Semafor is a recently-launched news website from Ben Smith, former editor-in-chief at Buzzfeed News and a New York Times media columnist, and Justin B. Smith, former Bloomberg LP CEO. With such high-profile founders, and some significant bankroll from Sam Bankman-Fried of FTX, Semafor made lofty claims about being a company "based on journalistic transparency." And they offer quality writing and reporting, with a newsletter-heavy approach that prioritizes need-to-know information and a format designed to specify between fact, opinion, and debate.
As part of Semafor's rollout, the company launched a climate-based vertical in October 2022, headed by veteran climate reporter Bill Spindle.
What Spindle did not expect was that his inaugural newsletter would go out with a big ol' honkin' sponsorship ad for the notorious fossil fuel company Chevron:
Various reporters reached out to Semafor for comment, but the responses from the company were mostly what you'd expect — "Semafor adheres to robust ad acceptability guidelines that are industry standard," that sort of stuff. The Chevron sponsorship was swiftly buried among other ads, but the fact remained that this supposedly revolutionary new media journalism startup had just committed a glaring faux pas of the exact kind they claimed they were trying to change, then refused to engage transparently about it.
Not a great start!
Roughly six weeks later, Spindle announced his departure from Semafor, tweeting that his tenure there had been "marred, sadly, by an over-dependence on Chevron sponsorship." He went into more detail in a later thread:
I'm not saying they or Chevron improperly influenced the climate coverage. I could "call it as I saw it."
What concerned me was my belief that it was not appropriate to have Chevron advertising on the same page as stories on climate coverage, particularly as the dominant advertiser. I would extend this to any news organization doing same. Such advertising raises the specter of improper influence, perceived and real.
Semafor acknowledged my concerns by removing the Chevron adverts from my emailed climate newsletter. Yet the Chevron ads never left my stories, where they often appeared as the sole advertiser. Despite my expressed discomfort and concerns, the ads remained.
Weeks before our parting of ways last week, I told Semafor leadership I saw no easy path forward as long as fossil fuel ads were in the climate stories and newsletter.
When asked for comment, a spokesperson for Semafor told media outlets that, "We decided to part ways with Bill due to issues that were unrelated to any advertising partnership. Semafor adheres to robust ad acceptability guidelines that we stand by, and that are industry standard. We did not remove advertising due to editorial requests and have a number of rotating sponsors of the climate newsletter."
Not great for an outlet supposedly built on "journalistic transparency!"
For what it's worth, I certainly take Spindle at his word that his actual reporting was not consciously or directly influenced by Chevron. That happens. But as a news organization, you have to be attuned to who you're taking money from, and what that means. This is exactly how bad actors can launder reputation and influence.
Exiting Semafor Climate Editor Calls Out 'Over-Dependence on Chevron Advertising' [Loree Seitz / The Wrap]
Long-Awaited Climate Newsletter Launches With Chevron Sponsorship [Molly Taft / Gizmodo]