor’s Africa editor, said “I want to touch on something that [fellow panelist, Pablo Pardo, the U.S. bureau chief of El Mundo] said about Americans having very little interest in Europe.” He laughed, “I think Americans have almost no interest in Africa.”
Semafor editor-at-large Steve Clemons jumped in, “We’re depending on you to change that.”
Adegoke added, “I do think it’s changing. Americans have been told this story of poverty, war, all these cliches you’ve heard for so long, that’s actually not interesting to them anymore. They want to hear different stories.”
You can watch the full event here.