First Look runs headlong into journalism’s two big problems

Growing pains at the Omidyar/Greenwald venture

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.

Temple was brought on as a specialist in startups and in reaching local audiences. A Vancouver, British Columbia, native, he worked his way up the former EW Scripps chain to senior newsroom positions at the now-defunct Albuquerque Tribune, where he was managing editor, and the Rocky Mountain News where he ran the newsroom, started a couple of civic journalism ventures, and was a company vice president with business-side responsibilities. After the paper folded in 2009, Temple was consulting in Las Vegas for Brian Greenspun, of Greenspun Media Group, who pointed him to a blogpost by Omidyar discussing his intention to start local news site in Honolulu. Introduced by Greenspun, who knew Omidyar socially, Temple wrote Omidyar an email with some suggestions for the new site, an exchange that ended ultimately in Omidyar hiring Temple to lead Civil Beat. (The site, which might be seen as a proto-First Look, uses a subscription model, among other things, for revenue. Well regarded journalistically, its financial prospects are unclear. Speaking for Civil Beat, a First Look spokeswoman declines to share subscription figures but says, the operation has “seen growth year over year. They always saw building Civil Beat in stages and viewed this as a long term project.”) After a stint in a managing editor’s job at The Washington Post running digital operations and local news, followed by a fellowship, he joined First Look.

First Look’s early going has been fitful, as Omidyar’s blog post acknowledges. One staffer tells me the organization has indeed been suffering “growing pains,” but says morale is high and credits Temple with “speeding things up, which is great.”

For a half-launched startup, the site has drawn more than the usual amount of criticism, for everything from advancing a neoliberal, privatizing agenda, to potentially pulling its punches, to not publishing enough.

But more generally, there’s a sense that First Look has so far failed to live up to sky-high expectations.

The criticism is somewhat the result of circumstances beyond the editors’ control: Snowden files that needed to be published before the site was fully ready to launch. It’s certainly not a bad problem to have, journalistically, but as a result, the Intercept has published only sporadically, offering a mix of left-of-center commentary on national security and surveillance issues punctuated by a few superb blockbusters from the Snowden files and other sources.

Temple pointed to pieces of such importance that The New York Times and other sources were compelled to follow the site. The most recent, revealing the alarmingly expansive nature the government’s anti-terrorism database, provided so much detail that the story prompted the government to conclude that the Intercept had tapped a second whistleblower to complement Snowden. Indeed the story generated a separate a mini-controversy over whether intelligence PR officials had leaked it to Associated Press first to spoil the Intercept’s scoop.

But periodic blockbusters, while a boon to the public interest, don’t add up to a cohesive editorial offering or provide the basis for a media business.

In part, the letdown is a problem of First Look’s own making, starting with the animated video that laid out sweeping, and laudable, goals while offering the vaguest notions of how they would be accomplished. Nine months in, that hasn’t changed.

And while finding a business model is a distant prospect, First Look is struggling with a more immediate problem: defining how its (occasionally great) journalism differs from that of other (occasionally great) reporting from high-end mainstream outlets like, say, The Washington Post, which shared the 2014 Public Service Pulitzer with the Guardian, Greenwald’s previous outlet, for breaking the Snowden revelations. Indeed, aside from the occasional edginess of word choice, the Intercept’s best work is distinctive mainly for its great reporting and solid writing. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But the question remains: what innovation does the Intercept represent? And is the concept of journalism innovation overdone in the first place and shouldn’t sustained excellence be enough?

After Omidyar’s recent post pulling back on the project’s ambitions, Jay Rosen, the NYU prof and a consultant to First Look, said in a comment to a post on his blog that Omidyar’s recent pullback shouldn’t be surprising.

“The kind of moves you see in Omidyar’s update are the way it’s going to be for a while as First Look tries to develop a distinctive approach that can work,” wrote Rosen, who declined comment to me. “It’s harder to be distinctive than it looks.”

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.