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Today: Changes to Apple’s Podcast app leaves the audio industry reeling, NBC quietly cuts its Racial͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
cloudy Des Moines
cloudy Washington, D.C.
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January 15, 2024


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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome to Semafor Media, where I’m currently laid over at O’Hare en route — sorry! — from Des Moines to Davos in the Swiss Alps, where the weather is better.

The Hotel Fort Des Moines, where I began writing this essay, is the old center of the Iowa caucus media scene. Here the Washington Star’s Mary McGrory fired off goofy telegrams while covering the ‘56 campaign, Bob Dole stomped around in ‘88, and Bill Clinton dropped into the lobby Chequers Lounge on New Year’s Eve 2008. But by then the grand hotel’s only remaining charm was that you were allowed to smoke in the guest rooms. It closed a few years later, and the media scene migrated to a soulless Marriott lobby.

But 20th century glamour is back in fashion, and the Fort Des Moines reopened recently as a splendid monument to its old glory. Think Rockefeller Center surrounded by frozen parking lots.

It’s again the center of the caucus media crowd diminished by the bleak news business, the bleak weather, and the bleak primary season.

Still, things felt almost normal. Friday night, the Washington Post crew (motto: “Democracy Dies In Darkness”) dined at the hotel restaurant with Donald Trump’s garrulous co-campaign manager, Chris LaCivita. Saturday, two low-profile women running Nikki Haley’s campaign sat quietly in the lobby while a crowd gathered for Trump himself to sweep in out of the cold, then wave and ignore questions. That evening, LaCivita could be seen trying to extricate himself from conversation with the pro-Trump influencer Laura Loomer, who then dined a couple of tables away from DeSantis Twitter warrior Christina Pushaw, exchanging angry tweets.

Reporters milled around the lobby and basement bar, filing, drinking, buttonholing accommodating campaign officials. Like any other campaign year, really, only a little lower stress, a little nicer, because everyone seems to assume Donald Trump will walk to victory.

One top Trump campaign official did tell Shelby Talcott and me he thought Trump had an 85% chance at the nomination. That prompted me to get back on a recent hobbyhorse and start ranting again in the direction of a Post Democracy Team scout that I wish the media would spend a bit more energy covering the small-d democracy of Haley’s run, even if that means postponing stories about the risks to big-D Democracy of an allegedly inevitable Trump victory.

And now off to Davos, where we global financial elites hope to placate right-wing populists by tiptoeing away from the decade of promises about climate, race, and economic inequality they made to placate progressives. Sign up for the Semafor Davos Daily to peer into the place.

Also today: Podcasts. (Scoop count: 5)

Semafor will be in Davos this week, again producing the definitive daily newsletter for the global power elite and everyone who loves to hate them. Sign up here.

Assignment Desk
REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer

If you read one thing about the future of political media, make it this piece by Semafor’s Dave Weigel and Shelby Talcott on how Ron DeSantis’ disastrous relationship with the media was an early, deliberate experiment in cutting out the traditional media. Unsuccessful, but likely a sign of things to come. But when?

Max Tani

The incredible shrinking podcast industry



Apple has quietly tightened its reporting of how many people listen to podcasts, sending shock waves through an embattled audio industry still reeling from the end of the COVID-era production bubble.

The shift, Apple wrote in a blog post, was technical: The dominant podcasting platform had begun switching off automatic downloads for users who haven’t listened to five episodes of a show in the last two weeks.

But while few users noticed the shift, some of the biggest podcasts in the world saw their official listener numbers drop dramatically. Long-running shows that publish frequently were hit particularly hard. A user who listened to a show like The New York Times’ The Daily a few times, subscribed, but stopped listening would continue to count as a download indefinitely. Even better under the old rules: For people who listened to a show, dropped off for a while, but started listening again later, Apple would automatically download every show in between. The arrangement drove big download numbers, a crucial metric for ad sales and a sign of the vast reach of podcasts as a medium.

