New media venture Semafor takes shape as economic backdrop darkens | Big Indy News
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New media venture Semafor takes shape as economic backdrop darkens



When two of the best-known figures in US journalism announced in January they were quitting their prestigious jobs to launch a new media venture, the pair were met with curiosity and some scepticism.

Justin Smith, the former Bloomberg media chief executive, and Ben Smith, the ex-New York Times media columnist, are betting they can overcome the obstacles that have hobbled a clutch of journalism start-ups launched over the past two decades.

Seven months later, the early contours of the new venture are starting to emerge ahead of a launch planned for October. Having secured $25mn in funding from various wealthy individuals, the start-up, called Semafor, is hiring more journalists.

Liz Hoffman, a Wall Street Journal reporter known for landing finance scoops has joined alongside politics and technology journalists from BuzzFeed and the Washington Post, respectively. The Smiths, who are unrelated, plan to double Semafor’s staff to 60 across editorial and commercial by October.

In addition to assembling a team of reporters in the US, Semafor plans to open local bureaus, starting with Africa. The company has hired Yinka Adegoke, a Nigerian-educated journalist and former Africa editor of Quartz, to lead the team

“Our big competitors that dominate global news were created back in the 20th century. [They are] exporting news from London or from Atlanta or from New York,” Ben Smith said in a recent interview. “We’re trying to build a much more networked way for a totally different moment.”

Douglas McCabe, senior analyst at Enders Analysis, said the news business “desperately needs and wants more innovation”.

“The news media today looks identical to the news media in 1990. The news format looks the same, the [big] brands are the same”, McCabe added, pointing to the struggles experienced by start-ups launched in the 2000s such as BuzzFeed that tried to shake up the industry.

However, as the company starts to take shape, the Smiths are contending with a more challenging macroeconomic background than when they left their former jobs, with inflation continuing to soar and more economists predicting a recession.

The darkening picture has put pressure on shares of companies that rely on advertising. Vox Media, which owns New York magazine, last week laid off 39 employees.

At its launch, Semafor will offer a news website and mobile app. In the first year it will be free-to-read, relying on advertising and live events for revenue. After one to two years, the venture hopes to move behind a paywall.

The company made its public debut on July 7 with its first event. But the conference — billed as a series of interviews about trust and polarisation — drew criticism after Ben Smith interviewed rightwing Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

Some journalists said Carlson, who dialled in to the video call from a closet, had “steamrolled” Smith. Others argued it was inappropriate to give a platform to Carlson, who has suggested that the January 6 2021 attack on the US Capitol was secretly carried out by the US government.

The Smiths have avoided taking money from venture capitalists in Silicon Valley who provided funding for companies such as BuzzFeed and Vice, which failed to live up to expectations after being heralded as the future of journalism.

Instead they have raised cash from wealthy investors who in theory will be more likely to stick by the company should macroeconomic headwinds result in a rocky commercial start.

Among its financial backers is Jorge Paulo Lemann, the founder of 3G capital and Brazil’s richest person. “A premium and authentically global media company that can address the needs of news audiences today through great, reliable information . . . is truly compelling,” he said.

Other Semafor investors include crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, former Goldman Sachs banker John Thornton, and David Bradley, the former owner of The Atlantic.

The success of news brands such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times has given investors renewed confidence in the sector, McCabe said. “Over the last three or four years, those businesses look like they turned a corner . . . media has become investable again.”

But the Smiths are still entering a tough digital news market beset by failure. Many optimistic online news start-ups have struggled financially, resulting in repeated rounds of redundancies and scaled-back ambitions.

The Athletic, a sports news site that has signed up more than 1mn paying subscribers, lost $55mn on $65mn in revenue last year. Earlier this year, it was bought by the New York Times for $550mn. Semafor declined to disclose its financial targets or valuation.

Semafor’s goal is to take on the giants of general interest news — the New York Times, Washington Post, BBC and CNN — which the Smiths think are too focused on domestic readers and are not trusted by the public.

“There are just these blindingly obvious consumer discontents with the news business,” said Ben Smith.

He said Semafor would focus on landing scoops. He also plans to continue writing on the media business in a format that would resemble his old column.

