EXCLUSIVE SYNDICATED COLUMN: What Really Went Wrong at First Look Media

Just over one year ago, billionaire eBay cofounder Pierre Omidyar issued one of the most dramatic announcements America’s beleaguered journalists had experienced in their lifetimes. After decades of closing newspapers, shrinking newsrooms, vanishing foreign bureaus and the near extinction of investigative reporting due to brutal, relentless budget-cutting, Omidyar would endow a new company, First Look Media, with a staggeringly large sum of cash – $250 million – to be deployed in the service of a breathtakingly ambitious attempt to reinvent advocacy journalism in everything from investigations of financial corruption to sports coverage.

Even better, from the standpoint of progressives living in the political wilderness since the rise and fall of George McGovern, First Look Media would be edited by leftist pundits and advocacy journalists like the legal columnist Glenn Greenwald, to whom former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked more than a million classified US government documents, the documentarian Laura Poitras, also involved intimately in the Snowdon saga, and the respected anti-militarism critic Jeremy Scahill.

As some cynics opined, it all sounded too good to be true. (Disclosure: for just shy of a month earlier this year, I worked for Pando Daily.) Why would a billionaire like Omidyar bankroll a bunch of antiestablishment types like the financial reporter Matt Taibbi – hired away from Rolling Stone – whose mission in life is in large part to undermine global capitalism?

Although it’s too soon to declare First Look dead and gone, and Omidyar claims to be as committed to his utopian company as ever, things have gone from bad to worse over the last year. Omidyar’s $250 million pledge shrunk to $50 million. The mission to fund hard-hitting journalism and commentary was recast as, among other things, possibly a “platform” expected to generate significant revenue. Tales of shrinking budgets, diminished expectations, shrinking ambitions and staffers leaving after complaining of managerial incompetence appeared with increasing frequency in the trade press.

From the outside, it quickly became clear that First Look was less than a well-oiled machine, or even a reasonably functional journalistic startup. Fellow writers and cartoonists who responded to First Look’s repeated calls for resumes (disclosure: I was one of them) described treatment ranging from unprofessional snubbing of award-winning pros to outright rude, such as going silent after asking them to come in for an interview.

Even more damning was the company’s egregious violation of Jeff Bezos’ axiom: always underpromise and overdeliver. One year after declaring itself a left-wing media monolith to rival Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, all First Look has to show for itself is a crappy WordPress blog with less basic functionality than many private individuals feature on their personal cat-photo websites. Updates have been scattershot and infrequent. Coverage has been anything but wide-ranging. And the journalists gone wild implied by Omidyar’s original big splash either never got hired or, if they did, never saw print.

Where, everyone wanted to know, did the $250 million go?

A couple of months ago, a First Look staffer emailed me to find out how much it would cost to run my syndicated cartoons. When they got the quote – which was lower than much larger websites pay, certainly we’re not talking about websites backed by a quarter billion dollars – they said they wouldn’t be able to afford cartoons. I’m paraphrasing here, but not by much: we were under the impression, the staffer replied, that cartoon content is cheap.

Aside from the terrible politics – if a billionaire can’t pay decent prices for content, who can? – I began to wonder whether Omidyar was starving First Look.

Media outlets, understandably interested in an experiment that, if successful, might have led to a new model for public interest and advocacy journalism in the digital age, have speculated and reported obsessively on last week’s departure of Taibbi, hired to run what was going to be First Look’s second “magazine,” or “vertical,” in industry vernacular, after The Intercept, where Greenwald writes about the Snowden revelations.

As always, when there’s a disaster there are numerous causes. But all of the coverage I’ve read so far has missed the biggest flaw of all in First Look’s business model: the fact that Pierre Omidyar kept, and is still keeping, tight control of the purse strings.

It amazes me that people as savvy as First Look’s top editors didn’t insist, before leaving respectable publications like the UK Guardian and Rolling Stone for a start-up, that Omidyar put the $250 million (or $50 million, or single-digit millions now) in escrow, or at least under the control of a group of trustees of whom Omidyar would be just one, and would include top editorial staff like Greenwald.

I met with a high-level First Look official during the summer to discuss the possibility of working together. I asked: “Where’s the $250 million?” He didn’t know. He couldn’t say.

A structure that allowed Omidyar complete control of the company’s finances was bound to put a crimp on editorial independence, which was apparently the main reason Taibbi left. Who wants to be a billionaire’s plaything? No matter how well the job pays, it only ends badly. Given Omidyar’s reported authoritarian control freak personality, which apparently even extends to personally signing off on – and denying – taxi receipts, it seems even more insane to take a job leaving him in complete charge of the money.

I wasn’t there (though I would’ve loved to have been), but this looks to me like a group of writers working in a profession that had been mistreated for so long that they were exceptionally vulnerable to the seduction of a smooth-talking charmer who passed himself off as an angel investor in the future of liberalism and journalism. Of course, this might all work out in the end. I hope it does.

Hell, Greenwald is supposedly going to meet his boss Omidyar in person for the very first time.

