When Pierre Omidyar, the eBay billionaire, announced the creation of a news organization featuring, for starters, investigative heavyweight Glenn Greenwald, media expectations were set soaring—even here—and understandably so.
In a disrupted and desiccated landscape for journalism, The Intercept promised something fresh: an accomplished technologist with deep pockets combined with a new-look journalist, Greenwald, a lawyer-turned-blogger who combines world-beating scoops of global importance, like those from the Snowden files, with iconoclastic views on journalism itself.
But at the end of the month, Omidyar and his nascent umbrella organization, First Look Media, announced a reboot: pulling back on plans to develop an omnibus mass-market product with many different sites, and instead trying to build out just Greenwald’s The Intercept, which has reporting on national security and surveillance issues since February, and another site, to be launched in the fall, covering politics, finance, and culture and headed by former Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi.
“Nine months in, First Look is Still Very Much a Startup,” says the post’s candid headline.
As it turns out, First Look is grappling with the same fundamental problems facing other news startups across the spectrum—how to make money and how to be distinctive—and, so far, hasn’t had much progress in finding a solution to either.
And here we should disclose that CJR gets funding from Omidyar via his philanthropic Democracy Fund.
When First Look was announced in January with a sleek animated video, the organization described an expansive operation that would include an omnibus flagship publication that would cover everything from politics to sports to culture, along with a flotilla of magazines led by prominent journalists covering specific subjects. The video promised an extensive support system not unlike those provided by mainstream media in its heyday, along with a separate technology company that would explore ways to turn journalism “innovation into commercial opportunities.”
In an interview, John Temple, recently hired with the title of president of audience and products of First Look, reporting to Omidyar, says the company has a committee working on a business model but that process is just getting started and isn’t necessarily the first priority.
“The critical measure of our success is whether we’re making a difference; are we having an impact, are we helping our society and holding powerful institutions accountable—that’s a significant and important measure of success,” he says. “The business model is important to us…. [but] it’s just too early.”
Indeed the company is still just getting organized. Far-flung, even for a new media-concern, First Look is building out office space in San Francisco, New York’s Flatiron District, and smaller office in Washington. It’s not based in any particular place. “We don’t need a headquarters quite yet,” says Temple, who works from San Francisco. Greenwald works, famously, from Rio de Janeiro,, Poitras from Berlin, and Omidyar from Honolulu. The bulk of the editorial team will be housed in New York.
The company employs about 45 people, Temple says, including 25 on the editorial side, the latter number expected to double by the end of the year.
A spokeswoman declines to comment on the progress of the technology venture described in the video.
The organization is still amorphous—“we don’t actually use an organizational chart internally; I don’t have a business card,” Temple says—but the editorial hierarchy shapes up this way.
“The Intercept” is edited by former Gawker editor John Cook, who oversees three “founding editors,” Greenwald, Laura Poitras, the documentarian and collaborator with Greenwald on the Snowden stories, and Jeremy Scahill, a national security specialist, formerly with The Nation; as well as the rest of the staff of about 10 others including former Washington Post blogger Dan Froomkin and Peter Maass, a national security specialist and war correspondent.
Cook reports to Eric Bates, a former Rolling Stone editor who holds the title of executive editor of First Look, as will Taibbi, who worked with Bates at Rolling Stone and has begun assembling a staff for his as-yet unnamed publication.
Bates in turn reports to Temple, as does a second executive editor in charge of audience and engagement, Bill Gannon.
A business side staff including a chief revenue officer and business development chief also report to Temple on some issues. For now the structure is made up of interlocking committees studying various issues, including technology, and business models, all of which include Temple.