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

Local media in the state of Maine has emerged as an unlikely and asymmetric battlefield for big Amer͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
sunny Portland
sunny Chicago
sunny Beijing
rotating globe
September 18, 2023


Sign up for our free newsletters
Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome to Semafor Media, where we too are racing to divest our linear television assets.

The dumbest way to cover America’s polarized media landscape is to look for symmetry, and imagine a left-wing and right-wing media facing off across the great divide. The reality is more complicated: a challenged, establishmentarian center-left, harried by right-wing outlets that exist largely to critique the mainstream. Fox News, for instance, isn’t a right-wing CNN; it’s a kind of parody of CNN, and viewers watch in part because they find it so funny.

Max Tani has an unusual story below on the Northeastern state of Maine, one of a million battlefields in the U.S. media, and one where big money from the left and right are pouring in. George Soros and Leonard Leo are among those paying for local media in a small state — and going to some lengths to hide their involvement. (Sorry, guys!)

Also in this newsletter: A text from the newly-minted “Meet the Press” host Kristen Welker; feral Zoomers on TikTok rampaging through newsprint and a presidential campaign alike; parting words from a great China correspondent; and eternal podcast drama. (Scoop count: 4)

Semafor’s Net Zero team will be publishing daily on the UN General Assembly meeting and New York Climate Week. Sign up here.

Assignment Desk

The rising TV giant Nexstar may buy ABC from Disney, which is getting serious about exiting the linear television business. Do ABC News and NewsNation both survive that deal in their current forms? Does either?

Will Hasan Minhaj’s truthy embellishments, exposed last week by The New Yorker, tank his chances of becoming the next Daily Show host?

What will Fox and the Murdoch family do this week to change the subject from Michael Wolff’s forthcoming “The Fall,” which foresees the end of the empire?

Max Tani

Media’s political divide plays out in Maine


Local media in the state of Maine has emerged as an unlikely and asymmetric battlefield for big American political money.

Two of the country’s key left-leaning political spenders, George Soros’s Open Society Foundation and the medical device billionaire philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss, played a central — and previously unreported — role in the nonprofit purchase of nearly two dozen respected local newspapers in Maine, including the Portland Press Herald, the Lewiston Sun Journal and the Kennebec Journal. The July announcement by the National Trust for Local News was greeted with relief by the papers’ management, unionized employees and readers, who had feared a sale to the sort of cost-cutting investors that have scooped up troubled local news organizations.

A person with direct knowledge of the project said that both Open Society and Wyss gave millions to the National Trust for the purchase of the Maine newspapers. A spokesperson for the nonprofit noted that Open Society was one of its financial supporters, but denied that Open Society committed funds specifically for the project.

And the biggest right-wing political money in the country is investing in Maine, too: According to financial filings shared separately with Semafor by the left-leaning group Accountable.US, conservative judicial activist Leonard Leo’s political network has been partially financing a local right-wing publication in Maine.

Launched in 2011, The Maine Wire is a small digital media site that publishes state and national news through a conservative lens, largely serving as a right-wing news aggregator with headlines like “Natural Disaster Threatens Man-Made Disaster as Hurricane Lee Bears Down on Portland’s Growing Homeless Camp” and “Massive Migrant Caravan Heads North to US From Panama.”

According to filings shared with Semafor, in 2020 and 2021, The Maine Wire’s parent organization, the Maine Policy Institute, received funding from several nonprofits backed by Leo, including the Schwab Charitable Fund and DonorsTrust.

The news organization appeared to return the favor with favorable coverage.

Earlier this year, the site published an extensive interview with Leo discussing the current Supreme Court and Trump’s appointment record. Leo praised the outlet’s work, noting that it had “been a privilege to be able to support [the Wire’s] work.” The Wire subsequently bought paid advertisements promoting the article on Facebook, which Accountable.US said was the only time the outlet purchased ads on the social media network in recent years.

“Leo’s funding of the Maine Policy Institute appears to have allowed Leo to use the Maine Wire as a personal PR firm,” Accountable.US senior advisor Kyle Herrig said in a statement to Semafor.

The Maine Wire has also attempted to play up the political nature of the purchase of the Maine newspaper group. The conservative site covered the purchase of the Maine newspaper group, highlighting the nonprofits’ pre-existing Soros connection and complaining that the papers did not cover an inquiry into whether a state lawmaker was dishonest in financial records.

