Behind Semafor’s ‘radical’ digital news offering

Justin Smith, CEO of the soon-to-launch global news publisher, and executive editor Gina Chua on how the company is ‘reimagining’ publishing for global and regional audiences.

L-R: Justin Smith and Gina Chua.

When Semafor announced itself earlier this year, the news world was abuzz. The new digital news publication is founded by former chief executive of Bloomberg Media Justin Smith and former New York Times media columnist Ben Smith; the former leads the business side as CEO, and the latter as editor-in-chief. At the time, a name for the new venture hadn’t yet been decided. In June, the company announced that it would be initially supported by $25 million in capital from individual investors.

Present day, a month following Semafor’s launch, things appear to be taking shape. Details around the content is still scarce, but a senior team has been assembled with the former executive editor of Reuters, Gina Chua, stepping into a similar position at Semafor. 

From an outsider’s perspective, the situation appears to be enviable for any new enterprise— top talent secured and sizeable capital to boot. But it hasn’t been easy, according to CEO Justin Smith, with regards to the brand’s ambitious approach to its global expansion. One of the initial questions for Semafor is the tension between being a global news brand with global ambitions, but also being a startup.

“Blanketing the whole planet with hundreds of journalists on day one would be an inadvisable strategy from a cost and monetisation perspective,” Smith says in an exclusive Asia interview with Campaign Asia-Pacific.

So what the company is aiming for, instead, is to launch globally in a sequenced manner beginning with what Smith calls the “global market," or a cross-border audience from around the world who are college-educated, fluent in English, and connected to world affairs.

“When they wake up in the morning, this is the type of audience who’s thinking beyond the borders of their city or their country,” says Smith. “They're thinking about the combination of events, trends and news developments that are shaping the world. This is an audience that we care a lot about.”

In other words, this is also an audience that typically consumes Financial Times and The Economist, or even Quartz, a publication that Smith founded in 2012.

Due to the timing of a piece of exclusive news obtained by Semafor, its first news story was published on September 3 and hosted on Medium. 

When Semafor officially launches in October, a main product that will be catered to this audience is Semafor Flagship, what Smith refers to as “a reimagination of what it would mean to be a global daily newspaper or news publication in the 21st century." He adds that this would primarily entail a distillation of news from other sources. 

“Unlike other morning news publications from a lot of our biggest competitors like The New York Times, Washington Post, or CNN, we don't think the consumer is well-served by a marketing email where brands are just sending a consumer their own content every morning,” says Smith.

“The sophisticated audience we're talking about is much more interested in a whole range of sources. So creating a new daily publication that sits above all the world's media and distils from it is something which doesn't exist today," he says. 

This model that Smith describes is meant to break the traditions of legacy news publications. He argues that the era of the foreign correspondent is over; the idea that a publication should send a college graduate to report back on a certain part of the world seems like an anachronism to Smith in 2022.

"We’re much much more interested in hiring really high-quality local and regional editorial talent and building on-the-ground reporting resources in a market. We’re also interested in the rise of cities versus countries,” says Smith.

Executive editor Chua tells Campaign Asia-Pacific that many international news organizations tend to set up shop regionally to cater to a Western audience. Semafor, meanwhile, emphasises that it wants to make sure it’s serving different audiences around the world with regional editions by leveraging on-the-ground expertise.

The idea of a global publication localizing news is, of course, rosier in theory than in practice. A region such as Asia has more than 2,000 languages with deeply nuanced historical and cultural backgrounds. To this, Smith says that Semafor will first focus on English-language news given that “English has really become a dominant language in a way that it wasn't 20 or 30 years ago."

“Once we become more established with the English-language audience, we will be inclined to go deeper into certain national markets where we're setting forth journalism with local-language products,” he says.

A challenge in Asia is also the often-stringent content regulations in more conservative media markets such as Singapore and China where state-owned media is a norm. Chua argues that many publications find ways to manage despite these restrictions.

“It just takes a fair amount of creativity and smarts. We’ll make sure that our independence isn't compromised,” she says.

On top of written news, video, event, and audio products will be launched over time and tied to Flagship. The company is also in talks with YouTube and Twitter about partnerships on video content. And aside from the aforementioned "global market," Semafor will be catering specifically to the US domestic audience and the Sub-Saharan African market. Smith says the team chose to initially focus on the African market for very strategic reasons due to its “future of the global economy," and because it’s traditionally been an under-covered region in English-language media.

A screenshot of Semafor's current homepage

To sustain its reporting, Semafor will be relying on a sequenced business model. The initial phase of its business will be supported by two revenue streams, the first being strategic commercial partnerships with a handful of Fortune 100 companies. These partnerships will be built around advertising, marketing, branded content and research among other offerings. The second revenue stream will be built around sponsorship for events, whether live, virtual or hybrid. These events will initially be based in Washington and will gradually expand into Europe and Asia.

The second phase of Semafor’s business will involve an introduction of reader or subscription revenue and the company will begin testing the waters 12 to 18 months following its launch.

“We're very curious to see how our audience responds to a metered paywall,” says Smith. “But we believe strongly that in order to launch a new global news brand in 2022, it's essential that we offer it without any constraints or restrictions at the outset.”

One conundrum that social media and the Trump-era have presented to the news publishing industry is a battle for trust. In fact, a “lack of trust” in news is one of the core motivations for Semafor’s launch.

Smith says: “We are the byproduct of rethinking the supply chain of news. Every step of the way is about the question of restoring trust.”

To do this, the leadership team has brainstormed a few “foundational hypotheses” that will be tested out at launch. These include the rise of individual journalists as brands, and connecting those journalists to audiences directly as a means of restoring trust in an environment where there's been a weight shift of trust from institutions to individuals.

Smith adds that the brand will be rethinking the core article format, with the intention of exposing the architecture of journalism and to do so in a “radically different way than anyone has attempted to do before." As previously mentioned, Smith is also interested in combining Semafor’s original content with the curation of other sources to bring in alternative perspectives and countervailing narratives into its journalistic form.

In Asia specifically, (dis)trust of international news can be tied to legacy models of Western journalists being parachuted into local markets to report for a home-based audience.

“To address audience's needs, we’re making sure that we're not engulfed in a relatively pervasive Anglo-American view of the world that a lot of international publications do,” says Chua. “We want to make sure that that readers, wherever they are, have an understanding that there are multiple perspectives and views on every issue. And I believe we're baking that into the structure of the story.”

On whether news publishers should monetise news content on social media, Smith is of the opinion that it absolutely should be done. The value exchange between publishers and platforms, he argues, is disproportionate and leads to unequal revenue share.

“It’s definitely a sore spot and an area that many news publishers feel the same way [about],” he says. “You have platforms like Facebook getting rid of their [funding of] news partnerships. So I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of movement until there's broad, ubiquitous regulation.”

This story first appeared on Campaign Asia-Pacific.

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