On this week’s 250th episode we hear from Max Tani, media reporter at news start-up Semafor. He tells us how he came to Semafor; the Venn diagram between media, politics, Hollywood and pretty much everything else in life; about Semafor’s attempts to balance out news and opinion; and whether covering the White House was anything like The West Wing.
In the news roundup the team looks at a bad week for broadcasters, from the BBC’s war against Gary Lineker, through Fox News’ risible defence in the Dominion lawsuit, to GB News’ £31m loss in its first operating year.
Here’s to the next 250 episodes!
Here are some highlights:
What makes a good media story
What Ben [Smith] and I really agree on is that the most interesting media stories are always tied to something else, whether it be a media and politics story – so it’s a media story that’s really a political story – or a media and technology story, or a media and entertainment story.
What we found is it really helps to think about media as a vehicle for some of these other beats, and that’s one of the things that’s really fun for me. Some days I’m covering political stories, some days I’m covering technology or Wall Street stories, sometimes I get to dabble a bit in Hollywood as well…
Part of the founding ethos of this company, and something that we are striving to do is try to have a global focus and not be necessarily so US-centric, or even just focused on New York and Washington media, which you could have newsletters – and there are – that are just focused on those in particular. So we do try to remember that part of the reason why we want to exist is to be a global publication.
For me personally, I feel most comfortable in US media stories because I understand the landscape really well. But we’ve had a few stories about Chinese media, we’ve dabbled a bit in UK media with coverage of the Guardian and the FT, and we were at Davos.
The benefits of newsletter writing
I love writing for a newsletter audience for a few reasons. One of the things that’s really nice about a newsletter is everybody who is clicking to open the story has opted in, or someone has forwarded it along to them. So there’s a level of engagement that’s higher than a few years ago, where most people in media were probably chasing traffic on Facebook. You really had to write for a broad Facebook audience or something that you wanted to go viral.
I think newsletter audiences are really special because they presumably already know a lot about you. They’ve opted into receiving something from you every week or biweekly, whatever it might be. So one thing that I really, really love is you do get that immediate impact when things land in the newsletter. Someone texts me or gives me a call five minutes later, and they’ve already read it. To me, that’s really special. I’ve found that audiences are more engaged in newsletters.
The other thing I really like about newsletters, because I’ve worked on two of them now for slightly different audiences, is you can start to create a bit of a community around the newsletter. There are certain storylines or threads that you can keep going week after week. People start to understand the language of the newsletters, the rhythms, what they can expect in it. And so you can create your own little world and little community. That’s just something that you wouldn’t be able to get in an article or something like that.
The thinking behind the ‘Semaform’ format
Most news stories are written in an inverted pyramid style, which is the most important information at the top, then a kind of descending pyramid of context and quotes and whatnot. What we’ve tried to do is get ourselves out of that particular format, and also to take advantage of the expertise of our journalists and pull back the curtain a bit, and allow us to strip away the veil of objectivity.
We’ll generally start an article with a section that’s just titled either ‘The news’ or ‘The scoop’, which basically reveals what you need to know, X thing happened. After that, we’ll have a view from the author section, which in my case it’s Max’s view. What’s really nice about that is it means I don’t have to launder my opinions through the rest of the B matter.
[The Semaform style] is trying to strip that away and say, “Hey, this is the news stuff. This is exactly what’s objectively happening.” After that, the context, all the other information. That’s how I’m thinking about things. But then we’ll have another segment afterwards, which is either room for disagreement… or will have a view from Hollywood or Cleveland, or Ohio, or from London.
We think the value of that is really explaining to readers how exactly we’re thinking about it, being as transparent as we possibly can with our reporting, and trying to break out of the traditional mould for stories that’s existed for hundreds of years.
Top story: A bad week for broadcasters
The BBC has found itself embroiled in another impartiality row this week following a tweet by Gary Lineker criticising the government’s immigration policy.
