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Key providers of satellite photographs to news organizations are reducing their access.͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
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November 6, 2023


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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome to Semafor Media, where we keep an eye on the satellites.

Washington Post reporters were scrambling Saturday night to finish their half-written piece on the hiring of their new CEO, Will Lewis, after The New York Times scooped them on their own news.

Lewis is a former hotshot reporter and restless business operator who has been trying to reinvent the economics of short video news. His core challenge at the Post will be figuring out how to stop the nine-figure bleeding without embarrassing owner Jeff Bezos with deep cuts to the newsroom. Nobody likes their vanity project becoming a PR nightmare. And the Post’s business is a muddle: It recently shelved efforts to become a tech company, and its subscription strategy — to be a discount New York Times — doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

The obvious answer is to look homeward. When I got to work at Politico in late 2006, my bosses had just jumped ship from a stodgy Post because the paper had ignored their pitch to inject digital speed into its core Washington beats. Politico crushed the hometown paper on the campaign trail and Capitol Hill. It also built a $200 million a year business rooted in advertising targeting political decision-makers – a “pro” operation selling deep, narrow intelligence on subjects like agriculture and defense. Some of the same people launched Axios and used a version of the same model as a springboard toward a national publication; Politico alums at Punchbowl grabbed a slice of the Hill. (No other city in the world has seen so many news startups thrive, part of why we’ve made D.C. central to the launch of Semafor.)

The Post’s new direction, both business and editorial, will likely be to run straight at Politico and those other D.C. competitors. The Post won’t beat the Times as a national paper, but it could fight to reclaim its spot atop political journalism. And while “Ag Insights Daily” doesn’t have the same ring as “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” that’s where the money is.

Speaking of the Times, I wrote last week in this space that the paper had slid into broadcast journalism without broadcast chops. But as a Times staffer pointed out, broadcasters like the BBC and CNN also wound up apologizing for messy early Gaza coverage. “You might have been looking for a chance to make that point, but this was a wide misfire,” my correspondent accurately wrote.

Also today: Max Tani’s big scoop on satellite companies restricting access to images of Gaza. And Marvel’s death spasms, THR’s leadership woes, Google’s new top flack, and the fight for pet bereavement leave.(Scoop count: 6)

Assignment Desk

Nonprofit feeding frenzy: Top philanthropies, led by the MacArthur Foundation, created the “Press Forward” initiative in September to pump at least $500 million into local American news over the next five years. Now come the arguments over who controls that money and where it goes.

Max Tani

Satellite companies are restricting Gaza images

A satellite image shows northern Gaza on Oct. 30, 2023.
Planet Labs Pbc/Handout via REUTERS


Key providers of satellite photographs to news organizations and other researchers have begun to restrict imagery of Gaza after a New York Times report on Israeli tank positions based on the images.

The satellite image provider Planet Labs, and a handful of competitors, have revolutionized coverage of wars and disasters by giving the public access to high-resolution images that were until recently available only to government intelligence agencies.

In the early days of the invasion of Ukraine in 2021, commercial satellite companies provided some of the most compelling images and insights into how the conflict was developing on the ground, making that war the first modern conflict in which journalists, researchers, and passionate amateurs could monitor developments in the conflict in such detail.

But as Israel begins its ground invasion of Gaza, the same satellite imagery providers aren’t being as forthcoming.

Planet, a San Francisco-based company launched in 2010 by former NASA scientists, has in recent days heavily restricted and obscured parts of images over the Gaza Strip for many users, including news organizations. Last week, some images of Gaza were removed from Planet’s web application for downloading imagery, and some have been distributed to interested media outlets through a Google Drive folder. The satellite company told some subscribers that during active conflicts, it may modify pictures published to the archive.

Two Planet subscribers confirmed to Semafor that between Oct. 30 and Nov. 1, the company did not provide low or medium resolution imagery of the northern area of the Gaza Strip where much of the Israeli military activity seems to be concentrated. Additionally, subscribers have not had access through Planet’s platform to the high-resolution .50cm imagery of Gaza since Oct. 22, according to two Planet subscribers. Several subscribers showed Semafor images taken by Planet’s “Dove” satellites that showed areas around Gaza in detail, but large solid-color blocks over the coastal strip. One person familiar with the imagery said that the company is sharing medium-resolution images at an infrequent clip, and said that there have been no low- or medium-resolution images of Gaza since Friday.

Some commercial satellite companies appear to be releasing their detailed images — but with a time delay. Planet and a competitor, Maxar Technologies, have released images shared with the New York Times, Washington Post, and other news outlets on a significant time delay. Starting on Nov. 3, both papers shared exclusive images taken by Planet on Nov. 1. Airbus, another major commercial satellite image provider, has not shared images of Gaza.

