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In this week’s newsletter: a new company challenging the conventional wisdom about a space that’s wi͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
cloudy New York
cloudy Moscow
cloudy Washington
rotating globe
January 29, 2023


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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome to Semafor Media, where we break the news behind the news.

My favorite thing about working with Jonah Peretti, my boss and partner at BuzzFeed from 2012 to 2019, was his optimism. He saw the promise and delights of the internet better than anyone. We thrived while readers shared that optimism, then struggled when the skies darkened.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that in this new, more suspicious digital age, he’s been the first publisher to cheerfully embrace the idea that AI could be a tool for delight. This week, I texted one of BuzzFeed’s signature writers, Katie Notopoulos, to ask what she makes of the rise of the machines.

But my main story this week is about a new company challenging the conventional wisdom about a space that’s widely seen as a meat grinder for news publishers: Social video. The News Movement has an interesting cast of characters and an unconventional business model.

Also this week: HR troubles at ABC, DEI in the ASME, and a new Andrew Cuomo interview.

Semafor Technology has been all over the ChatGPT story, revealing last week that the company is hiring a thousand people to teach the AI to code. Our newsletter is still written by humans, for now, and you can sign up for Reed and Louise’s scoops and analysis here.

Box Score

Fair Play - MRC

Washington: As I wrote here last week, Jeff Bezos has bought himself a crisis of strategy and morale at The Post, and last week’s feature full of on-the-record faint praise for publisher Fred Ryan won’t help. — The New Yorker

Park City: Netflix spent $20 million on the Sundance hit “Fair Play,” a drama about sexual politics in high finance, cheering an industry that’s sick of hearing about spending cuts. — Variety

Moscow: Russia has banned the independent news outlet Meduza from operating on its territory, a step beyond labeling them a “foreign agent.” — Meduza

Zurich: The pioneering news designer Oliver Reichenstein has been thinking about what ChatGPT will and won’t do: “You can let Artificial Intelligence speak for you, but it can’t feel and think for you.” — iA

Ben Smith

Can you build a newsroom on TikTok?


The News Movement, a video news organization started by former top executives at the BBC and News Corp., is hoping to establish its brand in the United States in part by acquiring The Recount, a social video startup that got millions of views but failed to figure out a revenue model.


The News Movement is an ambitious and well-funded startup that is hoping to succeed where a generation before it struggled: By building a media brand on other people’s platforms.

BuzzFeed (where I was editor-in-chief) and other media companies built huge scale as Facebook exploded in the middle of the last decade, only to find themselves battling the platform itself for revenue and then having to navigate its decline. The new conventional wisdom is that you shouldn’t build your business on someone else’s platform.

Will Lewis, a canny media veteran who was a star business reporter for the Financial Times before switching to the commercial side and spending six years as CEO of Dow Jones, says he believes he can build a different kind of business. He and The News Movement editor-in-chief Kamal Ahmed, the former editorial director of the BBC, raised $15 million for the new venture.

Their company is not focused on any of the familiar revenue models for news organizations — subscriptions, advertising, events — but is instead setting itself up as a content studio and social media agency, whose earnest news operation serves as a shop window and data gathering platform.

“We’ve been blessed by being able to learn from previous iterations where people have been successful, but maybe too many eggs are being put in one basket or where maybe the journalism is being skewed,” Lewis said over Zoom last week.

Lewis is 53, a generation away from a target audience composed of the people he refers to as “GenZees.” When we spoke, he  was headed to dinner at a London club where he’d thought, wrongly, that he needed to wear a suit. He described himself as “formally attired for no apparent reason and quite cross about it.”

His company’s plan is to translate traditional news values into the visual language of TikTok: hard news couched in informal personal narratives, and delivered by young hosts speaking directly to the camera.

“Sixty percent plus of GenZees get their news from social media, where the main players are either well-meaning amateurs who put misinformation into the system because they’re not professional journalists, or bad actors who want to influence society in a negative way to their own ends,” Lewis said. “The missing bit are masthead brands that are identifiably for Gen Z by Gen Z.”

It’s a stirring mission, and Lewis said he sees the 2024 U.S. election as The News Movement’s crucial moment. The company has a partnership with the Associated Press, for whom they produce some videos, and who has given them office space, and has assembled an editorial team of about a dozen under Jessica Coen, a pioneering blogger who was a top editor at Mashable, Vocativ, and Morning Brew before joining The News Movement late last year.

The opportunity, she said, is “rethinking the editorial process in digital newsrooms: what constitutes a story, how we tell it, who we want to reach, how best to reach them, and even how we define success.


The Recount, which The News Movement is buying for an undisclosed amount of equity and no cash, brings with it some 350,000 Twitter followers who are fed a steady diet of quick clips and clever edits — watch Pete Buttigieg’s “Obama voice” — from America’s divisive, disorienting politics. The Recount will remain a separate brand, Coen said, and its editor-in-chief, Slade Sohmer, and a half dozen others will join The News Movement.