For instance, The Daily and Dateline both publicly touted reaching over a billion total downloads. But representatives for these shows would not say if those numbers or other impressive daily or weekly download stats are still accurate, though several of the biggest podcasts acknowledged privately to Semafor that they had seen noticeable declines, and were still trying to determine the actual size of their audience following the change.

The shift came with no immediate warning. People who work on audio at The New York Times, NPR, and other major publishers told Semafor they were surprised by the September change, which had been years in the making but came with no advanced warning from Apple. One podcast network told Semafor it had seen its downloads drop between single digits and low double digits depending on the show. Another well-known podcaster and executive said for some shows, the decline in downloads was as high as 40%.

“Nearly every podcast that regularly publishes got an enormous haircut,” one podcast industry insider said.

Read on for what podcasters are saying and Max's View. →

One Good Text

John O’Nolan is the founder of the publishing platform Ghost, a technically powerful, non-profit-owned operation that had apparently been eclipsed by Substack, but has benefitted from the fights over content moderation currently roiling the venture-backed Substack.


⁛ News

Race team cut: Last week, we reported that NBC News quietly laid off several dozen staffers. Among those on the chopping block were three employees comprising the company’s Racial Equality and Justice vertical which was established in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police in 2020. According to two people with knowledge of the cuts, the outlet’s three-person REJ team were all dismissed on Thursday.

It’s the latest indication of corporate media backing away from the diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives taken in the months after Floyd’s killing in 2020 (a trend that NBC News has covered).

A spokesperson for NBC strongly disputed this framing, pointing out that the news outlet continued to invest heavily in its diversity verticals including NBCBLK, NBC Asian American, NBC Latino, and NBC Out. The spokesperson noted that other TV news networks such as CBS and ABC didn’t come close in terms of commitment to telling stories about minority and marginalized communities. “Our coverage of race, inequality, justice and culture issues has evolved and grown immensely over the last few years and is a central editorial focus of NBC News. We have reporters, editors, and producers throughout our newsroom covering these issues every day, including more than a dozen in our four diversity verticals – NBC Asian America, NBCBLK, NBC Latino and NBC Out – which have produced more than 2,000 articles in the last year, totaling an average of 100 million page views. That’s in addition to the award-winning and high impact reports on these issues by our enterprise and national reporting teams and our digital documentary unit.”

Contested ‘victory tour’: HuffPost and the White House have been engaged in a tense back-and-forth over a spokesperson’s comment that quotes in a recent HuffPost story about a potential Gaza peace deal were “made up.” On Friday, Akbar Shahid Ahmed reported that White House official Brett McGurk has been pitching national security officials on a plan that would normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia and incentivize aid from Gulf countries to rebuild Gaza, in exchange for Palestinian leaders agreeing to ratchet down criticism of Israel and form a new government for both Gaza and the West Bank.

After the story was published, the White House issued a statement attributed to National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson saying that Ahmed’s story was “not true” and included “made up quotes from U.S. officials.” In a note to White House National Security Council Coordinator John Kirby obtained by Semafor, HuffPost executive editor Whitney Snyder said that he was “deeply dismayed” by the NSC’s assertion, and asked for a retraction and apology.

“This is an outrageous and false allegation,” he wrote. “HuffPost takes seriously the perspectives of the subjects of our reporting. Wrongly accusing us of professional malpractice is completely inappropriate and raises serious questions about the credibility of the White House and its statements to the press.”

On Sunday, an NSC spokesperson told Semafor that HuffPost had misunderstood its response. The spokesperson clarified that the White House’s comment specifically referred to one element of the story in which the online news outlet cited a document outlining a plan for a “victory tour” if the U.S. is able to help normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“The article in question purports to characterize what the reporter describes as a ‘Top Secret’ document,” the spokesperson said. “It also quotes from that purported document, ascribing those quotes to a senior U.S. official. Those quotes appear nowhere in any document that we have prepared and have never been stated by anyone at the National Security Council. We stand by our comment.”