He plans to promote reader trust by splitting Semafor stories into separate sections, breaking apart the news from the reporter’s analysis. There will also be a section offering an opposing view, and a view from another region in the world.

After Africa, the Smiths aim to expand market by market with an emphasis on the Middle East, India, Japan and Europe. The strategy resembles Netflix’s focus on producing television in local markets, rather than forcing Hollywood tastes into homes in India, France and Brazil. “It’s definitely Netflix rather than Disney,” Ben Smith said.

With a staff of 60 at launch, Semafor is a minnow compared to the companies it intends to compete with. The New York Times has more than 1,700 journalists, while the BBC has more than 2,000. Even after the acquisition of The Athletic this year, the New York Times has nearly $500mn in cash on its balance sheet.

“Trying to be a generalist with 60 journalists is difficult,” McCabe of Enders said. “How would this newsroom have coped if on day three [after launching] Putin had started war in Europe? The big news brands have big advantages because they can helicopter journalists there tomorrow.”

Jessica Lessin, the founder of The Information news site and another investor in Semafor, is more optimistic. “The era of BuzzFeed raising a huge chunk of change and throwing it at news to drive traffic, that wasn’t sustainable,” she said. “What absolutely works is driving the conversation through scoops.”

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Sister Patricia Daly, 66, Dies; Took On Corporate Giants on Social Justice



For years, Sister Pat and other environmentalists had urged ExxonMobil to take significant steps to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from its operations and products. In 2007, she proposed a resolution that called on that energy giant to set a firm date to report on its progress.

“We’re the most profitable company in the history of the planet,” she told Rex Tillerson, then the company’s chief executive (and later secretary of state in the Trump administration), at the company’s annual meeting, “but what will be our long-term health when we are really faced with the regulatory and other challenges around global warming?”

She added: “We are now, this company and every single one of us, challenged by one of the most profound moral concerns. And we have the wherewithal to respond to that.”

The proposal won 31 percent of the ballots, or about 1.4 billion shares, the largest tally for an ExxonMobil climate-change resolution. If not an outright victory, it was a page in a decades-long narrative that led ExxonMobil to put a climate scientist on its board in 2017. Three executives who recognized the urgency to address climate change joined the company’s board in 2021, nominated by a tiny activist hedge fund, Engine No. 1.

“The arc of her work led us to those victories by working from the inside and the outside,” John Passacantando, the founder of Ozone Action, an anti-global warming group, and a former executive director of Greenpeace, said in a phone interview.

In 1999, Vanity Fair named her to its Hall of Fame, applauding her as one who “translates belief into commitment and never backs down from a fight.”

Mary Beth Gallagher, who replaced Sister Pat as executive director of the Tri-State Coalition in 2017, said Sister Pat had not become frustrated when her resolutions were routinely voted down.

“She lived in hope,” Ms. Gallagher said. “We never talked about winning or losing. It was about raising consciousness and educating. If we’re not asking these questions, who will?”

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Families can make a tax-free rollover from 529 plans to Roth individual retirement accounts starting in 2024



Maskot | Maskot | Getty Images

Americans who save for college in 529 plans will soon have a way to rescue unused funds while keeping their tax benefits intact.

A $1.7 trillion government funding package has a provision that lets savers roll money from 529 plans to Roth individual retirement accounts free of income tax or tax penalties.

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The House passed the measure Friday and the Senate did so Thursday. The bill heads to President Biden, who’s expected to sign it into law.

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The rollover measure — which takes effect in 2024 — has some limitations. Among the largest: There’s a $35,000 lifetime cap on transfers.

“It’s a good provision for people who have [529 accounts] and the money hasn’t been used,” said Ed Slott, a certified public accountant and IRA expert based in Rockville Centre, New York.

That might happen if a beneficiary — such as a child or grandchild — doesn’t attend a college, university, vocational or private K-12 school, or other qualifying institution, for example. Or, a student may receive scholarships that mean some 529 funds are left over.

Millions of 529 accounts hold billions in savings

There were nearly 15 million 529 accounts at the end of last year, holding a total $480 billion, according to the Investment Company Institute. That’s an average of about $30,600 per account.

529 plans carry tax advantages for college savers. Namely, investment earnings on account contributions grow tax-free and aren’t taxable if used for qualifying education expenses like tuition, fees, books, and room and board.

