• D.C.
  • BXL
  • Lagos
  • Dubai
  • Beijing
  • SG
rotating globe
  • D.C.
  • BXL
  • Lagos
Semafor Logo
  • Dubai
  • Beijing
  • SG

In this edition: The rise of a political influencer, troubles at Vice and the WSJ, and more.͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
cloudy Los Angeles
snowstorm London
sunny New York
rotating globe
February 26, 2024


Sign up for our free newsletters
Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome to Semafor Media, where we always have fun in moderation.

Soon after we launched Semafor in 2022, a former colleague from BuzzFeed News visited me in our New York office, upstairs from an Italian restaurant on Mulberry Street.

“Are you having fun?” she asked me. I replied that I was — but maybe not quite as much as we’d had at BuzzFeed. “That’s good,” she replied. “That was too much fun!”

I was thinking of the exchange while listening to a rogue podcast on the collapse of Vice that a handful of journalists uploaded after management had switched off the web publishing system. The hosts, who had every reason to be depressed and who weren’t getting paid to make the show, were audibly enjoying their freedom. They were doing it for the reason we all got into news — because it’s irresistible.

The early days of digital media were so much fun because, as BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti would note, the internet began as a toy, free from the pressures of commerce. Early bloggers didn’t think they were going to make any money or put on journalistic airs. They were engaging in public life or making funny memes, and the work was its own reward. Places like BuzzFeed and Vice then hired and paid people — but zero-interest-rate venture capitalism, with its focus on growth over profits, extended that innocence for nearly a decade. These sites collapsed for many reasons, but the core one was a misplaced bet on the economics of news and social media.

Very few people are having fun in media, East Coast or West, these days. We’re lucky to be among that few who are, along with a small, careful generation of startups — like Puck, Punchbowl, The Ankler, the Free Press, and 404 Media. But this is good, clean, careful fun. We don’t have fancy snacks, nobody is flinging piles of investors’ cash into the air at the holiday party, and we are all obsessed with building sustainable businesses.

But you know who is having a great time? Jessica Reed Kraus, AKA House Inhabit, a lifestyle Instagrammer turned right-of-center influencer who Max went to see in their mutual native Orange County last week, before she jetted off to Donald Trump’s victory party in South Carolina. Make of her what you will, but House Inhabit is a sign of the times.

Also today: How the WSJ blew up its Washington bureau, a top Vice exec gives her exit interview, more news on the Blockchain, Motherboard’s future, and the Times “Connections” boss defends that very confusing purple category. (Scoop count: 5.)

Semafor’s 2024 World Economy Summit on April 17-18 will feature some of the key decision-makers in the global economy, from Biden administration officials to key CEOs. We’ll be releasing a pretty amazing lineup of participants this week — you can sign up here to get involved.

Assignment Desk

At the Digital Content Next conference in Charleston earlier this month, the media bigwigs (and mid-wigs) gathered to scheme against the tech platforms — and to solidify a new conventional wisdom, I found. Outlets not named The New York Times need to find a way to build stronger bonds with audiences rather than chase scale. They’ll find revenue of various sorts in niche audiences, sliced by identity or industry or relevance. That’s what the Messenger didn’t get. That’s why Insider went back to Business Insider.

You see that everywhere now: The collapse of mass brands like BuzzFeed and Vice, the rise of a generation of much more narrowly focused ones, including this one, and a scramble to rescue beloved outlets like Pitchfork by returning them to a smaller, dedicated audience. The trend is embodied by the spectacular growth and $525 million exit of Industry Dive, an unglamorous set of trade publications covering everything from education to waste management.

And yet: I have a lingering feeling that there’s still space outside this new conventional wisdom, and that someone will find a way to make money reaching the casual news consumer. See that happening? Let us know. — Max Tani

Max Tani

Why Trump and Kennedy are chasing Jessica Reed Kraus

Semafor/Joey Pfeifer


One week in January, Jessica Reed Kraus attended Donald Trump’s Iowa victory afterparty at the Hotel Fort Des Moines and posed for pictures with Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle. From there, she flew to Hawaii to meet Tulsi Gabbard, where the former Democratic congresswoman took her to her favorite smoothie place.

Three days after schmoozing with the Trump inner circle in Iowa, Kraus brought her family on a catamaran to go whale-watching and surfing with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and famous surfer Kelly Slater.

And from there, on to Mar-a-Lago, where she documented scenes among longtime supporters at his club and took selfies wearing a Trump 47 hat. “If you let down your defenses, MAGA is always a good time,” she observed. “They drink well, dress up, get loud, bedazzle the hell outta their accessories, love this country unapologetically, and believe that Donald Trump’s reign is a God-granted gift to save us from woke infestation and communism.”

Kraus, a forty-something who didn’t reply to a question about her exact age, grew to modest fame as an Instagram home renovation personality and lifestyle influencer — hence her handle, @houseinhabit. But the Orange County mother of four has followed an unlikely but utterly contemporary trail from there to Hollywood celebrity court battles, to Kennedy, and to Trump. And in recent months, the influencer has become the subject of an intense courtship by some political candidates hoping to reach her over 1 million Instagram followers and 300,000 subscribers on Substack, a number that makes her the platform’s No. 1 paid newsletter in the culture section.

In this election year defined by fragmentation, she’s become the vibes-based equivalent of a top political access journalist, flying across the country multiple times a month to capture the campaign trail behind the scenes.

