Analysis: Semafor Reinvents News By Making It More Confusing to Read

Welcome to the world, from your friends at Gawké

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images News/Getty Images // Logo: Semafor


The website Semafor, founded by former New York Times media critic Ben Smith and former CEO of Bloomberg Media Justin Smith (no relation) launched Tuesday morning, after months of anticipatory coverage in media outlets, particularly the one where Ben once worked, plus Gawker, and two million promoted tweets that look like this:

The newly launched homepage has a yellow background and a lot of clocks on it, so you can see different time zones. Semafor also released a backlog of articles from its new contributors, and an explainer on what it’s calling the “Semaform,” or a redesign of “the atomic unit of written news, the article.” The Smiths spelled this out in a blog titled “What is a Semaform, anyway? And why should you care?,” and a short video from Semafor executive editor Gina Chua.

The Semaform, the site explains, “separates the undisputed facts from the reporter’s analysis of those facts, provides different and more global perspectives, and shares strong journalism on the subject from other outlets.” This is how it works:

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)
Let’s dive in.

Let’s dive in.


Back in January, Ben Smith told the Times that Semafor aimed to fill a gap in global news, targeted at the “200 million people who are college educated, who read in English, but who no one is really treating like an audience, but who talk to each other and talk to us.”

What did that mean? At the time, no one knew, because it sounded like Smith wrote the sentence using his iPhone’s word prediction feature. But apparently, it meant treating readers like they have little baby brains, which isn’t exactly an innovation.

On the plus side, Ben Smith will be bringing back his media column, which used to come out Sunday nights and consistently stirred shit. It was like Christmas for the blue check community, where the presents sometimes included a new bike and sometimes another snow globe from your Aunt Regina, who pronounces it with a long “I” because she’s from Bamburg, South Carolina.

Also, Semafor has made some good hires like wunderkind media reporter Max Tani and briefly canceled politics whisperer Dave Weigel, both of whom I would read in much stupider formats.


Semafor is already disagreeing with itself, it seems. Just hours after launching, they removed a rather distinctive formatting feature. Three hours ago, the first few words of every sentence in every article appeared in bold. This is no longer the case, with Smith telling Gawker, “We thought it looked better in newsletters than on the web. We are being bold in other ways, and hope people will sign up for those newsletters.”


A Gawker survey of experienced media critics found varied reactions to the Semafor launch. Here’s a brief summary of our findings.

Claire Carusillo, Gawker features writer: I'll never forget when Ben Smith took a phone call while sitting in on one of our pitch meetings, but kudos for getting this thing off the ground, hon.
Kelly Conaboy, Gawker senior features writer: I like when websites are a little funny. I don't see that happening intentionally with Semafor.
Leah Finnegan, Gawker boss: I love it!
Olivia Craighead, Gawker staff writer: The homepage is crowded and fugly. I think they think that if they fill it with words readers will believe it’s publication for smart people.
Fran Hoepfner, Gawker contributing writer: This website needs more pictures.
Olivia Craighead, again: I like that little globe gif they have on some pages.
Jenny Zhang, Gawker features editor: The Semaform will rebuild my trust in news.
George Civeris, Gawker senior editor: I still think they should have called it ‘Soup.’


No one has been hired yet to take over Ben Smith’s old media column, which is where other writing on this topic would likely appear. They should probably do it soon. It would be fun if they gave it to like, Azealia Banks.