“The Maine Wire is supported by thousands of Mainers, including Mr. Leo, because they see value in robust investigative reporting into the activities of state and local government,” Maine Wire editor in chief Steven Robinson told Semafor. “Our work speaks for itself.”

Read on for Max's and view and insight from Michael Socolow, a media historian and journalism professor at the University of Maine.  →

One Good Text

Kristen Welker is the host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” whose first interview was Sunday.


⁌ TV

Hot mic: A bizarre pre-interview incident at MSNBC this week prompted internal speculation about the future of the network’s president, Rashida Jones. According to two MSNBC staffers with knowledge of the incident, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff made remarks to MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle suggesting that Jones could leave the network soon or be elevated into a higher corporate role. Ruhle reminded Benioff that he was on a hot mic, and the two promptly dropped the topic. Executives at MSNBC and NBCUniversal told Semafor that Benioff was simply speculating, and no moves are imminent.

MSNBC is considering revamping part of the network’s weekend lineup with a roundtable weekend morning show…

⁛ News

Kelsey Russell via TikTok

Print: The new TikTok accessory is … the newspaper.

Badged: A handful of trans journalists started an impromptu game of “misgender bingo” at the recent NLGJA convention, adding a pronoun sticker to their badge every time an attendee referred to them by a pronoun different from the one printed on their conference ID. They ran out of stickers.

Process: The Wall Street Journal announced this week that its top enterprise editor, Matthew Rose, was leaving the paper, as the Times’s Katie Robertson scooped. The move followed years of widespread internal grumbling and frustration about Rose’s editorial sensibilities — and a recent critical note about the difficulties of publishing enterprise stories at the Journal from former WSJ reporter Byron Tau, who recently departed for Robert Allbritton’s new journalism nonprofit. (In a text, Tau said he didn’t want to discuss private communication but he was “nothing but grateful for my nine years at the WSJ.”)

Parting words: One of the most respected reporters on the China beat is leaving journalism. Keith Zhai covered the country for more than 20 years for the South China Morning Post, Reuters and The Wall Street Journal, and was part of a Pulitzer-winning team at Reuters for coverage of the Hong Kong protests. He’s heading to the strategic advisory firm Global Counsel to beef up their China team. Zhai’s advice for reporters covering China? Proximity matters. Don’t be daunted by the scale. And, he told Semafor, “being an expert on China today isn’t about amassing a laundry list of facts, but rather understanding evolving narratives and subtleties.”

⁜ Tech

Vivek Ramaswamy via TikTok

TikTok flop: Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy made a bit of news by starting a TikTok account despite American skepticism of the Chinese-owned app. But the app’s young audience isn’t impressed with his plan to strip voting rights from citizens under 24, and his comments are a mix of protest — “me and all my 200 friends were going to vote for you but you’re right about people under 25 not voting so we just won’t,” read one with more than 6,000 likes — and generationally confusing sex jokes that young Semafor reporters had to explain to us, which nobody wants.

Subscale:RIP Traffic,” writes Brian Morrissey, as even Bustle has given up on scale.

Man bites dog: The private equity guys running Yahoo are … doing a pretty good job, The Information reports.

Facial recognition: Perhaps the creepiest bit of Kashmir Hill’s new book, “Your Face Belongs to Us,” comes when she hires a detective to use Clearview AI to spy on her — and finds that it’s spying on him too. That takes her to the heart of her story: “a small company with mysterious founders and an unfathomably large database.”

Pay up: Podcast hosts and creators are furious at Kast Media, a company that places ads for podcasts, for being very, very late on payments.

✦ Marketing

Casting call: Octavia Spencer stars as Mother Nature in Apple’s big new spot, also featuring CEO Tim Cook as himself. The Drum’s Gordon Young declared it cringe, the Washington Post found the claims a bit murky, but how often is anyone talking about a spot like this?

Fazed: Eyebrows raised in 2021 when Sports Illustrated put the esports company FaZe Clan on the cover, given that the CEO of SI’s parent Arena Group also sat on FaZe’s board. Skeptics felt vindicated last week when Bloomberg reported that FaZe Clan has “run out of hype” and is near collapse.

Hot on Semafor
  • In Virginia, Republicans are running on what worked in 2021. But Democrats say that the Dobbs decision changed everything.
  • A pair of Princeton researchers are calling out some in the AI industry, but they aren’t doomsayers. They’re more afraid of shoddy software than robots going rogue.
  • Ukraine’s first lady will speak at Georgetown University about the impact of the war on schools and access to education.