“I just thought — why couldn’t I do it? If I did it in Hollywood, and I had these sources, trust me and give me information, why couldn’t it happen with the politicians?” she recalled earlier this week over a glass of rosé at a brewery off the Pacific Coast Highway in Dana Point, California. I’d driven almost an hour from my parents’ house on the other side of Orange County to meet someone who embodies a new archetype but also a familiar one: a Southern California mom as interested in organic produce, transcendental meditation, and BODE’s refashioning of antique fabrics as she is in reactionary politics.

Read on for more of Max's conversation with Kraus and what her success says about the state of political media. →

One Good Text

Everdeen Mason is the editorial director for games at The New York Times.


⁛ News

Getty Images/Mario Tama

Vice’s virtues: Earlier this week, Semafor was first to report that Subrata De, Vice’s executive vice president of news and global head of programming and development, was leaving the company after six years of running its news division. In an interview and subsequent email, the Vice news chief reflected on what she described as an evolution from “bro-ey gonzo reporting” to a stretch that saw Vice win multiple Edward R. Murrow Awards, two duPont-Columbia Silver Batons, a George Polk Award, three Peabodys, 30 News and Documentary Emmys, and one shared Pulitzer for audio work, among other accolades.

Still, she said it was “surreal to be in a room with people who are telling you that the business that was the most funded and at the core of the brand is not working and can’t continue.”

“From the get go, in any boardroom, or with any board members, or with anybody who would listen, I have continued to make the case around the need for investment in news, and how it can succeed as a business, and how it’s an underpinning of democracy. We have new owners. I made that case to them. It’s not as if they weren’t receptive to that and didn’t acknowledge the success of Vice News. But in whatever this business is going to be moving forward, there isn’t room for a news business.”

Read more of De's interview with Semafor here. →

WSJ bleeds talent: The Wall Street Journal laid off a list of well-regarded Washington reporters in early February, then rushed to assure three of them — Pulitzer winner Brody Mullins, Ted Mann of Bridgegate fame, and the political money sleuth Julie Bykowicz — that they would be able to apply for new jobs. It appeared to be an attempt to get around union rules requiring layoffs be structured by seniority, but it backfired badly: Morale at the Journal appears to be back in the toilet. Adding insult to injury, all the reporters the Journal sought to retain will instead take their union-mandated severance.

Meanwhile, The New York Times has poached a star reporter in San Francisco, Kirsten Grind, who broke a series of stories on Elon Musk’s drug use. I was not expecting to leave the Wall Street Journal after 20 years as an investigative reporter, but I have seen that this is an amazing opportunity for a new chapter,” said Mullins, who’s presently focused on his and his brother Luke Mullins’ new book, “The Wolves of K Street.”

Bad education: Forget the 1619 Project’s educational aspirations. Tucker Carlson’s interview with Vladimir Putin has made it into Russian schools in record time, for use in lessons on “history and social sciences to the development of critical thinking skills and media literacy.”

AMLO escalates: The New York Times calls the Mexican president’s public attack on the paper’s correspondent, over coverage of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s alleged ties to cartels in his first campaign, “troubling and unacceptable.”

✰ Hollywood

Hollywood reporters: Richard Rushfield of The Ankler has constructed a taxonomy of the journalists you’ll meet in Hollywood. Tag yourself: Ben is (or aspires to be) a “visiting dignitary.”

⁜ Tech

Cryptocurrency mining machines in Texas.
Getty Images/Mark Felix

Sovereign rule: A new startup wants to use blockchain technology to provide media organizations with a new tool to combat disinformation.

This week, Now Media is launching Sovereignty, a technology platform to provide digital media organizations with verification tools that would help them authenticate their digital content with blockchain tech.

In a conversation with Semafor, founders Matt Medved and Alejandro Navia said Sovereignty will leverage Coinbase’s Ethereum Layer 2 technology to authenticate content on the blockchain. They say this would allow users to see a clear and unalterable record of a piece of content’s creation and any edits made to it.

“In the age of AI and disinformation, it’s become harder and harder to know who wrote and created what,” Medved said of the product on a Zoom call.

The duo said they have had productive conversations with publishers explaining how the technology works. Now Media hopes publishers will allow Sovereignty to be integrated into their content management systems, creating a unique signature every time a piece of content is published. This could help audience members understand the original source material, and decide for themselves whether the publisher is trustworthy and reliable.

Now Media’s founders said it was important to launch this year with the U.S. presidential election on the horizon, noting that advances in artificial intelligence will allow for the proliferation of increasingly realistic-seeming fake media.

“AI will never get less sophisticated than right now,” Navia said. “That has its benefits, but it’s an increasingly dangerous tool in the hands of bad actors.”

Making platforms pay: Indonesia has joined Canada and Australia in pressing Meta and Google to pay publishers for content: “The spirit of the regulation is ... to ensure a fair cooperation between media and digital platforms,” said Indonesian President Joko Widodo.


Motherless: Did Vice’s iconic tech blog Motherboard avoid an even bleaker outcome? We’re told there were very preliminary talks last year about a potential sale to…The Messenger. Another person familiar with the now-shuttered company’s plans told Semafor that founder Jimmy Finkelstein was interested in acquisitions, but was more focused on politics, and had taken closer looks at RealClearPolitics and the newsletter site 1440. Now, a possible bidder for Motherboard is the Black-focused media collective Group Black, whose spokesperson declined to comment.

Bild-ing: Axel Springer’s German tabloid Bild has hit 700,000 digital subscribers, a remarkable figure and yet another example of how western European media have evaded some of the carnage you see in the U.S. (If you’ve got a good theory as to why, let us know!)

Hot on Semafor