When the media dinosaurs learn to open doors

Sandra ClarkLet's Talk

Former BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Ben Smith has written a book, Traffic, and started a new venture, Semafor. The book is a reflection on his past worklife plus observations about the tugs and tears of new media versus legacy media. I like the insights he shares in an interview with Nilay Patel about the Semafor startup. The full interview is here. I’ve chopped it for brevity, and it’s still too long.

How to you build this brand, Semafor?

One-on-one connections with people, whether through email, at events or by advertising on social media.

Are you measuring loyal readers versus those just bouncing in off of Twitter?

We measure our web traffic, but my primary goal with the website is to get you to sign up for an email.

Why do you think email endures?

Its limitations. Editing for email is so interesting because it really is like print. There are design limits. There are word limits. There are font limits that drive me nuts. But it does force you to swing. I don’t think print is exactly going to come back, in some bespoke places, maybe. But print values, which is to say hierarchy, concision, aggregation, these things that went out of fashion, I think are things now that people are like, “No, no, please do tell me the most important thing first. Do summarize for me.”

Political coverage?

Sure, we’ve got David Weigel, Shelby Talcott, Benjy Sarlin and others very, very focused on it. … I fundamentally think citizens of healthy countries do not wake up every morning and think about politics. It’s a sign of social disaster when everyone is obsessed.

Does cable news have a life?

One of the reasons that cable news remains so important is because it generates all this money, which it pays to political actors like Tucker Carlson. If you could pay Tucker Carlson $20 million a year, then you would be more relevant politically, right? It’s circular, but it’s … a slowly decaying business model. The president of a cable network told me a little while ago that he was okay but his network was melting in the shade.

Do you think … 

How much longer are we going to have to put up with cable news? I don’t know. I hate to say this because I wonder if it didn’t actually [already] survive. Maybe the last decade of the internet was the true existential threat to that kind of media, which is to say theatrical, polarizing live television, and that now as streaming looks more and more like TV and the transition to streaming just is turning us back to television, essentially. Those channels just won’t make the leap.

Talk about subscription media. At the end of the day, people pay a lot of money to get Fox News in their home, and they love it. Do you think that recognition exists anywhere inside of Fox News, that they’re as driven by the whims of social media as BuzzFeed once was?

I don’t think self-awareness is really their specialty over there. But I do think, again, one of the interesting things about Fox is they did try to launch a subscription streaming service called Fox Nation that bombed, and I think their strength is that they have all these people who have cable packages and, by the way, are in their 60s, 70s and 80s. The audiences of these cable networks are really quite old, and Fox is the oldest, and it’s folks who navigate to the channel by speaking out loud to their remotes, and so it’s not people who, if Tucker Carlson says, “Hey, come download my app and join me in this new place …” It’s a very tough audience to pull over to that new place.

What’s next for Semafor? The media is reorienting itself. How do you see the next turn? What’s the next thing you need to build, or what’s the next insulation from change …

We just launched, and we’re really focused on just making it better, making the product better, making the events, which we are in love with, better and doing a lot more of those.

Quotables from The Writer’s Almanac by Garison Keillor
  • About the life of a novelist, Henry James said: “We work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”
  • The poet Louise Glück said: “Writing is a kind of revenge against circumstance too: bad luck, loss, pain. If you make something out of it, then you’ve no longer been bested by these events.
  • Lionel Barrymore said: “Half the people in Hollywood are dying to be discovered and the other half are afraid they will be.”

Sandra Clark is editor/CEO of Knox TN Today Inc.


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