Better a year late than never.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

8 thoughts on “EXCLUSIVE SYNDICATED COLUMN: What Really Went Wrong at First Look Media

  1. Unfortunately, the ‘news’ today is a showcase of capitalism at its finest. Ain’t nobody gonna publish no news but what it don’t make money for somebody who already gots money.

    Greed is self-sustaining, whereas philanthropic money always peters out in the long run.

    • (Sorry, forgot to check “Notify me when …”)

      Yo! Ted! It’d be nice to be able to subscribe to notifications w/o having to make a post. Just sayin’…

      • @ CrazyH –
        When I want to follow a thread and have nothing pertinent to say, I just post a question mark (?) and check the box. 😀

  2. Ted,

    We’ve seen all this before. You especially must recognize it. It’s a direct lift from the playbook Reagan’s handlers used.

    Here’s how you do it. And why.

    Look at the new crop of “progressives.” They all own these billion-dollar companies. And ALL of these companies are covered in hypocrisy. Apple. Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, they all have horrible dirty secrets to hide. But they all act like they’re progressive, labor-friendly organizations out to empower the individual and make the world terrific and lemon-scented.

    Read the news stories carefully. Amazon factory workers collapsing in the heat. Apple factories in China with suicide netting. Conflict metals. Mark Zuckerberg and all the good work he’s done to help Big Brother track us all. Google Glass.

    None of these people give a fuck about progressive causes. They’re in it for the money and the power, and then they make a couple donations (that they won’t even feel) to some feel-good causes so that they can pretend they feel your pain.

    The big problem, of course, for these “progressives” is that there’s still some people out there causing some waves. (And here’s where Reagan’s handlers’ playbook comes into it.)

    Back in the 1980s, Reagan’s people shut down the mental hospitals. Put everyone out on the streets. The best part of it? Once you closed the mental hospitals, all the people who knew what they were doing: the fundraisers, the administrators, the nurses, the staff, etc., all went elsewhere. Wipe out the institutional memory and you never have to worry about the organization reforming.

    Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone? What else has Rolling Stone got? It’s like the Baltimore Sun and H.L. Mencken. Yes, there are other good writers, but take out the one key player and the organization falls into irrelevance. Once a publication loses a reader, it’s almost impossible to get the reader back. Reputations shrink. It took decades for the New York Times to complete its transformation into silliness. But they’re there now, and no amount of impassioned writing about how great Judith Miller was or how good a critic Alessandra Stanley really is (when she isn’t making junior high-level errors), will reverse that trend.

    That’s what Pierre is doing. Or at least, what it appears that he’s doing: weaken the genuinely progressive voices, burn out a whole generation’s main lights of that flavor of journalism. The rest will burn out on its own.

    And at $50 million? He got it for a song.

  3. It is possible that Omidyar is just being disruptive, but in case he isn’t and it’s incompetence, he may want to reconsider how he is doing this. You can’t hope to change things by building it the same way as the current failing model.

    I would build it as a Worker-Owned, Non-Profit, Cooperative, MultiMedia Corporation. Based on the Mondragon model. Donate the money already or we’ll go get other money. There’s plenty of money out there.

    We’ll build a platform using OpenSource software. We’ll build it so that a community can operate as a standalone business with everything they need. Then we’ll duplicate the model in every other community. Localization instead of Globalization.

    Centralized services can be other Cooperatives that provide IT Services, Back-Office services, Marketing, Fund raising, An Internet Radio & TV Channel, Syndication, Printing, Publishing, Production.

    There are companies out there who are struggling who might want to be part of this model. There is plenty of alternative content magazine, local papers, Internet shows that might also want to be a part of this. All are struggling and all would benefit from the centralized services for efficiency.

    I have the best brand for this. I already own the domain name Alternative.com along with the social networking space and a collection of alternative related names as well as a Nevada C Corp. I am willing to put up all of this towards this venture.

    If we are going to change the world to a better model, we must be willing to walk the talk. Who wants to do this? Omidyar are you interested? How about you George Soros, you have the money for this? Who else is interested? How about you Ted, I always thought your cartoons belonged on Alternative.

    Although investigative journalism is key, this can’t only be about bad news and exposing crooks and liars, we have to also be Champions of Unpopular Alternative Solutions: Earth Rights, Biodiversity Rights, Ecosystems Rights, Protecting the Commons, Community, Localization, De-Growth, Reduced Population, Efficiency, Conservation, Post Carbon, Post Extraction, Post Techno, Post Debt, Post Fractional Banking, Post Democracy & Post Capitalism.

    It’s time for Sharing and Cooperation.

    • The big challenge, which Pierre promised to solve with First Look, is providing reporters and cartoonists with a living wage and financial support. There are plenty of platforms online that get the word out. That’s why Pierre’s apparent betrayal of his promises is so heartbreaking.

  4. Had Pierre Omidyar in August 2007—before he approved the handing over of the control of eBay to the delusional Johnny Ho—traded in the ~108 million eBay shares that he still holds today for shares in Amazon, instead of his current ~$6 billion, his worth would now have been ~$32 billion! Now that, surely, is something for all of eBay’s long-suffering “long” investors to think about, is it not? He also would have had a lot more discretionary funds to play with on the likes of First Look Media—sad …