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Today: a restructuring at Westbrook, a new strategy at The Washington Post, the disappearance of a D͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
 
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January 29, 2024
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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome to Semafor Media, where we’ve heard the bad news.

What an awful week for the U.S. news business. Anywhere you looked, there were layoffs from digital outlets and legacy ones, East Coast and West — all as the economy charges ahead and most employers scramble to find workers.

So what’s going on here? The answer is everything, and nothing in particular. Three factors are converging to cost journalists’ jobs. First, legacy print business — so legacy that media talkers hardly bother writing about them — are still declining. Places like the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post still rely heavily on print advertising. Second, the legacy digital business — scale and programmatic advertising — is shrinking, and can’t really fund quality journalism. That accounts for the woes at Business Insider and the zombie Sports Illustrated. And finally, the billionaires who bailed the industry out a decade ago are getting a little antsy after failing to find silver bullets. Patrick Soon-Shiong, who never bothered hiring a CEO or setting a strategy, is now slashing with abandon. Time’s Marc Benioff is cutting more carefully. And the richest of them all, Jeff Bezos, cleared the decks for a new CEO with a wave of buyouts late last year — but is now, Sir Will Lewis tells me, done cutting and ready to grow again.

These aren’t new trends, and they shouldn’t totally undercut the green shoots and leaves among some new outlets, and the small group of legacy ones that have turned the corner. But that’s all cold comfort for reporters who lost their jobs.

ALSO: An internal investigation at Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s Westbrook in the wake of Max’s reporting; the Messenger’s important week; a big deal for Sherwood; Beast sales talks, and more. (Scoop count: 5)

We expanded our Flagship global news email to a second edition this week, timed for the Asian morning and the end of the East Coast U.S. workday. Early reviews are good; Sign up here. for features including the wildly popular Substack Rojak.

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Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times

The LA Times announced that Terry Tang would be serving as the paper’s interim executive editor. The move came after former top editor Kevin Merida abruptly resigned from the paper following an incident last December in which owner Patrick Soon-Shiong pressured the top editor not to pursue a story about the legal battle between a wealthy California doctor and a woman who claimed that his dog had bitten her at a Los Angeles park.

The friction between Merida and Soon-Shiong, which was reported by the New York Times on Friday, presents a dilemma for Tang, who is expected to address staff in an upcoming town hall. Will Tang promise to protect the paper’s reporter’s from interference by its owner? Or will she stand by her boss, who, in his statement to The New York Times, suggested that he may understand the facts of the dog lawsuit better than the paper’s reporter?

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Max Tani

The Post’s new CEO lays out his strategy

THE NEWS

This week, new Washington Post CEO Will Lewis will roll out his first tentative strategy for the paper: “Fix it, build it, scale it.”

In an interview with Semafor at the Post’s office in Washington last week, the new CEO laid out his vision for how he plans to navigate the changing news landscape and issues that have led to massive job cuts in recent months.

Lewis said the current news media business is “creaking,” and that the current subscription-based model is “now waning and then will enter a more significant period of decline.” Publishers needed to be more creative with paywalls to find ways to attract younger readers who are interested in news, but don’t want to pay for a monthly subscription. He also said finding ways to personalize the news experience could also unlock new users.

“There’s very positive evidence of how news can be accessed and paid for in more innovative ways. There are day passes that are successful, there’s week passes, there are models like the Guardian where you can make donations,” he said. “So there’s a whole new generation of paying user concepts. I’m pretty excited about it. I think it’s newsroom 3.0.”

Lewis said the paper has moved past the darker moments of last year, when it was forced to offer buyouts for over 200 staffers amid a reported loss of $100 million in 2023 alone. Lewis plans to formally debut his strategy in May. But he promised that there would be no further cuts at the paper, and that he had been hired to grow the business. He pointed to the Post’s 2.5 million subscribers as a sign that there’s a loyal audience. And he noted that owner Jeff Bezos has expressed his long term support for the paper.

“We are blessed, and I don’t take it for granted, with a very supportive owner who has already spent a lot of money in the last 10 years on this organization, but is, in his own words, just getting started,” he said.

While he is still getting to know the newsroom, Lewis laid out a loose roadmap for how the Post will grow under his leadership. On the editorial side, the paper will double down on what he sees as its core offerings: Politics, policy investigations, and opinion. The company will also focus on diversity, with the aim of finding new audiences. “If we are to be the news organization for all of America, we need to look like America,” he said.

On the business side, the new CEO hinted at acquisitions, particularly in areas related to news personalization, social media, and AI. The Post could do a better job elevating local news, he said, and at partnering with other papers and local news outlets to find and highlight stories that national media outlets are missing.

