Semafor Is Almost Ready for Prime Time

Ben Smith
Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
September 9, 2022

There are a number of ways to start a media company. When a trio of congressional reporters decamped from Politico two years ago to launch Punchbowl News, they very quietly went about the business of raising a small amount of seed money, keeping their intentions to themselves, and launching an M.V.P. product after the holidays. Steadily and iteratively, they built their business in plain sight, promising exclusive, well-sourced reporting from Capitol Hill, but making few bold proclamations about any intention to revolutionize or reinvent political news. 

Six years ago, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen were ever so slightly less low-key. They spent the spring, summer, and fall of 2016 keeping mum about their exit from Politico and future plans. Sure, people in the industry knew that they were coming up to New York to meet with venture capitalists and institutional investors, but the business was still largely a black box minus some well-orchestrated leaks in Vanity Fair’s The Hive and other sources. Eventually, Jim began to drop more effusive hints about the concept, adding to his thesis that the media was “broken,” and “too often a scam.” He and his co-founders promised, in typical VandeHeian fashion, to introduce an entirely different style of journalism, dubbed “smart brevity,” that would scrape away the crap and give readers nothing but the essential information and analysis.  It was only three months before launch that news broke that they’d hired Fortune’s private equity scoop machine Dan Primack, offering the first real hint of what was in store.

Others, however, are more effusive about their vision. Matt Sacks was rather public about his intention to turn Luminary into the Netflix of podcasting. Once upon a time, Shane Smith was forthright about his desire to remake all of youth culture in his image. (And, for a time, it seemed like he might.) Jonah Peretti never quite came out and said that he thought that Buzzfeed News would supplant the then-somewhat-somnolent New York Times, but his investors weren’t shy about the comparison. 

Starting a media business requires a little bit of insanity. There’s a reason these people didn’t go to dental school. Being a forceful advocate of a nascent business can confer advantages. Such confidence generates buzz that can help lure investors, attract advertising partners, and hopefully even help with recruitment efforts. Just as VandeHei and Allen had helped turbocharge the pace of political news at Politico a decade earlier, they believed Axios would inspire the entire industry to follow suit and overcome its allegiance to the staid newspaper article format. Last month, Axios sold to Cox Enterprises for $525 million.

The risk, invariably, is that these bold declarations and early, sky-high promises become the yardstick against which a company is measured, at least in its first, crucial years. Justin Smith and Ben Smith introduced Semafor to the world with the confidence befitting two incredibly accomplished men in the primes of their careers. They promised to reach the 200 million English-speaking readers around the world who, according to Ben, were not being adequately served by Semafor’s would-be competitors—a not-so-gentle dig at the Smiths’ respective alma maters, the Times and Bloomberg, as well as other media outlets with global ambitions. Justin promised a company that would combat partisanship, Western parochialism and information overload, while Smith criticized big news institutions for failing to build brands around their top talents. These were ambitious goals, but few doubted them, especially when it became clear that Ben wasn’t under some sort of punitive non-compete.

The Smiths courted many of the country’s best political and business journalists—including Maggie Haberman, Jonathan Swan, and Andrew Ross Sorkin—while also promising to create newsrooms in countries and regions around the world that would service local readers as well as global audiences, dubbing themselves “The Netflix of News.” Some may have interpreted their ambitions as hubris. Others may have simply recognized that it was the enthusiasm of two guys who had grown tired of corporate media and were ready to roll up their sleeves again. Regardless, everyone paid attention. 

Semafor will formally launch in a matter of weeks, and, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, the Smiths will go to war with the army they have, perhaps not with the army they may have once envisioned with Maggie and Sorkin et al. They will launch with a handful of newsletters by very talented if not mega-well-known journalists, focused on domestic politics and business in Washington, New York and Silicon Valley, along with a newsletter about Africa anchored by a reporter who splits his time between Lagos and New York.

