A Q&A with the co-founder of the news startup.
Uncovering and explaining how our digital world is changing — and changing us.
Ben Smith generates attention anywhere he goes. See: Politico, BuzzFeed, and the New York Times, where his appointment as media columnist and his departure less than two years later were treated as Significant News by the paper of record itself. Now he has the gaze of the media world again with the launch of Semafor, the digital news operation he co-founded with Justin Smith, a veteran publisher who was most recently at Bloomberg.
For much of the last year the two Smiths (they are unrelated) have dropped all kinds of hints about what they were doing without really explaining what they were doing. Now that it’s out in the open, we have a much better sense: Semafor is a collection of newsletters, plus a website, aimed at an upscale audience that understands topics like Washington politics and Silicon Valley tech but wants more. Right now it’s free and ad-supported; eventually the Smiths want to convert readers into paying subscribers.
I’m a professional Smith watcher but wanted to wait until Semafor was live to talk to Smith about what he’s building, why he’s building it, and why he thinks the fact that I’m not reading his coverage of Africa means “we’re succeeding.” (Tl;dr: Smith says his Africa coverage should be useful to people living in Lagos, not Brooklyn; by extension, his DC coverage is for people who know why Tom Cotton is important and want to hear his views on prison reform.)
We chatted last Friday, four days into his launch, and you can listen to our entire conversation over on Recode Media. Below are excerpts from our talk, including a debate about whether a polarized audience will respond to his attempts to re-architect news stories with a focus on transparency; how to launch a news startup in 2022; and a dumb idea you won’t see in Semafor anytime soon.
The DC stuff, the tech stuff [in Semafor] is all great, but also seems like it’s aimed at an audience who already knows what’s going on. It assumes that they’re relatively sophisticated. You don’t have to sort of back-explain a lot of stuff.
And that’s true of the Africa coverage, too. In each of our beats, we’re trying to go fairly deep and verticalized. Aimed at a sophisticated reader who’s interested in the subject.
You think that does not exist somewhere else?
We don’t really think about it in terms of, you know, drawing circles on the map, on a whiteboard of other publications, and trying to find a lane. It was more just thinking — and I definitely had kind of a front-row seat to this at the Times — every story I wrote in some degree was “Giant institution realizes that it’s way out of sync, both in terms of the way it’s publishing and the way it’s presenting itself with lots of its audience, tries to steer the ship like two degrees and triggers an insane civil war that paralyzes the place for two years.”
That’s a good argument for a startup, because you don’t have this overhang.
And you see these opportunities and they’re hard to get to in your existing institution, and the world is changing really, really fast.
There’s just huge piles of obvious public opinion research that matches everybody’s conversations when you tell people you’re a journalist — that people feel massively overwhelmed by the news and yet at the same time don’t really know what to trust. And so we were thinking, “Okay, how could we, if we were starting from scratch, kind of go at those problems?”
That was the one of the things that confused me in your public stuff — that you’re bringing transparency to your publications and also that polarization is a big problem, that [Semafor] is a reaction to polarization.
You’re not saying you’re going to solve polarization, but I’m a little confused about that, too.
Thank you for saying we’re not going to solve it. I think in our corner of social media, [there’s] this idea that every major problem in the world is largely the media’s fault and every solution can be delivered by the media.
Also Twitter. If you could fix Twitter, that would solve it, too.
That will help. But there are huge social forces at work, and anything we’re going to do is sort of on the edges. But when you think about what alienates people from the media — and from institutions, right? It’s not like the media is the only institution losing trust, although we actually have managed to somehow be at the bottom — there are these huge shifts in how people connect, and that you see in politics, in sports, in Hollywood, in terms of a shift away from kind of faceless institutions and toward individuals. The news industry really has lagged that, I think, because it was always sort of a backwater of a business.
If you have a situation in which you have an audience that is suspicious of you, there are two obvious ways to go:
One is you strip away anything that appears to be anything other than a dry recitation of facts. And the [Wall Street Journal] is steering that way right now. Maybe that kind of makes sense for them. I was told there’s a new rule at the Journal that you’re not even allowed to have your own analysis in the nut graph. That also has to be in quotes.