- Lineker, who has presented the BBC’s football programme Match of the Day since the 1990s, was taken off hosting duties late last week after tweeting that the language the UK government was using to describe stopping the migrant boats was not dissimilar to that used by 1930s Germany.
- The BBC said he would not be returning until an ‘agreed and clear position’ on his social media use was made.
- Other hosts and commentators pulled out in solidarity with Lineker, leaving MOTD with no presenters on Saturday evening.
- Lineker has a contract with the BBC but also a number of other organisations, and considers himself effectively a freelancer. BBC News does have strict impartiality rules, but as many have pointed out, Lineker is contracted by MOTD for his football expertise and isn’t working on news. However he did sign a 5-year deal with the BBC in 2020 under which he agreed to adhere to their impartiality rules, and in particular must avoid ‘bringing the BBC into disrepute’.
- There are definite double standards. Many other well-known figures on BBC contracts are free to say what they like politically.
- However the story has also given the government a certain amount of cover. As Charlotte Henry says, Lineker is not the story: “Focus on Gary Lineker is a failure by certain outlets and it is time to lead on the real story.”
- The issue here, again, is one of trust.
Fox News has found itself embroiled in a $1.6bn defamation case brought against it by voting machine company dominion Voting Systems over the broadcast of Donald Trump’s claims that his 2020 defeat by Biden was the result of electoral fraud.
- The lawsuit has ended up revealing messages from top Fox News execs and journalists showing their true thoughts on the situation. Top hosts including Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham have made derogatory comments about Trump and the extent to which he was lying, but continued to give the falsehoods airtime over concerns viewers would leave for competing, more extreme networks.
- Last month, the Harvard law professor Laurence H Tribe told the Guardian: “I have never seen a defamation case with such overwhelming proof that the defendant admitted in writing that it was making up fake information in order to increase its viewership and its revenues. Fox and its producers and performers were lying as part of their business model.”
- This is a very funny thread about the mess Fox News has tied itself into trying to mitigate the damage from the Dominion lawsuit. First it’s claiming it’s entertainment, then it’s claiming the emails from the Murdochs etc aren’t relevant to the case, then it’s saying other news orgs will try to steal its ‘proprietary news gathering techniques’.
- Defamation cases are notoriously hard to win but there’s such damning evidence here, it could prove very costly for Fox News
Talking of right-wing news outlets, GB News has reported losses 10x greater than revenue for its first year on air.
- It made total revenues – primarily through advertising – of around £3.5m, but a £31m loss.
- Its struggles to find an audience have been well-documented. It currently has an average monthly reach of 2.32 million. It has also had to content with advertiser boycotts.
- However, it is only year 1 for the channel – few media organisations are profitable that quickly.
News in brief:
- There’s a fascinating piece on Techcrunch this week about Artefact – a new news aggregator from Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom. We don’t have time in the NIBs to go into the specifics of it but I was struck by the language that Systrom is using to describe the news ecosystem. He’s saying it is ‘broken’ and ‘biased’ – exactly the language we heard from aggregators like Knewz (which, where is that now, again?) The only difference here is that machine learning is an explicit part of the ‘solution’ to that.
- A great piece in The Wrap about how Vice, Vox and BuzzFeed Blew the Future of Media came out this week. It touches on Buzzfeed’s share price collapse, Vice’s $30 million in debt and the departure of CEO Nancy Dubuc and the Vox fire sale. Their problem was overpromising and under delivering. Interesting to read in the same week as UK newspaper publisher Reach announced a 27% drop in operating profit but we’re still getting chat about digital foundations and customer value and data and how bright the future (unless you happen to be one of the people at risk of redundancy).
- This week saw an announcement about the launch of a new climate media company called Heatmap News. It’s co-founded by a team of former The Week executives, including former editor in chief Nico Lauricella, North American CEO Randy Siegel, and CEO Sara O’Connor. The start-up has raised $4 million in a Series A funding round and is starting by focusing exclusively on selling consumer subscriptions.