Reports from Inside First Look Media Suggest That Maybe Silicon Valley Shouldn’t Manage Journalists

Feverish speculation surrounds First Look’s recent troubles. But perhaps the most obvious culprit is its reliance on truckloads of tech money.

Chris Lehmann November 25, 2014

Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, has been accused of heavy-handed management at his new venture First Look Media. (OnInnovation / Flickr)

Jour­nal­ists on the Left have always had prob­lems with insti­tu­tions. I’m not refer­ring here to these scribes’ hon­or­able muck­rak­ing pedi­grees, or their prin­ci­pled dis­trust of the nation­al secu­ri­ty state and the cor­po­rate board­room. Rather, they have trou­ble build­ing and sus­tain­ing viable media insti­tu­tions of their own in the broad­er mar­ket­place of ideas.

In a revealing account of Taibbi’s departure, a team of First Look journalists candidly noted that the start-up was hobbled at the outset by a “highly structured Silicon Valley corporate environment” riddled with “management-speak” and “a confounding array of rules, structures and systems imposed by Omidyar and other First Look managers.”

Hence, for exam­ple, the well doc­u­ment­ed strug­gles of cable pro­duc­ers at MSNBC, dat­ing back to the sec­ond Bush admin­is­tra­tion, to build a robust answer to Fox News’ suc­cess­ful monop­oly on right-wing news talk. MSNBC was turn­ing out slug­gish cov­er­age and suf­fer­ing declin­ing rat­ings even before the deba­cle of the 2014 midterms showed how faint­ly any pro­gres­sive mes­sage was get­ting through to the public.

And Air Amer­i­ca — the kin­dred bid to launch a pro­gres­sive brand in the heav­i­ly right-wing medi­um of talk radio — went bank­rupt in 2010, just as an enor­mous finan­cial cri­sis and a Demo­c­ra­t­ic sweep of Con­gress and the White House should have made left-lean­ing polit­i­cal jour­nal­ism more rel­e­vant than ever.

It’s hard, how­ev­er, to top the recent tra­vails of First Look Media, the fer­vid­ly hyped web pub­lish­ing empire fund­ed by Sil­i­con Val­ley bil­lion­aire Pierre Omid­yar, as a case study in how not to launch a pro­gres­sive media enterprise.

A poten­tial suit­or to pur­chase the Wash­ing­ton Post, Omid­yar instead decid­ed to spend $250 mil­lion to launch his own ring of web­sites and aggres­sive­ly sought top report­ing, blog­ging and edit­ing tal­ent, all of it decid­ed­ly left of cen­ter. Chief among his ear­ly recruits were Glenn Green­wald and Lau­ra Poitras, the team that had col­lab­o­rat­ed with NSA whistle­blow­er Edward Snow­den to reveal the true extent of the sur­veil­lance state’s spread. Omid­yar also brought on for­mer Rolling Stone inves­tiga­tive reporter Matt Taib­bi, who has sharply chron­i­cled the cor­rupt nexus between Wall Street and the Amer­i­can polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment, to run his own prop­er­ty under the First Look brand — a site called Rack­et devot­ed to muck­rak­ing and mis­chie­vous satire.

But before Taibbi’s project got off the ground, he left Omidyar’s start-up this Octo­ber amid hot­ly debat­ed (and shak­i­ly ver­i­fied) charges and coun­ter­charges, rang­ing from a pur­port­ed ide­o­log­i­cal muz­zling cam­paign mount­ed by Omid­yar to alle­ga­tions that Taib­bi may have been charged with sex dis­crim­i­na­tion in the Rack­et work­place. Today, First Look’s man­agers announced that they would no longer pur­sue Rack­et with­out Taib­bi and all of the employ­ees he had brought on would be let go.

How­ev­er, for all the fever­ish spec­u­la­tion sur­round­ing First Look‘s trou­bles, the most obvi­ous cul­prit is hid­ing in plain sight: the reliance on truck­loads of mon­ey from Sil­i­con Valley.

There’s a rea­son that the term burn rate” was coined to describe the brief half-lives of tech start-ups — these fre­net­i­cal­ly over­man­aged oper­a­tions func­tion more as mon­u­ments to the hubris of the inno­va­tion econ­o­my than as proven mod­els of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. Com­pound­ing this, the First Look fias­co clear­ly shows that a tech indus­try con­di­tioned for so long to scorn the out­mod­ed folk­ways of print cul­ture” and lega­cy media” (as the argot of Sil­i­con Val­ley has it) is large­ly clue­less about super­vis­ing the basic work of journalism.

In a reveal­ing account of Taibbi’s depar­ture, a team of First Look jour­nal­ists can­did­ly not­ed that the start-up was hob­bled at the out­set by a high­ly struc­tured Sil­i­con Val­ley cor­po­rate envi­ron­ment” rid­dled with man­age­ment-speak” and a con­found­ing array of rules, struc­tures and sys­tems imposed by Omid­yar and oth­er First Look managers.”

