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Online companies like iBoostReach are offering thousands of downloads for podcasters.͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
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October 8, 2023


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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

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

Before “content moderation” became a hyper-politicized debate about late social media, it was a conversation about terrorism. A decade ago, ISIS burst into global consciousness with a new kind of viral propaganda — videos of brutal murders that spread across social media, horrifying people around the world, amplifying a global sense of their power and supercharging their recruiting.

On Saturday, Hamas supporters gleefully posted videos and photos showing the murders and kidnappings of terrified Israeli civilians to Telegram, X and other platforms, which seem to have left some of them up. There were ripples of a debate over whether spreading those images essentially puts the platforms in service of Hamas’s spreading of terror, or whether they offered the world an important glimpse of the nightmare those Israelis were facing.

This shift had implications for journalism too. In the old media days, even Osama bin Laden welcomed the occasional journalist to his hideout. Terrorists needed us to get their message out, and we took the opportunity to try to explain and understand them. Social media did away with that exchange, and journalists in Syria in particular instead became targets, more useful as hostages or public victims.

I don’t know the right answer, and I often objected to the spread of more politicized social media moderation — but I can’t say I’m comfortable with the notion that a publisher or platform has an obligation to spread Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s approving comment on a graphic video of a terror attack, either. And these questions seem to have been thrown back to the unresolved haze of 2010.

Also in this newsletter: Max reveals the bots and scams threatening the podcast business; Adam Nagourney breaks the biggest media news of 1993; programmatic advertising is surprisingly bad for the climate; assholes are bad for fair reporting; Max is texting with Rich Paul (!), and CNN’s new boss starts work. (Scoop count: 5)

We’ll be covering the implications of the new war in the Middle East in Semafor’s daily Flagship newsletter, which offers sophisticated, kaleidoscopic views of global issues. Sign up here.

Assignment Desk
Posters showing Blippi and Cocomelon characters are displayed at an event in London.
John Keeble/Getty Images

Back in the halcyon zero-interest-rate years, big money circled the media business. But as Lucas Shaw scooped for Bloomberg last week, Blackstone’s Candle Media is falling far short of the revenue it anticipated from high-profile bets on Reese Witherspoon’s company Hello Sunshine, the kids’ video channel Cocomelon and other expensive purchases.

Former Disney executives Tom Staggs and Kevin Mayer “blamed the shortfall on an ‘unprecedented’ set of obstacles, including a decline in advertising at YouTube, two Hollywood strikes and a pullback in spending across the entertainment industry.” The big question now is how the intensifying funding crunch will trickle downstream to less glamorous media businesses.

Max Tani

The bots have come for podcasts

Noam Galai/Getty Images


Earlier this year, PJ Vogt received a strange proposition: If he paid a few dollars to a small self-described media buying company, his new podcast, Search Engine, would be boosted to the top of the podcast charts.

An online audience company called iBoostReach — which works largely with a series of fitness and personal finance influencers, but has also claimed to work with Warner Music Group — was offering thousands of downloads, and a representative for iBoostReach offered to prove its effectiveness by boosting the downloads on Search Engine’s trailer episode.

The proposition immediately raised red flags for Vogt, the former co-host of Reply All, and his team, he told Semafor. They had contracts with advertisers and agreements to reach certain download targets organically. While iBoostReach did not specify how it would immediately deliver thousands of downloads to the show, Vogt said he was concerned that an arrangement like that would mislead advertisers.

“It’s a tough industry right now. People will do things out of fear they wouldn’t have done out of greed,” Vogt said. “I hope everyone ignores these people and that they go away.”


Vogt’s experience reflected one of the dirty secrets of the podcast industry, whose growth has come with a wave of growing pains and a shift from hazily-measured host-read advertising to tactics more familiar to the shadier parts of the online ad market.

iBoostReach is part of a cottage industry that has emerged as podcasting has grown in recent years. When Semafor sent the company’s website around to a series of podcast executives, talent agents and hosts, many said that they were not surprised that this business exists, and said major podcast advertisers and audio companies have increasingly worked to spot inflated podcast numbers.

“The two places where it really gets used most are to satisfy a talent’s ego, or to satisfy an advertiser who isn’t really looking too closely at the numbers,” one podcast exec told Semafor.

Read on for more context and Max's view of what all this means for the podcasting ad world. →

One Good Text

Rich Paul is the founder and CEO of Klutch Sports and co-head of UTA Sports.


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⁛ News

Times past: Adam Nagourney’s new book, The Times, is a definitive account of the paper’s recent history, but also contains a few specific revelations that would have been big media news at the time.