“A critical part of content strategy in a sophisticated subscription offering is local. So we’re going to have to find ever more innovative ways of not just in D.C., but elsewhere across America, of enabling that to be part of what we do and we’re very early, but we’ll be working with colleagues on how we do that,” he said. “We’ve had a little innovation project underway out of Kansas, which gave us a bit of a taste of how we could do something significant at scale in local.”

Read Ben's full interview with Will Lewis here. →

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One Good Text

Andrew Marchand is a sports media columnist at the New York Post who previously worked at ESPN for eleven years.

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Intel

⁛ News

Local interest: The Los Angeles Times last week laid off most of the paper’s Washington bureau. It was the latest data point in a depressing trend of local publications disinvesting from national coverage, which Columbia Journalism Review argues leads to further polarization and the nationalization of American politics. “Without local coverage, the only times most Americans hear about their representatives is from campaign ads or when they’re on national news talking about partisan issues,” Cameron Joseph writes. “That makes it harder for politicians who break with their party to get something done to survive politically—and it makes it harder for issues of local importance that might have crossover appeal to gain any traction.”

Beast as prey: Barry Diller seems to be following through on his promise not to sell the Daily Beast six months after a deal collapsed that would have merged the digital tabloid with Hollywood media news startup The Ankler. Semafor was curious about some of the other names in the mix around the time that Beast parent company IAC was considering a sale. According to two people familiar, IAC also had conversations with several other Southern California-based executives, including Brian Calle, the publisher of LA Weekly, and Michael Reinstein, the chief executive of Regent, a Beverly Hills based private equity firm. The company is still searching for a new CEO after the departure of Heather Dietrick, who left the Beast last year for Outside Interactive.

The Message: Messenger editor-in-chief Dan Wakeford told staff last week that the company would be updating employees this week about its future, including potential new investors and funding. But one person familiar with the company’s fundraising efforts told Semafor that it is still working to secure the full investment it needs. Founder Jimmy Finkelstein has remained outwardly optimistic, telling some staff that the publication is not shutting down, and that he has promising leads that would keep it afloat.

Platformed: Sherwood, the media subsidiary of the trading platform Robinhood, has picked up the syndication deal with the scoopy and insightful newsletter Platformer, founded by Casey Newton, from Vox Media. Sherwood, run by Josh Topolsky, will publish select Platformer articles on its site and in its Snacks newsletter.

“I love what they’re building at Sherwood. It’s really exciting to have a chance to work with Josh again, and we can’t wait to share Platformer with the huge Snacks audience,” Newton said in a statement.

☊ Audio

By the numbers: In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by police in 2020, a number of news media companies promised to hire more journalists from more diverse backgrounds and include more diverse voices in coverage. Some of that enthusiasm has faded amid backlash to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, but City Cast has continued to report diversity statistics. Last week, the local podcast startup released data tracking how well guests on its podcasts matched with racial, ethnic, and gender breakdowns of the cities where the podcasts were based. CEO David Plotz told NiemanLab that the podcast guests largely mirrored national breakdowns, with the exception of Latino and hispanic guests, who made up 9% of podcast guests compared to 19% of the overall US population.

✰ Hollywood

Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Wild, Wild, Westbrook: Earlier this month, Semafor reported on the internal troubles at Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s media company Westbrook, which since The Slap, has been forced to cut staff amid a significant dropoff in revenue. Last week Westbrook announced a major restructuring of the company, winding down its ambitions to expand into digital media, and focusing on television, film, and some entertainment marketing projects for Westbrook Studios. Westbrook told staff that as part of the move, the president and COO were leaving the company, and it would be laying off another 26 employees. In the wake of Semafor’s story highlighting decisions by two top leaders to take millions out of the business, the company is looking into the report, a person familiar said.

Another person close to the company told Semafor that like many others in the entertainment industry, Westbrook has had to adapt to changing market dynamics and has decided to restructure its business to focus on what it specializes in.

Read more details here.

Boxed out: In 2023, no American films ranked among the 10 highest grossing in China despite highly anticipated sequels in the “Mission: Impossible,” “Fast & the Furious” and “Spider-Man” franchises.

Get me rewrite: Jay Penske did not like what he read about Lily Gladstone’s nomination for Best Actress in Killers of The Flower Moon. Last week, The Hollywood Reporter described her as the first acting nominee who “hails from people indigenous to the land now occupied by the United States.” The Ankler reported on Thursday that the CEO of the entertainment news behemoth was not pleased with the description of Gladstone, prompting THR to quietly tone down the language in the piece.

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