In October 2022, Ben Smith launched Semafor, a digital news platform that promises to bring meaningful innovations to the news industry. As its first anniversary approaches, we look at how the news media startup is tracking on their ambitious original goals.
What is Semafor?
Semafor is a website that aims to be the news outlet for a target audience of “200 million people who are college educated [and] read in English” according to CEO Justin B. Smith.
Founded by Ben Smith, a former editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News and media columnist at The New York Times, and Justin Smith, the former CEO of Bloomberg Media Group, Semafor was born to “reimagine quality global journalism.” Many have tried embarking on this venture, with mixed success: cases span from Artifact’s AI-enhanced news to The Pioneer in Germany, which reports from a boat sailing around Berlin. Launched on October 18, 2022, with Gina Chua as the Executive Editor, Semafor aims to cater to an English-speaking, college-educated, professional-class audience.
The most recent figures put Semafor’s audience at about 3 million users per month. Semafor’s newsletter numbers almost 500,000 subscribers, with 19% being C-suite members. One year in, users can still access the website without charge, but a subscription plan will be introduced at some point in the near future.
How does Semafor plan to be financially sustainable?
Financial sustenance is crucial for digital journalism startups amidst a sea of free content. Semafor had an initial round of funding of $25 million in June 2022 from investors such as David G. Bradley and Sam Bankman-Fried. In January 2023, after the bankruptcy of FTX, Semafor had a second funding round to replace $10 million invested by Sam Bankman-Fried, securing an additional funding round of $19 million for a total of $34 million. The financial aim is to reach profitability early on, setting the solid groundwork for sustainable growth over rapid expansion.
In 2023, Semafor has already booked $10 million in revenue, evenly split between advertising and events. Interestingly, events emerged as a surprising revenue stream, some boasting up to 75% profit margins. Unlike many digital platforms reliant on programmatic ads, which can hamper user experience, Semafor opts for premium advertisers like Mastercard, courtesy of its high-value readership comprising C-suite executives and other influential business leaders.
What is the Semaform Editorial Model?
The innovative Semaform model sets Semafor apart from other news startups and established media organisations. The essence of this model is to separate facts from the reporter’s analysis, providing a clearer, more transparent, and honest view of news items.
It breaks down news articles into sections, each with a clear aim:
- The News: objective reporting on the news itself
- The Reporter’s View: an analysis of the news by the reporter
- Room For Disagreement: a contrasting view
- The View From: an alternative perspective on the topic
- Notable: some of the best other writing on the subject
Semafor aims to present a variety of viewpoints on a given issue. This approach helps readers to be more informed and engaged while minimising confusion between facts and opinions. Semafor’s approach is similar to that of Ground News, which lists what newspapers report on the news and their political leaning, letting readers explore issues from various viewpoints.
Investors have been praising this innovative article structure. However, this structure may only appear diverse and understandable while maintaining the same biases and echo chambers prevalent in modern journalism. Whether Semafor’s approach can diversify the discourse and promote a more insightful public dialogue is still being determined. Furthermore, the long-term impact of this approach on media literacy and the broader journalistic landscape remains uncertain and requires further observation.
Looking to Semafor’s Future
The innovative approach of Semafor has been a topic of discussion in journalism. Its attempt to separate facts from analysis addresses the blurred lines often found in news articles, providing readers with a fresh, unambiguous perspective. With over 50 staff members and a presence in the US and Africa and plans to expand to Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, Semafor is on a trajectory to becoming a global news platform. Its unique article structure is just the tip of the iceberg, with more innovations likely to come as it grows.
🍿 Other Emerging Platforms in the News Industry
In the evolving landscape of digital journalism, various new platforms are carving out their niches by addressing the challenges tied to misinformation, bias, and engagement in unique ways. Here’s how Semafor stacks up against some of these newcomers.
- Developed by Instagram co-founders, Artifact is evolving from a news aggregation app to a social networking platform. Unlike Semafor’s focus on structured news presentation, Artifact integrates AI-generated images and user-generated content, leaning towards a more interactive social news experience. The platform’s shift towards user engagement and AI tools to counter clickbait offers a distinct approach to navigating the digital news arena.
- Threads, initially averse to “hard news”, has unwittingly become a hub for reporting during the Israel-Hamas conflict. Its approach contrasts with Semafor’s structured news format, showing a more organic, community-driven way of disseminating news. Despite Meta’s reluctance to court political content, Threads’ user-centric model has created a space for journalists and the public to share and discuss news in real time. Having launched in July 2023 with a peak of 44 million daily active users (DAU), that number had already plummeted to a measly 8 million DAU by the beginning of August.
- Aiming to reduce bias and clickbait, The Messenger has partnered with AI firm Seekr to review content. Unlike Semafor, which separates news from analysis, The Messenger relies on AI to score political lean and reliability, allowing readers to gauge the potential bias. The initiative reflects a different strategy to uphold journalistic integrity, contrasting Semafor’s effort to provide multiple perspectives.
Each of these platforms reflects a unique solution to the challenges digital journalism faces today. While Semafor aims for clarity and multifaceted insight, Threads, The Messenger, and Artifact explore community-driven news sharing, AI-mediated content review, and interactive social news experiences, respectively. The diversity in their approaches highlights the innovative attempts to redefine news consumption in a transition period from press to digital for the news industry.