  • Nagourney’s book offers a glimpse at just how sexist and homophobic the greatest American newspaper was in fairly recent memory. Abe Rosenthal, the legendary editor who led the paper until 1986, shared sexist jokes with his boss, and noted in his diary that he would never let a gay man cover the State Department because of his worry about a “subterranean” gay “clique.”
  • In 1993, the new publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., tried to fire his least favorite columnist, Bob Herbert, who he thought should be writing about local issues and instead had become a national liberal voice. Herbert was also the Times’s first-ever Black columnist, and wasn’t ready to go. He rejected a buyout offer and Sulzberger backed down over fears of a high-profile discrimination lawsuit.
  • Perhaps the biggest-picture re-evaluation is of Sulzberger himself, who led the paper through its hardest times and was generally treated as a lightweight by outside press – and disdained by some in the building. In retrospect, Nagourney convincingly demonstrates, he was the one who made the big, correct calls that secured the Times’s dominant place now.
  • The fall of editor Howell Raines in 2003 was a painful public and private moment that played out over now-forgotten scandals. But Nagourney also notes of the crusading editor, who favored voicey writing and political edge, that his “style and sensibility presaged the digital age.”

Coverage: Ethan Strauss asks what is (truly) one of the questions of our times: “Can the media be fair to an asshole it hates?” The subject in question is the star pitcher Trevor Bauer, who was suspended from baseball after allegations of sexual assault.

Institutions: It pains me to say this, but Jonah Goldberg’s essay on the limits of transparency, and the extent to which procedural openness makes it hard to govern, is a challenging and interesting read on one of the big questions of this media age. (Bonus: Julian Assange’s early writing on how leaks can shut down governments was quite prescient.)

Back to Business: Insider has worked to phase out its former name, Business Insider, amid Facebook-driven ambitions to reach a broader audience with non-business stories. Now it may be changing its mind. Two people familiar with the discussions told Semafor that leaders at Insider and Axel Springer are considering leaning back into the old name, noting the strength of the original brand.

⁌ TV

Vox to golf: Two digital media veterans are teaming up to launch a new golf media venture. Chad Mumm, the head of Vox’s media studios, and Joe Purzycki, the former CEO of Puck, are launching a media and commerce company around golf, looking to capitalize on the increased interest in the sport and the success of the Netflix golf program Full Swing, which Mumm produced for Vox. The company, which is currently raising money and targeting a launch date early next year, already has some major interest from the PGA Tour, which will likely be a partner.

“Chad will remain an active producer across multiple titles in Vox Media Studios’ slate, and we will look for additional opportunities to work with him in his new venture,” a Vox spokesperson told Semafor.

New day: The Mark Thompson era at CNN officially begins tomorrow morning. But while he hasn’t been on the clock, the CNN chief has already been preparing for the new role, meeting with anchors and producers and commuting into the network’s New York office. He’s made pilgrimages to see CNN staff in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, and has been offering feedback in meetings (he recently mused about whether CNN anchors should be dressing less formally on-air). While there are no immediate plans for a staff town hall, Thompson is expected to offer a message to global employees tomorrow morning. CNN staff who have met with the incoming CEO have largely been cautiously optimistic, with some CNN hoping he can help put an end to the executive soap opera that surrounded the network over the past year and a half since Jeff Zucker departed.

☊ Audio

Death, Sex and Need More Money: New York Public Radio and WNYC underwent major cuts last week, canceling a series of podcasts and laying off staff. In addition to axing the podcasts More Perfect and La Brega, Semafor has learned that WNYC is also giving itself until the end of the year to find a partner or new home for Death, Sex and Money.

✦ Marketing

Ad load: Programmatic advertising comes with a lot of carbon emissions, as serving a single ad through an auction mechanism is a lot of digital work, Tim McDonnell reports for the Semafor Net Zero newsletter. The pitch to CEOs: “It might take you years to move or redesign your factory. … It could take you 10 minutes to make a choice about advertising.” Sign up here.

Hot on Semafor
  • Israeli and U.S. officials are increasingly concerned that the assault Hamas launched on southern Israel over the weekend could expand into a broader regional war, which could bring in Iran and its other proxies.
  • Former Trump national security adviser Robert O’Brien told Semafor that the U.S. should send FBI and U.S. special operators to Israel to assist with rescuing Hamas’s Israeli hostages, and that the U.S. military should be dispatched to recover any Americans.
  • A new book examines the role of the CIA in the overthrow of Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, and how that led to the last 60 years of instability in Africa’s second-largest country.