Thoughts on Semafor

Danielle Lee Tomson
5 min readOct 18, 2022


Ambitious goal, but does it consider stylistic polarization?

Screen capture of a promo video from Semafor

Today, a new global media company launched called Semafor, aimed at limiting polarization in an overloaded information ecosystem. It is the brainchild of Ben Smith (Ex Editor-in-Chief at Buzzfeed, NYT Columnist) and Justin Smith (ex-CEO Bloomberg Media). More on the business here. While I thought the brand sounded a bit like an ED drug at first, Semafor gets its name from the stylistic form it is piloting, a “semaform,” which is a “format [that] separates the undisputed facts from the reporter’s analysis of those facts, provides different and more global perspectives, and shares strong journalism on the subject from other outlets”

A promo reel from their video editor, Joe Posner, caught my attention. It has an interesting thesis: overcoming polarization is possible with the correct form and new evidence-based approaches.

As someone who spent the past 4 years doing ethnographic study and writing about conservative media influencers (think Steve Bannon, Jack Posobiec, Raheem Kassam etc.) I’m interested what media elites like the duo Smith — unrelated to each other by the way — are cooking up to counteract other forces of influence.

Polarization or Participation?

The video does mention that the simpler age of Walter Cronkite, where news was basically decided by a bunch of white dudes on the Upper East Side — far from objective despite the professional insistence. Today, there is often a fixation on the “polarization” of the media ecosystem and the incentives that social media has put in place to reward the most saccharine, attention-seeking voices over those that may, quite frankly, be more boring.

Yet as my fellow comms scholars Daniel Kreiss and Shannon McGregor point out, polarization isn’t necessarily the problem — inequality is. The way I see it, participation of historically disenfranchised groups in the media ecosystem has increased thanks to social media and often times, this also means showing the horrific oppression they still experience (think footage of police brutality). These emotionally provocative images also can high jack the algorithmic incentives to spread faster. Greater participation — a good thing — could be exacerbating polarization.

Polarization isn’t necessarily the problem so much as historically oppressed voices finally getting a seat at the table — and the reaction to their presence by groups who don’t want them there.

The video does mention how studies show we often overestimate each others’ differences — we have more common ground than we think if we just slow down. But those differences are exacerbated by those who want to profit — politically or financially — off of them. I’m sure Semafor can tap into the blue checkmark debate crowd that likes to duke it out on the opinion pages of the WSJ or NYT… or Twitter. But will it go beyond elite participant-audiences?

Stylistic Difference

One of the things I appreciated the video mentioning that was a way to overcome polarization is to invoke a sense of curiosity and see a “complicated issue in their world as a mystery and they are the detective.”

This makes sense and excited me. If observing QAnon and the “I do my own research” community over the past few years has taught me anything, people really want to feel a sense of agency in their news consumption. It is also a form of entertainment, a kind of “make-your-own-adventure” game. I am very down with the idea of experimenting with form and the sense of adventure in the news, but will Semafor achieve this?

Semafor’s website looks trendy (a pale yellow background with clocks showing the time around the world). It also smells elite. It may speak across the differences between blue checkmarks of George Will and Kara Swisher. But will it speak across the stylistic preferences between two “news junkies:” my aunt back on the farm in Western Pennsylvania who prefers tabloid-style news, Doug Mastriano, and WWE and my uncle in Chicago who worked in a national lab, marches in Pride parades, and adores NPR? Different styles speak to them — I’m sure my aunt doesn’t feel like she “belongs” in the audience at NPR just as Fox News is not designed for my uncle. They see the world differently and stylistic cues are what indicate their belonging.

On top of that, “misinformation” may not be so much of a problem for them as different epistemic universes speaking to them. One has a more millennarian bent with the end of the world/second coming nigh, the other a more Enlightenment view of the arc of the universe bending towards justice and scientific progress.

Epistemic Shift

Will Semafor just speak across the differences of a global elite, all engaged in an Enlightenment paradigm of how knowledge is created and discovered, of what is fact and what is opinion? Or will it try to speak across stylistic and epistemic difference?

If there is anything my own research and work in the past few years has taught me, we aren’t experiencing a crisis of misinformation so much as a fracturing of epistemology, or the way we know truth from opinion and assume how time, facts, and knowledge work. (See my piece on different epistemic postures in American culture alone)

This might mean testing what the “Semaform” itself is, and if there are many forms of Semaform. Will some be entertaining? Will some have different kinds of style? Will some speak crudely? Will others speak with an elite panache?

I’m excited to see what Semafor comes up with (sorry about the jab to the name at the beginning — just spent a lot of time around dick jokes all weekend with a lot of right-wing dudes, but proof of stylistic differences eh!?) Yes, it may just speak only to other elites who create and consume news the most, but what if it goes beyond that?

I think seeing opportunity and possibility is all we have to find a path forward in a world where negativity can be an intoxicating excuse for experimentation.



Danielle Lee Tomson

Personal Musings of a Scholar and Strategist Navigating Propaganda, Tech, and Power