Retirement plan changes in the omnibus spending bill

However, that investment growth is generally subject to income tax and a 10% tax penalty if used for an ineligible expense.

This is where rollovers to a Roth IRA can benefit savers with stranded 529 money. A transfer would skirt income tax and penalties; investments would keep growing tax-free in a Roth account, and future retirement withdrawals would also be tax-free.  

Some think it’s a handout for the rich

However, some critics think the rollover policy largely amounts to a tax handout to wealthier families.

“You’re giving savings incentives to those who can save and leaving behind those who cannot save,” said Steve Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

A 2012 analysis conducted by the Government Accountability Office found the typical American with a 529 account had “much more wealth” than someone without: $413,500 in total wealth for the median person, about 25 times the amount of a non-accountholder.

You’re giving savings incentives to those who can save and leaving behind those who cannot save.

Steve Rosenthal

senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center

Further, the typical owner had a roughly $142,000 annual income versus $45,000 for other families, the GAO report said. Almost half, 47%, had incomes over $150,000.

The new 529-to-Roth IRA transfer provision doesn’t carry income limits.

Limitations on 529-to-IRA transfers

While the new tax break primarily benefits wealthier families, there are “pretty significant” limitations on the rollovers that reduce the financial benefit, Jeffrey Levine, a certified financial planner and certified public accountant based in St. Louis, said in a tweet.

The restrictions include:

  • A $35,000 lifetime cap on transfers.
  • Rollovers are subject to the annual Roth IRA contribution limit. (The limit is $6,500 in 2023.)
  • The rollover can only be made to the beneficiary’s Roth IRA — not that of the account owner. (In other words, a 529 owned by a parent with the child as beneficiary would need to be rolled into the child’s IRA, not the parent’s.)
  • The 529 account must have been open for at least 15 years. (It seems changing account beneficiaries may restart that 15-year clock, Levine said.)
  • Accountholders can’t roll over contributions, or earnings on those contributions, made in the last five years.

In a summary document, the Senate Finance Committee said current 529 tax rules have “led to hesitating, delaying, or declining to fund 529s to levels needed to pay for the rising costs of education.”

“Families who sacrifice and save in 529 accounts should not be punished with tax and penalty years later if the beneficiary has found an alternative way to pay for their education,” it said.

Are 529 plans already flexible enough?

Some education savings experts think 529 accounts have adequate flexibility so as not to deter families from using them.

For example, owners with leftover account funds can change beneficiaries to another qualifying family member — thereby helping avoid a tax penalty for non-qualified withdrawals. Aside from a kid or grandkid, that family member might be you; a spouse; a son, daughter, brother, sister, father or mother-in-law; sibling or step-sibling; first cousin or their spouse; a niece, nephew or their spouse; or aunt and uncle, among others.

Owners can also keep funds in an account for a beneficiary’s graduate schooling or the education of a future grandchild, according to Funds can also be used to make up to $10,000 of student loan payments.

The tax penalty may also not be quite as bad as some think, according to education expert Mark Kantrowitz. For example, taxes are assessed at the beneficiary’s income-tax rate, which is generally lower than the parent’s tax rate by at least 10 percentage points.

In that case, the parent “is no worse off than they would have been had they saved in a taxable account,” depending on their tax rates on long-term capital gains, he said.

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Goldman grumbling grows for banking giant to sack CEO David Solomon



The knives are out for Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon, and this time the people brandishing them aren’t the usual suspects — his junior staffers annoyed that they have to work late or come into the office several times a week.

Solomon’s problems are more serious and existential, I am told, and how he handles what can best be described as a revolt in some quarters of Goldman’s middle and upper management ranks could determine how much longer he stays in his job.

Solomon, 60, took the job in 2018 and was always somewhat of an odd choice to run the white-shoe investment bank that usually cultivated its leaders from within. He cut his teeth at a decidedly un-Goldman-like venue: the scrappy investment bank Bear Stearns (ultimately one of the causalities of the 2008 financial crisis).

He joined Goldman in 1999, as a partner, no less, because his deal-making chops allowed him to skip layers of management.

In other words, Solomon is an outsider at a firm with a wickedly insular culture. He has a quirky side gig as a DJ in the summer Hamptons party circuit. He’s also not one for small talk, and doesn’t consult with a lot of people before handing down his edicts. 