As any vet­er­an of the ter­mi­nal­ly self-infat­u­at­ed tech world can tes­ti­fy, a start-up ethos usu­al­ly means a very long string of con­fer­ence calls and navel-gaz­ing man­age­r­i­al mono­logues. And a num­ber of First Look­ers told me that the media side of things endured a sus­tained bout of neglect as man­age­ment talk metastasized.

At First Look, strat­e­gy meet­ings are always more impor­tant than actu­al­ly pro­duc­ing things,” says one of the jour­nal­ists still hop­ing to weath­er the storm at the com­pa­ny. These con­fabs tend to per­pet­u­ate them­selves in all bureau­crat­ic work envi­ron­ments, but at an osten­si­ble jour­nal­is­tic endeav­or — which is, after all, tasked with nim­bly break­ing news and mov­ing just as quick­ly on to the next big sto­ry — they can become lethal­ly coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. Anoth­er source at the com­pa­ny says the dis­con­nect goes much deep­er than a sim­ple aver­sion to pro­duc­tive activ­i­ty. Com­pa­ny man­agers are afraid of us, they don’t like us, they grav­i­tate toward the peo­ple who can engage in their weird management-speak.”

Omid­yar him­self exert­ed heavy-breath­ing over­sight of every­thing from the roll­out sched­ules and social-media strate­gies of First Look sites to indi­vid­ual reporters’ trav­el expense state­ments. Taib­bi and John Cook, his coun­ter­part at First Look’s dai­ly site The Inter­cept, chafed at what they regard­ed as oner­ous intru­sions into their hir­ing author­i­ty,” the First Look team not­ed. Cook lat­er made his dis­plea­sure all too clear by leav­ing First Look in Novem­ber and return­ing to his for­mer home of Gawk­er Media (though in a post for First Look and sev­er­al tweets, Cook said that work­ing at First Look was incred­i­bly sat­is­fy­ing professionally”).

Indeed, in the company’s bare­ly year-long exis­tence, sev­er­al edi­to­r­i­al lead­ers have fall­en in and out of favor with Omid­yar, each try­ing his best to car­ry out the founder’s gnom­ic dic­tates. The newest bear­er of Omidyar’s good graces is John Tem­ple, who ran an ear­ly jour­nal­ism start-up for him in Hawaii.

On con­fer­ence calls, staffers would bet among our­selves how soon it would be until Pierre described him­self as a tech­nol­o­gist,’ “ anoth­er First Look employ­ee reports. It was always less than three minutes.”

But the thing is, Pierre became a bil­lion­aire in 1997 – 98,” the same employ­ee says. He’s ensconced in a Web 1.0 bub­ble. He hasn’t heard any of the stuff we’ve been dis­cussing all that time. … So he’ll look up at us at a meet­ing and say some­thing like Hey, have you guys heard of Vice Media?’ “

The odd thing about the First Look man­age­ment team, though, is that they aren’t real­ly all that tech-savvy, sources say.

One employ­ee recounts a glitch that was extreme­ly dam­ag­ing for work­er morale, which hap­pened on on our hor­ri­ble [intranet] thing Asana, which is named after a yoga pose, that we all have to use because Pierre declared that email is over. It’s a Face­book wall, basi­cal­ly, and they post­ed all our salaries on it for three hours. So we all know how much every­one makes.” Not sur­pris­ing­ly, some of the most lav­ish­ly reward­ed man­agers on the list were also some of the least revered com­pa­ny officials.

With the real­i­ties of com­pa­ny pow­er laid so embar­rass­ing­ly bare, the company’s seem­ing­ly incur­able addic­tion to meet­ing-speak took on an increas­ing­ly hol­low ring, sources say. For all their talk about iter­at­ing,’ blue sky,’ and the rest, they’re not inter­est­ed in any of the dif­fi­cult stuff of lead­er­ship. They’re into the most pet­ty, shit­ty trans­ac­tion­al issues — like Kevin Spacey in a Glen­gar­ry Glen Ross way,” an employ­ee says.

When this con­flict-averse crew of man­agers does pick a fight, the stakes are unbe­liev­ably low, sources say. We get dumb, lengthy fights over whether or not we need phones. In Sil­i­con Val­ley, work­ers use their cell phones to per­form all work that neces­si­tates phone use, so why can’t we?” one First Look­er reports. (Any­one with the faintest acquain­tance with the actu­al work of jour­nal­ism knows that land­lines are far and away the best means of reli­ably record­ing inter­views with sources, even in our mirac­u­lous dig­i­tal age.)

