Semafor Plans Inaugural Media Summit: Chris Licht, Jen Psaki, Barry Diller Among Interviewees (Exclusive)

Semafor wants to bring back the splashy media summit.

The digital media startup founded by former Bloomberg CEO Justin Smith and BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief and New York Times media columnist Ben Smith is planning an expansion of its Semafor Media brand into live events, with its inaugural summit set for next month in New York.

The event, “Semafor Media at Genesis House,” will take place the evening of April 10, hosted by Ben Smith. Interviewees scheduled to attend include CNN CEO Chris Licht, IAC chairman Barry Diller, MSNBC host and former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, outspoken ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith, journalist and podcaster Kara Swisher, and Group Black co-founder Bonin Bough.

Smith tells The Hollywood Reporter that with events becoming a significant part of Semafor’s strategy (he says they are on track for 40 this year), and with the success of the Semafor Africa Summit in December, the decision to bring its media column and newsletter to the format just made sense.

“We were just kind of blown away [at the Semafor Africa Summit] by the level of interest and having really prominent, interesting people showing up in person both onstage and in the audience,” Smith says. “So I think on one hand, there’s just a ton of demand for this kind of event. People really are eager to get back in person.”

He adds, however, that live journalism has become an important part of what Semafor is trying to accomplish.

“The other thing is that I just think live journalism — and Justin and I both kind of really share this view — it can be a real pillar of what we’re doing,” he says. “I think we see events as kind of co-equal with the written and video journalism we are doing, not as an afterthought.”

Events accounted for 30 percent of Semafor’s revenue in 2022, and that is expected to increase this year.

The list of interviewees is a good one, with Licht frequently at the center of conversation both when discussing the future of news, and in trying to rejuvenate CNN’s brand in particular, and Diller having long been game to share his thoughts on where the industry is going, and how technology can disrupt the status quo.

Psaki, meanwhile appears as a newly-minted TV personality and a veteran of Biden’s press operation, while Bough’s organization is in the mix as a possible buyer for companies like Vice and BET.

“You know I’m just pleased that anybody will talk to me after that New York Times column that I wrote for a couple years,” Smith says, adding that we are in “this moment of change” with social media seemingly on the decline, and artificial intelligence ascendant.

“With financial markets, and national politics and global politics all changing really fast, and with the economy in a really complicated place, and then with consumers changing how they consume news and what they want from news,” Smith says there’s a lot to discuss, and that he hopes the guests will be able to answer questions about how they are adapting, and what might happen next.

Genesis House is the sponsor of the event (the owner of Genesis House is Genesis, the luxury automative brand which is also a Semafor launch partner), and will host a reception after the interviews are complete.

As for the attendees in the audience: “We hope it’ll be people who are really interested and connected to this world, and then, you know, to some degree obsessed with it,” Smith says. (The event is invite-only but free for invited attendees.)

Media has become one of Semafor’s signature beats, highlighted by Smith’s weekly Semafor Media newsletter, which he produces on Sunday evenings alongside media reporter Max Tani.

It’s a beat Smith knows well now only from the Times, but also from his days leading BuzzFeed’s newsroom, and at Politico.

“I honestly think that I’ve been looking forward to competing with the New York Times on Sunday nights, but they certainly left that space open for us,” Smith says.

The Times has been without a media columnist since Smith left more than a year ago, though recent reports suggest that Washington Post columnist Sarah Ellison has emerged as a favorite for the job.

“I look forward to them filling it in and us having some competition there,” Smith says.

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