This is the media newsletter for Jan 15 2023͏ ͏ ͏ ͏ ͏ ͏
with Ben Smith
Welcome to Semafor Media, where we break the news behind the news.
Media businesses come in all shapes, and the World Economic Forum, where I’m spending the week, could be seen as one of the world’s more successful media companies. The Swiss nonprofit, which hosts its big annual meeting in Davos this week, is largely an events business with revenues of $413 million with price of admission that can easily run to $159,000 for a globally minded exec.
But today we’ve got the news from New York, where Max has the exclusive on CNN’s flirtation with blowing up prime time; from Singapore, where Semafor executive editor Gina Chua dissects a mess at her old paper, the Straits Times; and the Hamptons, where a rabbi’s sermon on AI is going a little viral.
ALSO: I’ve always dreamed of editing the slightly bitchy daily blog of a small Swiss ski town. If you’re headed to Davos or, for some odd reason, want to follow along from afar, sign up for Semafor Davos Daily, where Steve Clemons, Liz Hoffman, and I will report back on the news, gossip, and wisdom, conventional and otherwise, that comprises the local industry.
Washington: Are the classified documents in Biden’s garage the same as Hillary’s emails? If so, what would that even mean? The town’s journalists are tangled in ritualistic allegations of bias that will consume months in a story that, like many, is in large part about itself.
London: The Guardian hack got a lot worse last week, as the company told British, and then U.S. staffers, that their passport details and other information had been compromised.
Davos: Atlantic Publisher Nick Thompson caught the attention of a group of global journalists Sunday with a musing on how much journalism AI will replace — though he of course believes Atlantic-style longform will be the last to go.
CNN is serious about getting into comedy
Xavier Collin/Image Press Agency/NurPhoto via Reuters
CNN is considering hiring a comedian to host one of its prime time shows.
The “news entertainment” personality could fill the primetime 9-11 p.m. hours with a nontraditional version of the news, five people familiar with the planning said. CNN executives have floated names including Bill Maher, Trevor Noah, Arsenio Hall, and Jon Stewart, and have looked at other comedic news-focused talk shows for inspiration.
CNN president Chris Licht hinted at his desire to sign Stewart in an interview last year with the New York Times, saying he’d love to bring on the former late night host, but Stewart remains under contract with Apple.
Maher is a potentially more realistic prospect: The host of HBO’s long-running weekly show that bears his name is already in-house at Warner Bros. Discovery, CNN’s parent company (Puck’s Matt Belloni reported this week that CNN is in talks to begin airing some of Maher’s weekly extra HBO segments).
Network higher-ups say Hall, who hosted a late night show from 1989 to 1994 and again from 2013 to 2014 and won NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice 5 in 2012, is not a serious prospect for a primetime slot.
“They’re looking for their version of John Oliver,” one television news insider familiar with the search told Semafor.
Executives have also discussed turning the 9 p.m.-12 a.m. hours into a series of shows modeled like a variety program, with “shows within shows” for different journalists, one network executive told Semafor.
The discussions are aimed at turning away from the competition with MSNBC for liberal news junkies, and toward pulling viewers from HGTV, ESPN, and Netflix. Licht has also attempted to pitch CNN as a potential gateway to other brands within Warner Discovery, reminding talent that the company is attached to HBO and Warner Brothers, where there could be further opportunities for projects.
But CNN is also reckoning with its need to have talent on hand to cover major breaking news events, such as last week’s House Speaker’s race which ran late into the evening and boosted CNN’s ratings. One person familiar with plans told Semafor that Laura Coates is likely to remain in her current timeslot, while co-host Alisyn Camerota, a long-time cable news anchor, will likely be moved to another earlier hour.
If successful, CNN’s jump into comedy would mark the end of an era in personality-driven, hyper-political cable news talk shows that shaped both American television and American politics, and which reached a pinnacle during the Trump era. The potential move could also play to Licht’s strengths: His six-year tenure as the executive producer of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert made him comfortable with producing a non-traditional late night show with some news elements.
CNN’s rivals have also begun looking in that direction, too.
Fox has found success with Gutfeld!, a conservative alternative to late night TV shows dominated by liberal hosts that tries very hard to be funny and regularly beats its traditional late night competitors. NBCU executives have reportedly considered moving Seth Meyers’ show to MSNBC.
The late-night comedy landscape has also changed in a way that could benefit slotting an entertainer into the host’s chair at CNN. In the last several months alone, TBS canceled Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. James Corden and Noah both decided to step away from late night hosting duties, and the cult-favorite Showtime series Desus and Mero fell apart over disagreements between the hosts.
The deliberations come as Licht has begun to put a more permanent stamp on CNN’s programming. In November, the network launched its new morning show, Licht’s first major play. And this week, CNN announced major formatting changes to its dayside programming.
Executives have also expressed a desire to transform the network’s lineups and visuals by the time Licht hits his one year anniversary with CNN in May. Licht has said that CNN’s current graphics and branding look dated and cheap, and within the next several months, CNN will revamp them to look sleeker, according to one source familiar with his comments.
ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT
“Such an experiment could also deliver a programming disaster,” the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple wrote when Licht floated putting an entertainer in prime time during an interview with the Times. “Consider a scenario in which said entertainer was on air at the moment that an overseas war broke out, or an earthquake struck, or some statesperson died. Watching the network scramble to switch back into hard-news mode — well, that would surely be entertaining.”
One Good Text ...with Andrew Ross Sorkin
News executives are still trying to convince Brian Williams to return to TV. A source familiar told Semafor that at least one network recently approached the longtime anchor to pitch turning his podcast We Interrupt This Broadcast into a TV show.…. David Gelles won the scramble among New York Times reporters for departed editor Rebecca Blumenstein’s coveted, convenient hotel room in Davos...
And we've got some Semafor news about the soulful-looking guy above, the Cairo-based Tim McDonnell, who will be joining us as Energy and Climate Editor.
Tim has covered the science, politics, and business of climate change and energy for more than a decade, most recently as senior climate and energy reporter at Quartz, where he's written on repercussions to the energy market of the war in Ukraine, the climate policies of financial institutions and flaws in the carbon offset market. Here, he’ll anchor our Net Zero newsletter, with a focus on how companies and governments are aiding or impeding decarbonization of the global economy.
His first day is tomorrow. Sign up for his first newsletter which comes out this Wednesday here.
A circulation scandal at Southeast Asia’s biggest media company
SPH Media, Singapore’s dominant news organization, has been derided for many failings — being too stodgy, too pro-government, too financially inept — but circulation irregularities haven’t been one of them. Until now.
Last week, The Straits Times — SPH Media’s flagship newspaper — reported that an internal review had revealed the company had overstated the circulation of all its titles by 85,000 to 95,000 daily average copies, or 10% to 12% of reported daily circulation, from September 2020 to March 2022. Papers were printed and pulped, some subscriptions were double-counted, and some accounts were, well, just made up.
“Certain circulation figures were arbitrarily derived,” a SPH Media spokesperson put it dryly.
For those of us who grew up in the heyday of Singapore Press Holdings, as it was called then, under the Singapore government’s unique arsenal of tools to manage the media, it’s been surreal to watch a colossus — once one of Asia’s most successful media companies — crumble.
SPH used to occupy an enviable position among media companies — as an officially-endorsed near-monopoly in an affluent, fast-growing Asian economy, it managed to both be relentlessly pro-government and massively profitable. It may not have been the most beloved choice of readers, but for a long time it was the only outlet for local news, not least because of the government’s tight hold on newspaper licenses.
The fat profits it derived from that position allowed it to expand its ambitions into multimedia and across the region. I got my start in the early 1990s as a (well-paid) foreign correspondent with The Straits Times covering the Philippines: in 1993, when I jumped to The Wall Street Journal, my wages dropped from $100,000 a year to just over $60,000, the biggest percentage cut I’ve taken until — ahem! — joining Semafor.
But when the internet opened Singapore to domestic and international competition, readers and advertisers started to desert SPH’s titles. In late 2021, it gave up on trying to make money. The media division was spun off into SPH Media, a non-profit company with an assurance of government funding to the tune of $140 million a year for the next five years.
The circulation scandal — broken by Wake Up Singapore, one of the city-state’s few (but growing) alternative media outlets — shows how much deeper SPH Media’s crisis goes. If, despite having a near-monopoly, you still have to inflate circulation by 10% or more, that suggests a deep disconnect with Singaporean readers.
SPH Media isn’t doing itself any favors with its bland coverage of the story where none of the obvious questions were asked, let alone answered. Who was responsible? What action was taken? How long has this been going on? When did management find out?
Jewish Center of the Hamptons
Rabbi Joshua Franklin, who leads the Jewish Center of the Hamptons, got media types buzzing last Saturday by delivering a sermon he admitted up front was plagiarized.
The sermon was a little blah but passable — “not a bad sermon,” Franklin said.
He asked congregants to guess the author and — you guessed it — it was ChatGPT.
"I thought truck drivers were going to go long before the rabbi in terms of leaving our positions to artificial intelligence,” he said ruefully, in a set of musings that are worth your 10 minutes.
So what about journalists? Most of us do jobs that are probably closer to robots than rabbis already. And CNET has been quietly using AI to compose simple search-engine optimized stories for months.
But if you read the AI-generated copy, it’s work so low-value that you can barely afford to pay a person to do it. CNET says they’re taking boring work off the shoulders of beat reporters. And I tend to be optimistic that ChatGPT could make it easier for great journalists who don’t write particularly well (an overvalued skill in newsrooms that don’t have enough editors) to thrive.
Are you enjoying Semafor Media? The more people read us, the better we’ll get. So please share it with your family, friends and colleagues.
But we can’t deliver media news and insights from inside your spam folder. Be sure to add firstname.lastname@example.org to your contacts. In Gmail, drag this newsletter over to your ‘Primary’ tab. And, of course, you can always reach me with tips, ideas, criticisms and insults by replying to these emails.
Thanks for reading!
Want more Semafor? Explore all our newsletters at semafor.com/newsletters.