Planet did not say why the company in recent days had restricted or slowed the release of images of Gaza. But commercial satellite images of the conflict have concerned U.S. security officials, according to a person familiar with the issue, who have noted the level of detail in stories such as an Oct. 19 New York Times story with images showing Israeli tank positions in Northern Gaza.

A spokesperson for the company said that while they could not comment on specific users, the company was “working through all of our crisis response processes to try to best support our customers and partners across governments, media, and humanitarian organizations.”

The New York Times declined to comment. A spokesperson for the Pentagon did not return a request for comment.

Read on for Max's take on why satellite companies are handling the conflict in Gaza differently from the war in Ukraine.  →

One Good Text

Brian Stelter is a special correspondent for Vanity Fair and author of ”Network of Lies: The Epic Saga of Fox News, Donald Trump, and the Battle for American Democracy.”


⁛ News

Death toll: Since war broke out in Israel, “at least 36 journalists and media workers” have been killed: 31 Palestinian, four Israeli and one Lebanese, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

‘Brazen’: A Filipino journalist, Juan Jumalon, was killed Sunday while on-air.

Undercover: The legal precedent that made many American newsrooms nervous about undercover reporting has mostly collapsed, the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Seth Stern writes. Time to dust off your wigs, false mustaches and hidden cameras: “Everyone from political campaigns to sports leagues to government agencies is sealing off people and spaces to which the press used to have access, and the press’s response has often been limited to complaining in editorials. Perhaps it’s time for the press to — carefully and in close consultation with legal counsel — think creatively about ways to get in through the back door when newsmakers won’t let them in the front.”

Forward progress: The venerable Jewish outlet The Forward says it has seen a huge jump in reader interest over the past months. In data shared with Semafor, The Forward boasted that its page views and users have increased by 144%, and it is seeing a bump in new users and higher engagement. “It’s gratifying to see people responding to what we’re doing — providing clarity amid the chaos of this news and a Jewish lens on the news that does not come from a place of ideology,” Editor in Chief Jodi Rudoren said in an email. The editor of the more hawkish magazine Tablet, Alana Newhouse, meanwhile, says its monthly readership has quadrupled.

Talk of Town: Jay Penske must really love the Hollywood podcast The Town, from Puck and The Ringer. Earlier this year, Semafor reported that Penske Media attempted to bring back the host, former Hollywood Reporter top editor Matt Belloni, to run the publication. Multiple people familiar with the situation told Semafor that Penske also spoke with frequent Town guest and Bloomberg editor Lucas Shaw for the top THR job.

Tech walks: The New York Times tech union staged a walkout last week as the guild continues to bargain for its first contract with the paper. Tech union workers say they hope the first contract will help with issues related to pay, equity and diversity. But some leaders at the paper have been taken aback by specific contract proposals, including a ban on perfume in break rooms, unlimited break time and accommodations for pet bereavement. The union, which covers the newsroom’s software engineers, product managers, designers and other tech workers, has also put forward language about journalistic integrity and issues around bylines, catch-and-kill, and letters to the editor — which management rejected out-of-hand.

Reading China: In Chinese media, late premier Li Keqiang “has been sidelined in death this week just as he was in recent years within China’s top leadership.” — Lingua Sinica

Hard talk: The flagship BBC show Newsnight is in jeopardy — in part because of the dramatic shift in the U.K.’s elite political discussions to podcasts. — The Guardian

⁌ TV

Pumping iron: Jeff Zucker popped up from the semi-obscurity of private capital to have lunch with the FT’s Matt Garrahan. His reaction to the notorious gym scene in the Atlantic piece that helped topple his successor at CNN? “I felt that I had to go to the gym.”

⁜ Tech

Google him: Rob Shilkin, a straight-talking Australian who’s been at Google for 16 years, has been named the company’s vice president of global communications and public affairs. He replaces Corey duBrowa, who left in June. Of particular note these days: Shilkin was an antitrust lawyer before he got into this line of work.

Fake podcasts: Garbage Day’s Ryan Broderick investigates the remarkable phenomenon of adult sites promoting themselves by trolling: “You can build an entire media company off of short videos of young women saying random stuff that makes weird men angry. Inspiring, really.”

✰ Hollywood

Marvel mess: The franchise has run out of steam and Tatiana Siegel goes deep on the mess, producing quotes like: “Marvel is truly fucked with the whole Kang angle.”

CGI Cage: An unhappy Nic Cage told Yahoo! Entertainment that he showed up on set of The Flash to “shoot a scene for maybe an hour in the suit, looking at the destruction of a universe and trying to convey the feelings of loss and sadness and terror in my eyes. That’s all I did.” With the help of some serious CGI, he wound up fighting a giant spider on-screen.

⁋ Publishing

Recurring CEOs: Recurrent Ventures, the private-equity media group that owns Field & Stream, Domino and Popular Science, and which bought and shut down Mel Magazine, has hired its third CEO in three years. — Adweek

Hot on Semafor
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