By launch day this fall, I’m told, Semafor will announce the hires of at least three more journalists: Dave Weigel of The Washington Post, Maxwell Tani of Politico, and Benjy Sarlin of NBC News. But the most notable newsletters will be authored by the newsroom leaders themselves: Ben, who will write a Sunday night media newsletter fashioned after his Times column, will likely be the site’s most famous writer. And Steve Clemons, the veteran Washington journalist, events guru and master of ceremonies at many a Semafor cocktail party, will now also oversee a daily newsletter that Semafor hopes will supplant Politico Playbook as the Beltway bible.

Presumably, over time, other bureaus will be added and other reporters hired. Global domination takes time, after all. But, for the Smiths’ contemporaries and competitors, it’s impossible not to notice the vast delta between what was initially promised, and what will be delivered in the fall. But, hey, you gotta start somewhere.

Saving Private Ryan

Meanwhile, at The Washington Post, publisher Fred Ryan is busy trying to resuscitate his own business, which has lost subscribers and advertising revenue after years of growth and prosperity during the Trump era. As I noted last month, the Post’s failures in that regard stand in stark contrast to the success story at the Times, where A.G. Sulzberger and C.E.O. Meredith Kopit Levien have embarked upon a savvy and aggressive effort to broaden and diversify the company’s asset portfolio, by launching or acquiring products that have become a daily habit for millions of subscribers: Wordle, The Athletic, NYT Cooking, The Daily, and so on. Both the Times and the Post grew subscribers at roughly the same rate during the Trump years, but only the Times is continuing to grow. The Post, meanwhile, remains down from an all-time high of 3 million digital subscribers in 2020, and is considering layoffs. The company is on track to lose money in 2022 for the first time in years.

The Post, notably, has no version of The Daily, or Wordle, or a Cooking app, nor has it made any big acquisitions to expand the paper’s editorial scope. A recent Times article about the Post’s business struggles rightly notes some agita among executives who feel that Ryan, a former Reagan chief of staff who served as Politico C.E.O. before being tapped by Jeff Bezos to run his paper, “hasn’t moved decisively enough to expand coverage.”

I caught up with the Post’s front office this week, and was told that there are indeed no plans to acquire other businesses. The Post plans to build, rather than buy, spokesperson Shani George told me, and by years’ end will have added 150 newsroom positions to expand the core product. Still, the paper’s ambitions can seem relatively trivial when compared with those of the Times. When asked how the paper intended to reverse subscriber declines and grow the product, George revealed that the Post will launch Well + Being, a new personal health section, on Monday. She also pointed to initiatives such as a Democracy Team, which monitors issues around voter access and misinformation. Internationally, she said, the Post plans to add some foreign correspondents and video and social media producers. None of this has the air of a bold strategy to seriously compete with the paper’s neighbor to the north. In fact, it sounds like the lack of a strategy, or worse.

Presumably, Bezos doesn’t suffer fools: Either he believes in Ryan’s capacity to grow the business, or he doesn’t really care if it grows, so long as it turns a profit. Of course, the Post will actually not turn a profit this year, as the Times reported, but perhaps that’s a result of what George described to me as “The Post’s largest investment year ever,” which “was by design.”

The Sun Also Surmises

Finally, a parting note on the strange case of The Sun’s Today show obsession. Back in 2020, Rupert Murdoch’s popular British tabloid launched a U.S. edition, to relatively little fanfare. But in the last two-and-a-half months, the site has garnered some attention at 30 Rock for running more than 50 articles—often multiple articles a day—regarding a supposed feud between Today co-hosts Hoda Kotb and Savannah Guthrie. According to several people adjacent to the show and its co-hosts, no such feud exists. Indeed the two women consider themselves genuine friends. Perhaps that’s why almost no other major news outlet, save for Murdoch’s New York Post, has picked the story up. And yet, the Sun persists.

Seeking an explanation for this mysterious, seemingly unfounded and relentless obsession, I reached out to a Fox Corp. spokesperson, who relayed me to a News Corp. spokesperson, who then relayed me to a Sun spokesperson. “The Sun does not wish to make any comment,” the spokesperson said. Ok, then.