There’s a big new media presence in town, and Big Oil has already gotten its hands on it.
Semafor, the new journalism project from BuzzFeed founder and former New York Times columnist Ben Smith, finally rolled out last week. The site’s About page explains that it aims to “[crack] open the black box of the traditional news article, while seeking to set new standards for clarity and concision.”
One of Semafor’s first climate and energy-focused newsletters, helmed by veteran journalist Bill Spindle, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, went out to subscribers on Monday. Among stories and analyses including a breakdown of Europe’s attempt to end its reliance on natural gas, readers were treated to a message from one of the newsletter’s first corporate sponsors: Chevron. “We’re working toward a lower-carbon future,” the ad’s headline reads, above a picture of a cow’s nose, with a link to a Chevron website on turning cow waste into natural gas.
“Advertisers have no bearing on our editorial coverage and we maintain a strict separation between news and third-party advertisement,” a Semafor spokesperson told Earther in an email. “Semafor adheres to robust ad acceptability guidelines that are industry standard. Any ads that are featured across our products are transparently positioned to the reader and clearly contextualized as advertising.”
Oil and gas companies regularly advertise through various media platforms, even those geared specifically toward climate and clean energy. From newspaper ads that cast doubt on the scientific consensus to sponsoring UN climate change conferences and tapping Instagram influencers to promote their products as eco-friendly, Big Oil has a long history of aggressively and creatively using advertising to deny climate science or, more recently, posit itself as a leader in climate solutions. (Oil companies actually created the idea of paid content—copy placed in media that deliberately blurs the lines between unbiased reporting and paid advertising.) Email newsletters, many of which rely on sponsorships to be profitable, are a natural next step for corporate sponsors like oil companies, who see them as a way to reach targeted audiences with a vested interest in seeing their message.
Some of these newsletter placements from Big Oil have had very deliberate targets. Last year, Earther conducted a joint investigation with HEATED looking at Big Oil buyouts of three popular political Beltway climate and energy newsletters in the month leading up to a House Congressional hearing on fossil fuel companies and climate misinformation. We found that oil company sponsorships exploded in that time period compared to previous months. Chevron was a particular ad powerhouse in the weeks we inspected: It was the most prolific sponsor of those newsletters, funding 57% of the fossil fuel-sponsored newsletters in the six months leading up to the hearing.
The Chevron ad that ran in Monday’s newsletter isn’t specific to Semafor. In a brief scan of some newsletters that hit my inbox over the past couple of days, I saw that Axios Generate this week is running nearly identical ads from the oil giant, advertising the same webpage and using a similar image of a cow. Politico PRO’s Power Switch newsletter, meanwhile, ran an ad with just the cow picture but that linked to the same Chevron website.
Ads like the ones in Semafor don’t come cheap. Last year, our reporting found that, on average, Chevron spent $120,000 on DC-focused newsletter ads in one month. Sponsoring the Punchbowl newsletter for one week cost $100,000, while POLITICO Playbook and Axios can cost more than $300,000. Semafor did not answer our questions about how much a sponsorship would cost for one of its newsletters.
The type of messaging in the ad is an instantly recognizable form of greenwashing for those of us who spend time tracking Big Oil. The phrase “low-carbon future” is intentionally misleading and an example of what some experts call “paltering”—an “attempt to distract from their polluting behavior,” John Cook, a climate change communication researcher at Monash University, told us last year. Sure, some “solutions” companies like Chevron are working on may emit less CO2 than traditional fossil fuels do. But many energy analyses have found that any new oil and gas exploration is incompatible with the goals of the Paris Agreement; the world must stop creating new fossil fuel projects immediately if we want to have any hope of keeping warming below catastrophic levels. As long as companies like Chevron continue to expand their fossil fuel production, it’s false to say that they’re working toward any sort of brighter future for the climate.
Watching certain media’s reaction to being called our for these partnerships has been fascinating. Houston Public Media quickly retracted a documentary series it produced with Chevron in the face of a public backlash. On the flip side, despite our reporting on Axios and Politico’s Big Oil newsletter ads being entered into the Congressional record as an example of oil and gas interests manipulating media and public opinion, those outlets continue to routinely have big polluters pay for their newsletters. Chevron, meanwhile, is seemingly looking beyond paying for content in mainstream publications; it’s expanding its own empire of publications, launching a “local news site” for Texans this summer.
In the hellscape that is the modern journalism industry, where local news outlets are shuttering every day and a solid long-term profit model remains elusive, perhaps it’s naive to expect outlets to restrict the ad sponsorships they take. (This site, after all, runs on the dollars from ads you see on the sidebars of articles like these, and none of those advertisers influence our reporting in any way.) And in the energy and climate space, big oil and gas are the rich kids in town; it stands to reason that they’d be the ones most willing to pony up the cash to pay for newsletter sponsorships.
Still, it isn’t too much to ask for some editorial discretion, especially when the Big Oil ad content is placed into a newsletter that will be directly covering the fallout of that industry’s continued pollution. Semafor in particular was founded and is being touted as a media organization run by journalists aimed at decreasing polarization. Allowing Chevron to run an ad claiming it is working on climate change when the company demonstrably is continuing to expand the production of dirty fuels is bad journalism, plain and simple.
While the journalists who write newsletters may not have any input or control on ad content and copy, media companies—especially those who purport to cater to a political middle, like Semafor—should hold themselves to higher standards when it comes to accepting ads from fossil fuel companies. It’s a disservice to the journalistic content—which is often top-notch stuff that holds polluters to account—to not apply those same reporting and fact-checking standards to the ads readers see.
Correction 10/26/22 8:45 P.M. EST: This piece has been updated to reflect the fact that Chevron was one of the newsletter’s first sponsors, not the first. It also clarifies that Semafor launched last week, not this week.