Opinion | Is the New York Times Stalking Semafor? - POLITICO

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“We’ve chosen a brand that we’re going to be unveiling in a couple of months that is the same word in 25 or 35 different languages,” the paper reported Justin Smith telling a Harvard Business School Club event via Zoom. “It is very intentionally going to be able to live in Asia or Europe or the Middle East or America.”

This calculated tease produced a flurry of speculation from the press, including the Times. With “Call on me, teacher!” enthusiasm, the Times assisted Smith’s prelaunch publicity stunt by noting that “taxi, tea, coffee, chai, sugar, pajama, radio and soup” have the same meaning in a number of languages. Smith was fairly transparent in his showboating, telling the business school club why he was leaving so much unsaid about his startup while also talking about it a lot. “There’s not a huge advantage when you’re starting a new company to be giving away all the specifics,” he said.

The guessing game that Smith commenced ended inside the week after Axios newshound Sara Fischer discovered and published the name: Semafor, a phonetic variation on “semaphore.” This produced yet another Times story about the Smith and Smith venture, this one about the site’s global name. The piece also reported a Jan. 16 federal trademark registration filing for Semafor. Can we expect more news on this front? Perhaps a gender reveal?

The latest Times on Semafor action, published on Wednesday of this week, provided more of those “specifics” that Justin Smith has been hoarding. But were they worth the wait? From the story’s lede: “News articles will be broken into sections distinguishing facts from opinion. Reporters’ bylines will be as prominent as headlines. And journalists will be permitted to offer their analysis on social media.” Bigger bylines are supposed to cultivate a direct relationship between Semafor’s journalists and audience, the article says, but neglects to explain how. If the startup really wanted to attract attention, it would make bylines bigger than headlines!

Semafor’s wrinkles might be interesting when finally executed, but they smack more of market promotion, dutifully transmitted by the Times, than journalistic revolution. That’s no modern crime. “Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement,” wrote Samuel Johnson in 1759. Every new publication forms itself in reaction to existing publications and invariably hypes some new wrinkle that supposedly separates it from the herd. You can’t very well excite your intended audience by promising them what they’re already getting. Henry Luce wanted to save readers’ time with Time. For Vox, the hype factor was “Vox Cards.” For Axios, it has been “Smart Brevity.” For Grid, it was the “360 approach.” When Michael Kinsley started Slate, he promised longer, linear pieces as a remedy to mid-’90s web copy, when most stories were shortish. But start-up gimmicks like these tend to fade over time. If they don’t work as planned, editors switch to a style that better resembles their competition’s.

The latest Times story on Semafor isn’t completely newsless. The venture has collected $25 million from investors Sam Bankman-Fried and brother Gabe, Jessica Lessin, David G. Bradley, and John Thornton, and it has made more hires. This story — and the first story about Smith and Smith quitting their day jobs — qualify as real news. All the rest has been puffery, worthy of a few lines of agate in a publication news roundup.

At the current rate, we should expect another five Times articles about Semafor before its scheduled fall launch, one about Semafor’s web design, one about its innovative office layout, one about the specialness of the Smith and Smith relationship, one about the defection of a new hire, and finally one about its kickoff week.

Why does the Times media desk insist on covering Semafor like it’s breaking news? For one thing, the Times has always had a special regard for alumni, whether they get a new, fancy job or write a book. If you desire a fat Times obit after you’re ushered to your reward, make sure to have worked at the paper at some time in your career. Also, Ben Smith excelled as BuzzFeed editor and as the Times’ media columnist, so an argument can be made that anything he does amounts to news (but not this much).

The last and perhaps truest reason is that the press loves to write about the press. This column stands as additional evidence.


Disclosure: I worked at Slate for Kinsley. Ben Smith, an early Politico hire, departed before I arrived. Thanks to Junk Mail Jesus Richard Riccelli for his insights. Send hype to [email protected]. My email alerts are taking no new subscribers. My Twitter feed actually comes delivered on a “card.” My RSS feed is the epitome of Dumb Brevity.

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