And then in the other direction, you can say: in this black box of an article, what it actually is, is you’ve got some facts and you’ve got the reporter’s point of view. The reporter’s an expert. It’s what you do on [Recode Media], among other things. You have facts. You have your point of view. You know, you might be wrong, but you’re being straight ahead and you’re asking the reader or the listener to connect to you, not to some sort of voice of God.
It’s pretty clear that where you’re getting your news changes your view of the world radically. And that’s why people in Republican-leaning counties aren’t getting vaccinated at the same rate. They are in a … “bubble” is the wrong word. They’re in a lockbox at this point. So it seems like if Semafor is aimed at transparency and some sort of nod to alternate viewpoints, that’s for a sizable chunk of the world. But it’s a chunk of the world that was already open to that.
Yeah. For sure. And there’s also a percentage of viewers of MSNBC — which does great work a lot of times — but who think it is absolutely perfect and has never been wrong.
And there’s tons of people who are mad because the Times profiled Marjorie Taylor Greene this week and didn’t say she’s a Nazi.
I just think it’s a broad, complicated, weird spectrum of people. And there are a lot of people who are both dissatisfied with what they’re getting and do not think that you and I are lizards. And somewhere in there, I think there’s a lot of people there.
So I had a vague idea that you guys were playing around with the format of the news story. When you launched on Tuesday morning I was reading your column and a bunch of other stuff and, and I noticed you’d bolded a bunch of [paragraphs]. But besides that, it seemed like a conventional story.
And then I went on Twitter and everyone’s having this really intense chin-stroker about the “Semaform” and how you deconstructed the article, which I literally didn’t know you had done. So I don’t know if I’m complimenting you or insulting you.
I don’t know if you’re complimenting me or insulting me either. I think it is actually pretty intuitive that the way you tell a story to someone is, you say “Here’s what happened”…
Here are some facts, here’s what I think, here’s what somebody else says. It just seemed like a pretty conventional — conversational — but pretty straightforward news article.
When you say, “We want to reinvent the news,” there is an impulse to be like, “Oh, are you putting it on the blockchain? Or perhaps you have an algorithm?” And in fact, I think we are trying to do something very human and literal.
So explain what the “Semaform” is.
I told my team before we launched that one of the ways we would tell if this format made any sense to anybody and if they liked it was whether people parodied it. And there were three pretty high quality parodies on day one.
So the idea basically [is] very literal about pulling apart, here’s what we are asserting as facts and we are confident in them. And if we get them wrong, we will correct them and we better not get them wrong. And here’s the reporter’s analysis, which, if it’s interesting at all, there’s some chance it could be wrong. And you gotta realize that. But the reporter knows a lot. She’s an expert and has been covering this beat for a long time and is going to give you her best interpretation. But if there’s somebody else out there who has a rival interpretation, that in some sense makes sense and is legitimate, we’re going to include that.
It really struck me as a pretty conventional news story. I mean, obviously, everyone’s got their own house format. But there were stories about how you guys were blowing up the inverted triangle. But the very conventional, very straight-jacketed reporting — a lot of that has been now supplanted by internet news. A lot of stuff that you did at BuzzFeed. A casual but authoritative way of speaking to readers…
But I think it’s not just that. I think readers do find it unsettling that they don’t always know, like, “Wait, how do you know this? Is this a factual statement or not?” And I think there is something meaningful about trying to tease those things out. I also think it’s a good way to tell a story.
We’re less than a week into your launch. You have been at publications in their very early days. How long will it take for the cake to be baked? Is this a six-month process? A year? You’ll say you’re always improving, always striving to innovate. But, how long will it take for you to get what you want?
I hope this doesn’t sound totally insane, and it probably is because I’m now really old. But the number Justin and I really have been talking about since we started is 10 years.
That’s how long you want to work there for.