Still, that clarification didn’t satisfy HuffPost. In a response shared with the White House and obtained by Semafor, Snyder said the NSC’s clarification on Sunday was a “marked departure from yesterday’s comment, which was a broad rejection of HuffPost’s entire story and an allegation that Akbar fabricated multiple quotes from multiple officials. To suggest that we misunderstood the plain language of that response defies common sense. It is deeply disappointing to see you stand by such a damaging statement. HuffPost stands by this story, including our source’s description of a document outlining a plan for a Gaza-related Saudi-Israeli pact.”

Cold feet: Aside from the Hotel Fort Des Moines, the hottest place to be in Iowa is the REI store in Des Moines. Reporters and politicos unprepared for the freezing temps and blizzard conditions have descended on the outdoors shop over the past several days, looking for snow boots and more to get them through the week, one attendant told Semafor’s Shelby Talcott as she (also unprepared) blew $104.93 on a nice warm pair of boots she swears she would never otherwise wear and is now trying to expense. We’re on the fence about it.

Reexamination: The Washington Examiner has been doing a lot of reexamining of its latest web rollout. Last week, the conservative media publication debuted a major web redesign intended to modernize its online layout. But sources told Semafor that the move was plagued by bugs and mishaps. Staffers were frustrated as major scoops disappeared from the site and 404 error pages appeared for prominent author pages, including those for Sen. Tom Cotton and former Vice President Mike Pence. The new update also appeared to misattribute bylines in absurd ways: Articles attributed to Ronald Beaty were actually written by writer Jesse Adams, and the site credited an obituary written about P.J. O’Rourke to…Rep. Jim Jordan. As of Saturday evening, the masthead page labeled every staffer “nickmidtc.”

According to people with knowledge of the situation, the site doesn’t appear poised to have the issues fixed before the Republican presidential primary caucuses next week. In an internal Slack channel on Friday, a Washington Examiner staffer asked Managing Editor Chris Irvine if he knew when the author pages were going to be fixed. “No,” Irvine said. “I will let you know when they are.”

In a note to staff on Friday, Irvine acknowledged that it had been a “difficult week adjusting to a new publishing system that has had significantly more gremlins in it than there should have been, quite frankly.”

Trade cuts: On Thursday, Arizent quietly laid off a number of employees across its trade publications, including American Banker and Financial Planning. In an internal email obtained by Semafor, the company said that it had “scaled back operation expenses wherever possible,” and made a number of cuts in order to refocus its business. “We anticipate accountable performance and healthy growth going forward,” the company’s CEO Jeff Mancini wrote.

⁜ Tech

Too bad: The founder of Instagram built a beautiful news app, fell into a pointless slide toward UGC, and decided that “the market opportunity isn’t big enough to warrant continued investment in this way.” True, of course. Still, I’d hoped Artifact join the cadre of apps — Apple News, SmartNews, Flipboard, et al. — building business on top of professional journalism, but it’s just not in the water out there.

✦ Marketing

Still Xing: Despite their protestations about Elon Musk’s conduct, Democrats continue to spend money on advertising on X. A new ad transparency report released by the company showed that it brought in over $5 million in revenue last year from political advertisers. Of the top 50 biggest spenders, according to the digital political tracker FWIW, 14 were left-leaning, including Sen. Jon Tester, Rep. Ruben Gallego, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, and Rep. Adam Schiff.

✰ Hollywood

Cruise control: Popbitch reports that Tom Cruise’s friends are disappointed that he no longer gives his “signature gift,” a coconut cake from Doan’s Bakery in LA, shipped via his private jet. “Maybe he’s developed more of an eco-conscience, but Tom’s pastry largesse appears to have been curtailed a little of recent,” the British gossip newsletter reports. After watching The Motive And The Cue at the Noel Coward Theatre last week, he merely sent the cast some doughnuts from nearby Soho.

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