“He doesn’t breed a lot of love,” said one former Goldman executive who knows Solomon well.

Lots of people at Goldman don’t like him, and they’re letting their views be heard both internally and with pals at rival firms.

Solomon as a DJ
Solomon is an outsider at a firm with a wickedly insular culture.
David Solomon/Instagram

For the record: I’ve met Solomon and like him for his no-BS style. And until pretty recently, the numbers show him doing a great job. Goldman was running on all cylinders in deals and trading. Even as the market corrects, shares are up about 60% since Solomon took over as CEO in 2018 compared to around a 44% rise in the S&P during that time.

Goldman is still the top M&A shop, even widening its market share over rivals in that important business line. Solomon was the first among his fellow CEOs to see the downturn and enact significant layoffs to cut costs.

Still, the grumbling about Solomon is spreading to the managing director and partner class. High-priced Wall Street talent don’t call all the shots at any firm, of course. But Goldman’s MDs and partners have historically been a powerful force when the board decides the fate of current management, which makes Solomon’s hold on his job increasingly precarious as more and more of them defect from his camp.

David Solomon as a DJ
Solomon was the first among his fellow CEOs to see the downturn and enact significant layoffs to cut costs.
David Solomon/Instagram

Here’s how they’re building a case against him: Goldman’s longtime archrival investment bank Morgan Stanley now easily dwarfs Goldman in market value, $144 billion to $116 billion, continuing a trend that predates Solomon. That comes amid a slowdown in banking deals, Goldman’s bread-and-butter business, and Solomon’s home turf.

Morgan’s CEO James Gorman deftly expanded the firm’s wealth management operations, which provide steady revenues. Solomon’s effort to diversify was an overindulgence in something called Marcus, a digital retail bank launched by his predecessor Lloyd Bankfein that Solomon made his baby. So far, it’s been a disaster, so much so that Solomon has been forced to scale back, possibly on the way to winding it down.

Goldman, meanwhile, has missed targets in its recent earnings announcements, and more downward surprises could be in store as markets continue to wobble. Bonuses are down, in some places cut in half, albeit from the nosebleed levels of 2021.

Goldman Sachs headquarters
The grumbling about Solomon is spreading to the managing director and partner class.
AFP via Getty Images

Traders did well in 2022 because Goldman’s are particularly adept in profiting off turbulence, but part of their pool is being diverted to bankers to keep them in-house until the deal slowdown ends.

Since Solomon is a banker, he’s also being accused of favoritism, which in truth is a pretty lame charge, since bankers often subsidize trader bonuses when the markets aren’t profitable. Still, the Goldman trading department is powerful and can spark management change, as it has done in the past.

There’s also a question about Solomon’s allegiance to Goldman’s stand-alone culture. In its 153-year existence, Goldman has operated on the assumption that it would be the acquirer in any major strategic acquisition. Solomon’s experience at Bear, then one of the most transactional places on Wall Street, means he could be looking for a deal and not one that keeps Goldman in charge.

Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman deftly expanded the firm’s wealth management operations, which provide steady revenues.
Morgan Stanley’s James Gorman deftly expanded the firm’s wealth management operations, which provide steady revenues.
AFP via Getty Images

At a time when most Goldman insiders believe he needs to do a “transformational deal,” i.e., something big that allows it to better compete against Morgan Stanley and super banks like JP Morgan, there is speculation that Solomon might allow Goldman to be swallowed whole by, say, a big asset manager or bank if the price was right.

As best I can tell, this grumbling, though real, doesn’t immediately threaten Solomon’s job. Then again, there is something to be said for keeping your producers happy.

Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of General Electric, was a notorious screamer and demanding beyond belief. Yet Welch knew how to nurture his people.

Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch
Jack Welch was a notorious screamer and demanding beyond belief. Yet Welch knew how to nurture his people.
Getty Images

“Jack could chew your ass, then put his arm around you and make you feel great,” one of his longtime executives, Bob Nardelli, once told me.

It’s why so many other talented execs chose to stay around under Welch, abuse and all, and left when his successor took over, watching GE implode from the outside.

Maybe it’s a good time for Solomon to take a page from Welch and start hugging it out.

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