Written by Nick Heer.

Semafor Who?

It seems too poetic for a major journalism scandal to unfold in one corner while a high-profile effort to save the future of media — and, if you believe its marketing, the democratic world itself — is launching in another. This new effort is called Semafor, and its co-founder Ben Smith, formerly of the New York Times and Buzzfeed News, introduced the aims of its coverage:

Our approach is more literal, and it’s built from the core principles of journalism. We take people seriously when they say they know that reporters are human beings — and experts in their beats — who have views of their own. But they’d also like us to separate the facts from our views. They’d like us to be humble about the possibility of disagreement. And they’d like us to distill differing views, and gather global perspective.

A brand new place for journalism on the web means a brand new gimmick: Semafor writes its stories in the “semaform” format. Here is executive editor Gina Chua to explain:

We’re redesigning the atomic unit of written news, the article.

We’re breaking articles into:

  • The News

  • The Reporter’s View (or analysis)

  • Room For Disagreement (or counterargument)

  • The View From (or different perspectives on the topic)

  • Notable (or some of the best other writing on the subject)

Chua says the goal of separating factual information from analysis and differing opinions is to rebuild trust. Smith, in that introductory article, explicitly tied the format to instilling confidence among readers.

This misdiagnoses the problem. A habitually contrarian and cynical reader will likely not find renewed belief in the media from alumni of the New York Times, Bloomberg, NBC News, and Wall Street Journal. We have jumped well beyond skepticism of views; there is now open rejection of facts. Over one-sixth of registered American voters — and over one-third of registered Republicans — are “very” comfortable with voting for a candidate who believes the 2020 U.S. presidential election was fraudulent. Tens of millions of people are apparently totally fine with throwing their weight behind those who lie about the fundamental facts of democracy.

As Gallup explains, the decline of trust in media in the U.S. correlates with reduced faith in government and institutions. There is a striking partisan split of trust in doctors, pharmacists, teachers, and reporters. I find it hard to believe the needle will be moved by changing the organization of an article when representatives of so many major media institutions are behind it.

Semafor’s head of video Joe Posner — formerly of Vox — preemptively responded to criticisms like the one I am making in an appropriately marimba-backed series of interviews with prominent journalists and pundits. They all say they are hopeful for what Semafor is trying to do — nearly all of them use the word “try”. Posner himself admits it “all feels a little far-fetched”.

I, too, appreciate the attempt. Why would I not? I like nuance, I like — to borrow Posner’s phrase — “messy stories”, and I like testing views and analyses. Even though its team of journalists remains primarily U.S.-based, it does appear to be making an effort to offer a more worldly perspective.

But I am also someone who still believes in institutions. I trust regulators, elections, and journalists. That does not mean I do not have criticisms — I obviously do — and it does not mean I do not try to verify what I am hearing. But we do not need articles in a slightly different layout to tell us lobbyists have undue influence in their clients’ governance, elected officials often lack meaningful oversight, and corporations do all they can to dodge regulation. Democracy is being degraded in plain sight by people who undermine institutions and then point to their subsequent failures as evidence they are ineffective. Rich people are bankrolling this hostility.

Our public institutions are in a death spiral. I am skeptical that reporting about it in a different way is an effective counterbalance. Will the permanently pessimist find a new perspective when it is presented by people they enthusiastically loathe? Semafor appears to be written for me — and that is its first big problem.