No. That’s how long we feel like it will take to build something that genuinely meets our ambitions, in a way that is also a totally responsible business. And we want to be really careful and smart about how we grow and build carefully.
You’ve raised $25 million?
Entirely from wealthy individuals?
And that was a choice. To target them as opposed to VCs.
Yeah. Partly because we were saying we’re locked in for 10 years in various ways. It did feel like the pace of financial investors didn’t totally make sense. We wanted people who were committed to it.
How long will that $25 million last? Right now, it’s a free site supported by ads.
If you look at the site, you’ll see we launched with eight really blue-chip advertisers. And I think you and I both came up in a different moment when we had investors who were saying, “Don’t worry about revenue, just grow.” And I think we probably both have our scars from that moment. So for me, it’s like, let’s launch with a real business, align it with the news, and get to profitability as fast as we can. We’re not looking to spend it all down.
An unkind thing that several of your competitors and media chatterers say, generally behind your back, is that you tried to recruit a lot of people and didn’t get the people you wanted. Or to be more kind, it was harder for you than you thought. What was that experience like?
It’s about where I expected. Recruiting is really, really hard when you’re recruiting for a startup. You don’t really know if people are eager to take a huge risk with a huge reward or not. I don’t want to mention her name, but there’s one person who everybody knew I wanted to hire. And everybody in the world wants to hire.
Writes about Donald Trump.
Who I haven’t hired yet. But I think if you look at our team, I feel great about it. And more importantly, if you look at the work they did, it’s good.
How are you thinking about how you’re going to grow distribution and reach in a world where Facebook is no longer pretending to help publishers?
It’s a totally changed world.
And Google, it seems quite clear that they’re going to bring more and more stuff onto their page and less and less traffic out.
Yeah. I mean, sorry that the dumb answer is partly newsletters. But it’s also partly just trying to do a lot of different things really well. We’re doing stories on the web well. There is an audience who lives on the web and reads stories on the web, like the good old days. And we’re hoping some of them will stick around. We’re seeing signs they’re starting to. We’re trying to build a big newsletter audience.
But it was sort of amazing to look at our stats and say, “Wow, Facebook is just…” — it just used to be there were these years when that was just the ocean, right? And everything else was a tiny little lake. And that moment is totally past.
And the infrastructure of digital media is different. But ultimately, you can’t totally fake it. You just have to do good work. And I do think, ultimately, breaking big stories is the tip of the spear. It’s not enough — when people come back to your site, when you broke a huge story, then you have to give them something that’s really good and interesting and that they like. But I do think that when you’re in the news business, you’ve got to have some news in it.
What’s the wildest thing you have wanted to try that someone on your team has talked you out of?
I’m definitely not telling you that.
I have heard, secondhand, that you guys were thinking, “Maybe we would show the story to the person we’re writing about in advance?”
Oh, you’ve got to talk to [Semafor technology editor] Reed Albergotti about this. But I actually think that’s a good idea. Or at least an interesting idea.
That’s your idea or Reed’s?
I’m going to sell Reed out here. That’s Reed’s idea. And Reed is by the way, the guy who broke the Lance Armstrong story. Reed is an incredibly tough reporter with a huge track record of incredibly tough, confrontational stories, [who] broke a lot of the big Me Too stories in Silicon Valley.
And I think when you do that kind of work, you realize, you know what? You’re not publishing it on a secret website. You’re publishing it on the internet, where the people you’re writing about are going to see it. And if you want to be really fair, you should let them really respond.
Which the tradition is, you fact-check. You call them. And then if you’re feeling really fair, you kind of steel man their version and give the strongest version. Often reporters squeeze down and give a throwaway line to them. I don’t know about the mechanics, but I like the idea that you get a really full response from the people you’re writing about. When it’s appropriate, when they’re not contesting true facts. … I think it’s kind of an interesting idea, but it’s certainly not something we’re doing.
Maybe the dumbest idea that I had was that our Slack should be open. That would be real transparency, right?
And then also not nearly as interesting as you guys think it would be.
The problem with things like that is that only people who hate you bother looking.
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