Semafor and Puck bet on stars

Ben Smith and Liz Gough join The Rebooting Show in Cannes

Thanks to everyone who came out to our Cannes event, The New Attention Economy, presented by Kerv Interactive. We plan on having more events in the fall, both in New York City and at major industry events. Sign up for information (and get in touch about partnerships).

This week on The Rebooting Show, I had a conversation with Semafor’s Ben Smith and Puck’s Liz Gough about building brands that put individuals in the forefront. First up, a message from The Rebooting supporter Nativo.

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“The individual needs to be more present”

My theory of the case of media is that it will increasingly be built around individuals.

Semafor and Puck, in their own ways, are evidence of this shift. Their coverage areas intersect, although Puck is shying away from global news ambitions to stick to the insidery lane of power industries. Both brands have elevated their journalists in their own ways, with Puck going so far as to term them “partners.”

Last week, at The New Attention Economy in Cannes, I discussed the notion of “influencer journalism” with Semafor co-founder and editor-in-chief Ben Smith and Puck co-founder and COO Liz Gough. Some highlights from the session:

  • The creator economy is a long term shift: “Every other media industry, starting with Hollywood 80 years ago, made this transition to a connection with individuals. Journalism, because it is the worst of the media businesses, is the last one to get there.” – Ben
  • The legacy brand challenge: “Any new brand coming into existence, with Puck, Semafor or The Ankler, the balance to the individual needs to be more present. The legacy brands are struggling to figure this out.” – Liz
  • No influencers, please, we’re journalists: “When you’re recruiting a star reporter at The Wall Street Journal, the last thing you want to tell her is you want her to be an influencer.” – Ben
  • The journalist entrepreneur: “We are actively recruiting entrepreneurial journalists. They want to be commercial partners to my team. We spend a lot of time sitting down with our writers talking about commercial strategy, how we grow their subscriber base, how we do events, and how we do more advertising, who we’re going to call on. Our journalists are business partners.” - Liz
  • The Riviera is filled with Dylan Byers doppelgangers: “One in three men here look like Dylan.” – Ben

Check out the full episode, as well as others I did in Cannes with GroupM North America CEO Kirk McDonald, Hearst’ global chief revenue officer Lisa Howard, Bloomberg Media global chief revenue officer Christine Cook and an AI and creativity discussion with I&Co’s Rei Inamoto and Havas chief creative officer and president Myra Nussbaum.


The celebrity media bubble: The “go-direct” mantra is great for athletes, only there is only one LeBron, and there aren’t that many Pat McAfees. The Athletic’s chief commercial officer, Sebastian Tomich, predicted at a discussion we had in Cannes that many athlete media companies would fail. We’re seeing something similar in podcasting, which convinces pretty much anybody that they would be amazing podcasters. Betting on famous people like Harry and Megan and the Obamas hasn’t fared well for podcasting companies. Instead, go figure, the medium is best for specialists. (Semafor)

From optimization to dark patterns: The problem with optimization as a religion is it can quickly veer into the murky world of dark patterns that use UX in order to manipulate behaviors. The FTC is targeting Amazon for its use of dark patterns with Amazon Prime, of all things. The FTC should try to cancel a newspaper subscription sometime. One publisher remarked to me the industry might just collapse if the FTC simply required them to make auto renew opt-in. (Hacker News)

Made for arbitrage: Made for advertising sites are the scourge of the open web, and they’re poised to get worse because the incentives, as always.  From the start, the internet has been an arbitrageur’s dream, and artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT have even further removed the friction of creating content to gum up search results and load down pages with ungodly amounts of ads. Programmatic buying platforms occasionally crack down, but the incentives are there for too many to turn a blind eye. (The Verge/MIT Technology Review)

Scenes from the ad recession: Many people missed their numbers in Q1 and Q2. Even niche areas have been hit. The Hollywood trade industry has been a reliable moneymaker, and it is not immune either: “PMC insiders told TheWrap that THR missed its Q1 2023 sales goal by 75%, while Deadline only hit 30% of their Q4 2022 revenue goals.” (The Wrap)

Caught in the middle: The Daily Beast is a classic publishing brand trapped in the middle. It isn’t big enough to compete in a tough ad market, essential enough to drive high-priced subs or diversified into high-value niche ad markets. The result: Barry Diller is pulling the plug on a sale for now, after intriguingly kicking around a joint venture with The Ankler, which claims a $20 million valuation after its $1.5 million funding round. (NYT)


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