Dr Pradeep Mahapatra
Launch of a new digital news platform Semafor in the United States on October 18, 2022, amidst of a challenging time for the news industry worldwide during the ‘New Normal’ attracted media attention. The prevailing gloomy environment is highlighted with clouser of print newspapers, consolidation of news platforms after transfer of ownership through takeovers, and wide-scale layoffs of journalists. However, an initial investment of 200 crore Indian rupees and employment of 50 odd journalists together with a pre-launch exercise of 10 months to push forward a news startup definitely creates interest among media enthusiasts to learn more about the venture.
‘Semafor.com’ is a news website. It is attached with eight email newsletters and an event business. There will be no paywalls for at least 12 to 18 months to access the website and subscribe to the newsletters. It may adopt a subscription model in the future. Initially, it will adopt advertisement-dependent revenue generation and instead of retail, depending on corporate reputation and brand advertising. Large business groups including Pfizer and Verizon have entered into an agreement.
Semafor has been promoted by two American journalists Ben Smith and Justin Smith. Ben Smith worked as media reporter for The New York Times and editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed. Justin Smith is an ex-CEO of Bloomberg Media. Both of them have extensive experience in managing digital news products. Though both share a common surname, they are not relatives. In January 2022 they left their previous jobs to concentrate on the launch of the new project.
Ben Smith emphasized that loss of trust and polarization are the two top most enduring problems faced by news platforms. Semafor is set to solve these problems. He has focused upon objectives to reach 20 crore, college-educated English-speaking readers, across borders. He treats each news story as a ‘black box’. A ‘Black box’ in an airplane records all the information about a particular flight and one can open it to learn about the recordings. Similarly, a news story should also carry various aspects of the report and opportunities should be created for the readers to unfold the desired information or opinion.
The original structure of news stories published in Semafor can be divided into five distinct parts (i) the news, (ii) the reporter’s view or analysis, (iii) counterarguments, (iv) global perspectives and (v) useful links. In many cases, when a news story is constructed utilising a single source, apprehension of fragmentation exits. To combat such inadequacy, inclusion of inputs from different sources and perspectives can be considered as an effort to present the complete news.
Many news stories published in Semafor platform carry at least two parts (i) the news and (ii) know more. The length of news stories are short and instead of many, only a limited number of selective stories appear in an edition. Perhaps Semafor journalism is keen to present a relevant narrative on contemporary times to consumers who are otherwise hooked in busy schedules in daily life. Further, such journalism takes efforts to discourage readers to search for alternative sources to know more on the subject. Production design for the reader’s convenience may attract serious news consumers to the platform.
Semafor has been promoted as “a global news company at birth.” The news platform proclaims, “We believe that informed citizens of every country need to understand what drives decisions, actions, culture and power beyond their own borders.” Reboust digital transformation in the ‘New Normal’ made the world population more inter-connected and their lives are more susceptible to the global crisis.
After emphasizing on international perspective, Semafor gives importance to the process of distillation. “Our journalism will be paired with distilled news, analysis, and opinion from a global range of sources,” the website stated. “Our biggest stories, and greatest crises, are global: from climate change to pandemics, rising inequality to supply chain disruption, political instability to the influence of social media.”
The common reader is burdened with information overload due to unprecedented growth in the news landscape arising due to the spread of digital media. The situation encourages established news platforms to select only a few news stories for their editions and Semafor follows the trend. Experiments in changing news presentation style was carried out by US digital news platforms Vox, Axios, Politico, Puck during the later part of the second decade of the twenty-first century, and Semafor with its original news structure is a new entrant.
The word ‘Semafor’ is derived from the French and Greek languages. It denotes to arm and flag-based messaging system. In absence of a wireless communication system in the olden days, sailors positioned in ships sent and received messages using such a sign language. Further, traffic lighting signals are also called ‘Semafor’ in French. Semafor.com is unique in its approach as an international news startup. The success of the venture is expected to spread impact in national and regional news media worldwide. Loss of trust in journalism in the post-pandemic ‘New Normal’ warrants urgent intervention for the establishment of trust among news consumers and Semafor.com seems to be floating in the right direction.
(English translation of the original Odia newsletter by the author circulated on October 28, 2022. https://tinyletter.com/pradeepmahapatra/letters/message-273. It is an open-access content, free for translation and reproduction)
Dr. Pradeep Mahapatra is a retired faculty of Journalism, Berhampur University, Odisha.https://about.me/pradeepmahapatra
Bander, David/apnews.com/October 18, 2022
Allsop, Jon.cjr.org. October 19, 2022
Semaform and function – Columbia Journalism Review