The Recount raised $31 million, and burned through it in three years without figuring out how to make money. Advertisers do not flock to incendiary clips from Fox News or floor speeches by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, though the videos perform well on Twitter.

(Recount co-founder John Battelle told me he is “thrilled” that the Recount will continue under a new owner, and that he’s optimistic about the company’s ability to make money. The Recount’s own business model woes are “a four-bourbon, two-hour conversation,” he said.)

Lewis’s innovation is in the business model: “This will make us sound like the least sexy media company in the world, but it’s data, it’s an agency, and it’s a news wrapper,” he said. “We face the world as a news company and correctly so. That’s where our credibility comes from that defines us.”

Their new business lines include a studio that makes social video ads for companies like the UK mobile operator EE.  They’re also providing their editorial services to traditional publishers learning to navigate vertical video, like the AP and National World, a UK publisher who is a major investor in The News Movement.

And they’ve struck a deal with the powerhouse French social video publisher, Brut, to represent the company in the United States.

Finally, Lewis hopes to market the user data the company gathers from a large, young audience as a resource to advertisers, a version of a business Mr. Lewis built for Dow Jones.

The trick will be the half-step from a political audience to a functioning business. But that may not be impossible. Perhaps its closest analogue in the last generation of media, the progressive video startup Attn, reportedly sold last year for about $100 million to the private equity-backed media company Candle.

And while publishers are skeptical of social video, after a decade of Facebook, the audience isn’t: GenZees, and their younger siblings and their parents, continue to flock to TikTok.


Guillaume Lacroix, the CEO of Brut, said the global consistency of social video gives his company, whose scale in France recently brought it an interview with President Emanuel Macron, an edge everywhere.

“When you look at Millennials and Gen Z, in the U.S. they really act the same as Europe and India,” he said.


Morning Brew publisher Jacob Donnelly wrote in 2019 that Recount investors were lighting their money on fire. “We’ve seen so many media companies try to do social distribution as a business and it’s failed miserably,” he wrote.

I asked Donnelly about The New Movement’s model, and he noted that the agency business is more straightforward, but harder to scale, than advertising — and that video platforms remain fickle.

“My issue is that people get excited about what works today, they grow aggressively, and then it stops working because the platforms change priority. This has happened to every ‘pivot to video,’ media company,” he said.


One Good Text ...with Katie Notopoulos

What We’re Hearing

The buck for ABC’s morning show mess appears likely to stop with a top talent executive. Three people with knowledge of dynamics at the network told Semafor that current talent VP Galen Gordon is on thin ice, after president Kim Godwin learned that Gordon had been aware of the romantic relationship between hosts TJ Holmes and Amy Robach before the news was reported by the Daily Mail last year. Gordon didn’t respond to an inquiry and ABC declined to comment…

Joe Scarborough is hosting a big new prime time interview series for MSNBC. His team has told other potential guests that he’s locked in high-profile guests including the ever-popular Emmanuel Macron…. Not to be outdone, multiple executives at CNN told Semafor that the network hopes to “eventize” at least one hour of its primetime lineup, and could announce a short-run series as soon as next month …

National Magazine Award judges are for the first time required to consider publications’ diversity, equity, and inclusion among the criteria for all awards this year, not just “general excellence,” prompting a bit of behind-the-scenes grumbling. ASME executive director Sid Holt told Semafor that every entrant provided a DEI statement, and “the goal of the National Magazine Awards is to honor the best work, not the best entry forms.”

— Max Tani

Talk Radio
Photo courtesy Arthur Aidala

New York’s talk radio scene remains a distinct micro-climate, where characters like former Congressman Anthony Weiner, Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa, and local tycoon John Catsimatidis bring high-profile guests to low-profile shows. The politics tend to be crankily moderate, and there’s not much money in it: It’s a space for big local characters who can’t get enough of the New York City conversation.

The latest character to join the group is Arthur Aidala, whom The New York Times profiled last summer as “The Nice Guy Lawyer for America’s Tabloid Villains.” (Clients include Harvey Weinstein, Rudy Giuliani, and Alan Dershowitz.)

His bookings have been pretty good. His guest this week is former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Aidala (on the advice of an acquaintance looking to raise his profile outside the New York Post) shared an early cut with Semafor.

In the interview, Cuomo describes his ouster as “very unfair” and vents his frustration with President Joe Biden, who called for his resignation after Attorney General Letitia James released a report on allegations of sexual harassment against Cuomo.

“How do you say, ‘You should resign but I haven’t read the report?’” Cuomo asked, referring to Biden. “Because, especially on the Democratic side there is such energy behind the politics on the quote-unquote #MeToo movement.”

“You can also weaponize and politicize what is a good thing,” he said of MeToo, “and that’s what has happened in a lot of cases, where now you use the allegation to basically condemn someone.”

Cuomo said he’d gone through “what I consider a very unfair circumstance,” but that “I am at peace, or as at peace as I can be.”

Read the story online here

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— Ben