And once more, the source reports, the con­trast with the company’s actu­al­ly exist­ing jour­nal­is­tic needs was ter­ri­fy­ing­ly vivid: We start bar­rel­ing toward launch with­out the com­pa­ny hav­ing actu­al­ly hired any­one to do visu­al and graph­ic work besides our one poor pho­to edi­tor with no illus­tra­tion experience.”

Even on the rare occa­sion when the company’s lead­ers try to break form, the quo­tient of off-putting self-drama­ti­za­tion is so high, employ­ees say, that the over­tures are empty.

At one of these all hands’ gath­er­ings we had — these com­pa­ny-wide meet­ings where the five skulls who run the place talk at us, [one senior fig­ure] gets up at the end and says, Is there any­one who’s not a white man who would like to talk?’ ” This employ­ee — one of the hand­ful of non-dude com­pa­ny hires — describes her quite ratio­nal stunned silence: I’m like, Well, I don’t want to now—you’ve pret­ty much tak­en that space, haven’t you?’ ”

To put things mild­ly, these are not the kinds of prac­tices and insti­tu­tion­al rou­tines that make for fear­less inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism. Edi­tors and reporters can’t glee­ful­ly tar­get the cor­po­rate titans of the Amer­i­can scene, as Taib­bi and Cook were charged to do, with one of them perched over their shoul­ders, insist­ing on vogu­ish pat­terns of tele­phone usage and cross-tab­u­lat­ing what they’ve spent on taxis and meals with sources.

Taibbi’s first big exposé report­ed dur­ing his First Look tenure bears elo­quent tes­ti­mo­ny to this point. He scored a block­buster inter­view with JP Mor­gan Chase whistle­blow­er Alayne Fleis­chmann, whose poten­tial to give damn­ing tes­ti­mo­ny against the bank in fed­er­al court was being used by the Jus­tice Depart­ment in set­tle­ment negotiations.

But First Look’s pro­ce­dur­al inani­ty left Rack­et in lim­bo for months and, even­tu­al­ly short-cir­cuit­ed Taibbi’s future at the com­pa­ny. (He placed the sto­ry at Rolling Stone.)

The more the Omid­yar saga unspools, the less sur­pris­ing it all looks. Decades into the infor­ma­tion age, the cul­ture of Sil­i­con Val­ley and the tra­di­tions of inves­tiga­tive report­ing still make for an awk­ward fit. The tech industry’s obses­sions with dig­i­tal gad­getry and vac­u­ous inno­va­tion-speak are noto­ri­ous­ly resis­tant to basic jour­nal­is­tic val­ues such as skep­ti­cal inquiry. One need only wit­ness the geyser of hosan­nahs that attends a new iPhone release (no mat­ter how bug­gy it turns out to be), or the insu­lar wit­less­ness of your aver­age TED talk to real­ize that the tech indus­try prefers its media cov­er­age with­out crit­i­cal think­ing or inde­pen­dent judgment.

And the core ten­sions involved in the clash of these two cul­tures are by no means con­fined to First Look: After an exec­u­tive of the bal­ly­hooed ride-shar­ing start-up Uber oafish­ly indi­cat­ed that he wouldn’t mind ini­ti­at­ing pri­vate sur­veil­lance cam­paigns against crit­i­cal reporters, a for­mer col­league of his just as oafish­ly took to the Huff­in­g­ton Post to declare the whole thing an overblown non-issue. The prob­lem, she explained, was that the offend­ing reporter who’d dared to ques­tion Uber’s lead­er­ship class, BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, had regret­tably elect­ed to change the tenor of an oth­er­wise enjoy­able din­ner.” One could almost hear the con­temp­tu­ous sniff of an aggriev­ed Haps­burg monarch.

It’s clear, against this harsh­ly polar­ized cul­tur­al back­drop, that the recent spate of dra­mat­ic exits from First Look was a long time com­ing — just as it seems like that there will be more to come. The First Look team is sad­ly com­ing to real­ize that the company’s work envi­ron­ment is far more like­ly to con­jure the final reel of The Caine Mutiny than All the President’s Men.

Even­tu­al­ly First Look Media will just be Pierre’s Sec­ond Life avatar wan­der­ing around an open-space office plan,” one employ­ee says. For all the evi­dent data-hew­ing genius of fig­ures such as Omid­yar, the wiz­ards at the helm of First Look have evi­dent­ly over­looked one of the ear­li­est cre­dos of the per­son­al com­put­ing rev­o­lu­tion: Garbage in, garbage out.

A con­densed ver­sion of this sto­ry ran in the Jan­u­ary issue of In These Times. 

Chris Lehmann, is edi­tor-in-chief at The Baf­fler and a for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of In These Times. He is the author of The Mon­ey Cult: Cap­i­tal­ism, Chris­tian­i­ty, and the Unmak­ing of the Amer­i­can Dream (Melville House, 2016).
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