Semafor, Ben Smith wants to reinvent the newspaper article

Semafor, Ben Smith wants to reinvent the newspaper article


In collaboration with Digital Journalism

His name is Ben Smith, he is one of the most influential journalists in the United States and wants to reinvent the article. He, one who has written hundreds of articles: first to the Politico newspaper, then as editor from 2012 to 2020 of Buzzfeed News, then as media columnist for the New York Times. 47 years old, at the beginning of 2022 he left the most prestigious newspaper in the world to found Semafor, one of the most anticipated publishing projects of the year, together with Justin Smith (former chief executive of Bloomberg Media).

The magazine was born as a collection of 8 vertical newsletters (media, politics, finance, environment, etc.), each signed by a specialized journalist, designed for a target of "200 million educated people interested in finance, tech and to the great economic-political issues, which speak English and live everywhere ”, not only in the West.

To create it, it has raised about 30 journalists and 25 million dollars. To maintain it, it will provide a turnover consisting of 75% advertising (branded content and simple banners), 25% from corporate sponsored events (among others, Mastercard, Verizon, and Hyundai) and some form of payment for newsletters. to be introduced within a year and a half. But most of all, to make it attractive to a new audience, he will want to make it the first post-social journalism project. In fact, Semafor is the son of two visions that Ben Smith has for the future of journalism.

Social networks increasingly in crisis

“See the difficulties of Twitter and Facebook. Newspapers will have to create more direct ways to generate and maintain contact with their audience, ”he explains. What he chose is the old newsletter. Partly because it reduces costs, partly because he thinks that readers will trust the authors more and less than the newspapers.

Fewer opinions, more facts

For Smith, the worst trend in journalism is the fact of supporting the “polarization we see on social media”. “We are tempted to write what people want to hear,” she says. Maybe because we want to engage, fear of alienating sympathies or fear of disappointing a community that is quite large, quite susceptible and very ready to defollow. “But the strategy can work in the short term. In the long run, the public is already getting tired of prejudice and polarization, and will be fed up with being flattered ”with dozens of editorials. Ben Smith speaks diplomatically, but it is clear that he is angry with certain journalists who are getting lost too much "in writing opinions" and too little in "researching facts". “We have to do the scoops. Less opinions and more fresh news ".

The semaform

Hence the challenge of reinventing the article with the semaform. It is a content unpacked into five sections, blatantly separated from each other.

"The news". That is, the facts reported as objectively as possible "The author's point of view", which expresses his opinion in the most transparent way possible. “Other points of view”, perhaps from other places in the world. "Opinions contrary" to those of the author. "Other stuff", usually links to articles about that news. The goal is to explicitly separate the facts from the journalist's opinions.

Reinventing the article

Now, in recent years many have tried to reinvent the article.

Buzzfeed has unpacked it into numbered lists, perhaps the most imitated format in the world. Business Insider divided it into slides. Quartz reduced it to 500 words Vox stacked it in the Cards. Axios has broken it down into one-line paragraphs and bullet points. Nobody has ever really succeeded. And the article has remained the oldest and most effective means of conveying content in textual form. Semaform itself has been criticized by some observers. Gawker joked that Ben Smith "reinvented the news by making it more confusing."

The perfect content

A more experienced colleague I showed a Semaform to commented dryly: " Apart from the headlines, do you know what it reminds me of? An article" . Ben Smith has the right to reply: "The article tends to eliminate the distinction between facts and opinions. We also tend to make it explicit graphically, to meet an increasingly weary reader in the search for that distinction ”. The perfect content, for him, will be one in which "a journalist tells you in his tone of voice the facts he has discovered".

Post-social journalism

Perhaps Ben Smith will succeed in its intent and perhaps it will introduce a new form of digital use of information. Or maybe it will end up as the very prestigious American magazine Vox, which after trying to unpack the article in its cards, returned to transmit it in its most traditional form. Certainly, in the search for him Ben Smith is one of those who are trying to imagine a journalism that will survive the social crisis. A journalism, he insists, made up of more and more facts. When at the end of the interview I ask him for the final advice for aspiring journalists, the man does not get too lost in the words: "Just get the scoops. Bring fresh news, the rest will come by itself ”. And you seem to hear him say it, the "fucking" before "scoops".

This article appeared previously in the Digital Journalism newsletter.

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