Unbundling the news article
Semafor's taking the latest swing at rebuilding journalism's building block
This week, I spoke to Semafor CEO Justin Smith ahead of the launch of the global news organization. The launch has been long in the making, and it will invariably have its critics, but I appreciate the ambition of taking such a big swing, not to mention how different it is to launch a media brand now vs a decade ago. Check out the interview on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Please send me feedback at email@example.com.
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Unbundling the news article
The building block of journalism is the inverted pyramid news article. This is the first thing you learn as a reporter. You put the important information up top in the first sentence or two (the lede), followed by the all-important paragraph or two that sums up the main points of the article (the nut graf), followed by the context and further information. The best news articles give the reader 80% of what they need even if they only get through the first few paragraphs.
This approach was born of technological constraints of a bygone era.
Many sensible people have wondered why this format, born of a time when people used the horse and buggy, would persist, particularly in digital media without the constraints of the analog era. The main constraint of the digital era is human attention. There is simply exponentially more media now. Over the years, there have been several attempts to reinvent the news article, mostly playing to this challenge of shortened attention spans.
BuzzFeed set loose on the world the listicle, leading to many regrettable imitators
Vox bet on explainers with a “cards” format that fell short of revolutionizing news products
Business Insider took slideshows about as far as they could go.
Circa atomized news with the idea breaking a story into chunks is a better for mobile
Axios turned one-sentence paragraphs into bullet points, inserted bolded section heads, and trademarked Smart Brevity.
At Digiday, we tried a feature called TLDR that allowed readers to hit a button to get a truncated version of the story, while using the TLDRs for newsletters and other distribution channels. (Didn’t work; too much friction.)
I’m probably missing several attempts. The latest entry comes from Semafor, which is launching today. What I find interesting is that the stated goal is not to keep up with short attention spans but to try to add transparency to build trust through product design. After all, there’s a renewed vibrancy in longer-form content, from two-hour podcasts to sprawling newsletters (hope to keep this under 1,500 words). A “Semaform” consists of compartments that divide the factual information from analysis and context. Check it out in action.
The idea here is you can separate out the opinion bit that’s embedded in news articles, sometimes passed off as analysis but sometimes seen as the source of distrust that an agenda is being served. Trust in news is regularly ranked fairly low,. You can make a good argument that, beyond this being driven by the divisive politics of our times, this distrust is driven by how the news article bundle is trying to do too much. Just facts with no context and what-it-all-means is unlikely to be the solution. The pining for a time of “unbiased news” is mostly nostalgists wearing rose-colored glasses.
Here’s how Semafor CEO Justin Smith describes the need to me on this week’s episode of The Rebooting Show:
“The gap is found when you talk to news consumers themselves, and you just have to look at the data, look at the research. And the level of frustration that news consumers have with their existing news ecosystem is actually very high. People are screaming from the rooftops, We're tired of bias, we're tired of polarization, we're tired of editorial editorial news being blended with opinion.”
Beyond establishing trust – this is an execution business, there’s no easy formula – having a signature format is a form of differentiation. For Semafor, many have carped that its stated mission sounds pretty similar to the many other publications who cater to elite audiences who spend time in business class airline lounges.
I’ve written about the hierarchy of differentiation, and I tend to rank format differentiation as more incremental than foundational. Would Axios have succeeded without Smart Brevity? Hard to say. Sometimes I find the format too constraining. Not every dish has the same recipe. Ultimately, differentiation in publishing today is beyond design fillips – Semafor pale yellow is the answer to the FT’s salmon pink – and formats; the brands that succeed do so on the back of a unique viewpoint that’s broadly shared by a community, backed by relentless and consistent execution across a variety of media formats, with a business model that is aligned with the mission.
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The robots are coming for real now
First, they came for the media planners and I said nothing… While many had web3/crypto and metaverse fever dreams, artificial intelligence was quietly making tremendous strides that are becoming a shocking reality quickly. It seems every day a new tool pops up that uses AI to create media. Just this week, email newsletter collective Every teased a new AI writing tool called Lex that looks remarkable. You don’t have to squint very much to see a future in which all aspects of media creation are at the very least informed, if not wholly created, by AI.
This was the main topic on the latest episode of People vs Algorithms podcast, a weekly show I’m doing with Troy Young and Alex Schleifer. We discussed the march of AI into media and what it means for those of us who pay our bills by making media. My own belief is that the avalanche of “synthetic media” will lead to an appreciation of more hand-crafted humanistic media. Give the People vs Algorithms podcast a listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify – and please leave a rating and review. Send me any feedback you have too: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The biggest risk to digital publishers right now can be their own tech stack. Common problems publishers face:
Overly complex builds that become money pits thanks to maintenance bills
Heavy sites that are hitting SEO and revenue
An inflexible tech stack that stifles growth and new revenue opportunities
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Maybe we’re moving from peak newsletter to post-newsletter. Substack wants to be seen as much more than a way to send emails and easily connect to Stripe. Instead, it’s embracing a role akin what Shopify has done for independent retailers.Most successful newsletters do not stay solely newsletters, so that makes sense. The real test for Substack will be if it can develop great non-email tools for publishers. I was underwhelmed by the podcasting tool, and didn’t have much interest in video. Beyond that, in order to power independent businesses, Substack will need to provide an array of tools – or an app store – for analyzing and optimizing a business.
The dearth of local news has led to an array of partisan operations designed to look like news products but with a thinly disguised agenda. This is the danger of such a void. As I said on the PvA podcast, I think eventually people will use AI to tune their news experience to suit their political preferences. There are many people who do not turn to news to understand the world better but to have their existing worldview confirmed.
One of the best parts of the influx of journalists who set off on the independent path is they tend to be more open about their progress. Max Read gives a year-in evaluation of his first year going solo. The reality: It isn’t easy, and don’t be fooled by the gobs of money raked in by the .0001% at the top of the Substack leaderboards. Building a publishing business of any size is hard and arduous. An interesting wrinkle to this that I believe you’ll find more common: the disconnect of Substack success from Twitter reach. Many of the early success cases with email newsletters are people who got a head start with a big Twitter presence. That was in the absence of pretty much any distribution tools from Substack (or other platforms like Beehiiv). That’s changing – and should lead to a greater variety of independent publishers that aren’t so into culture war stuff.
Outside of the speculators, I came to believe much of the enthusiasm for web3 was mostly driven by a dissatisfaction of how the internet turned out. Instead of a tool that allowed a flowering of creativity and independence, it became in many ways an adversarial tool used for manipulation and sometimes outright control. The once-accepted view that no government could tame the internet proved not true. As AI continues to spread – TikTok’s algorithms are just the start – many will tire of the soulless manipulation and instead seek out different types of media that are more human.
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