Ben Smith’s Lofty, Perhaps Ill-Timed, Analogy for Semafor’s Global Play: The “Netflix” of News

The people behind Semafor have said a lot of different things about what exactly it is that they’re trying to create, and this week brought yet another: the “Netflix” of news. Or, at least, according to Ben Smith, the startup’s stated global intentions will be “definitely Netflix rather than Disney.”

Smith made the comment in a Financial Times article announcing that Semafor had hired Yinka Adegoke, former Africa editor of Quartz, to lead what will be its first regional bureau: Semafor Africa. The company then hopes “to expand market by market with an emphasis on the Middle East, India, Japan and Europe,” FT reported, noting that the strategy resembles that of Netflix, which found early success creating content in local territories that then worked across the world, rather than Disney making content in Burbank meant to spread across the world.

It’s a lofty analogy for a startup that plans to launch in October with roughly 30 journalists, but also an unintentionally ominous one. The streaming giant has dominated the news in recent months over predictions that Netflix would be hemorrhaging subscribers (it saw its largest loss in subscribers in the company’s 25-year-history—though not as many as it thought—in July) and has been going through multiple rounds of layoffs. Why Smith chose Netflix as a buzzy way to explain his new company that he claims will disrupt the media industry or how Semafor sees its strategy akin to Netflix’s join the long list of questions about Semafor that have accumulated despite, or maybe because of, the constant coverage it’s received in recent months.

When I asked Smith these questions, he pointed out he’s “not a Netflix stock analyst” before seemingly reinventing the benefits of newsrooms having international bureaus (which several major outlets, like Smith’s former employer, have continued to maintain). “With the understanding that many of the great stories are global…ultimately having true expertise in Nigeria is, you know, in the long term, and in Washington, and having your editors in those two places able to talk to each other about, you know, a story…is a huge asset,” he said. “We’ve hired two really great African journalists—”

Two or one?

“Two, uh, actually maybe we haven’t announced the other. But to build a team. And fundamentally the coverage that Yinka is going to be leading is for global African readers and viewers, not for sort of an American newspaper reader for instance. And so that’s the analogy: that we’re trying to build a network of teams and streams of coverage that are, you know, trying to reach people who want quality news in a bunch of different places—not on the assumption that everyone wants exactly the same thing, but on the assumption that you can take some of the same principles with the same values and the same platform and reach people in different places.”

Semafor has amassed intrigue since January, when former BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith quit his media-columnist gig at the New York Times to start a new globally-focused news platform with Justin Smith (no relation), who at the same time quit as chief executive of Bloomberg Media. They’ve since made a bunch of hires, raised some $25 million in funding, and done a lot of talking, often about disrupting the digital news space with a product trying to target the “200 million people who are college educated, who read in English, but who no one is really treating like an audience,” as Ben Smith put it in the early days, and, more recently to FT, “build a much more networked way for a totally different moment.”

Yet the few specifics that the Smiths have divulged seem relatively standard, with a recent Times profile on the venture hyping news articles “broken into sections distinguishing facts from opinion” and bylines as big as 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,” Politico’s Jack Shafer wrote in June, in a piece criticizing the newspaper for obsessively covering Semafor.

In the FT interview, Smith made a point to differentiate Semafor from places “exporting news from London or from Atlanta or from New York,” a point he reiterated on the phone with me; two of those places, London and New York, are where Semafor will be based, along with D.C. For all the talk about reinventing the wheel, it’ll seemingly be playing, at least initially, in the same turf as Axios and Politico. Semafor may have long-term plans to compete at an international level, but they’re not staffing the organization to do so anytime soon. “Hiring a guy in Africa I don’t think makes you a global publication,” as one longtime media watcher told me.

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