First Look Media revises its focus, wants to be more of a journalism lab than a standalone news site

First Look Media has $250 million in funding, has hired 25 journalists — with plans to double that by the end of the year — and is setting up new offices in San Francisco and New York, but still hasn’t quite nailed down what it wants to be. That’s the gist of a new blog post from Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire eBay founder who is backing the project. While the company had talked about having a stable of magazine-style offerings similar to Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept, now Omidyar says it will focus more on small experiments aimed at reinventing journalism for the digital age.
In addition to The Intercept, First Look is also working on launching a site that remains unnamed, but will be helmed by former Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi, and will take what Omidyar describes as “a satirical approach to American politics and culture.” But instead of launching more similar magazines and then aggregating their content into a single one-stop alternative news site, Omidyar says he wants to find different ways to reach readers.

“Rather than building one big flagship website, we’ve concluded that we will have greater positive impact if we test more ideas and grow them based on what we learn. We are unwavering in our desire to reach a mass audience, but the best way to do that may be through multiple experiments with existing digital communities rather than trying to draw a large audience to yet another omnibus site.”

A real-time lab for experiments in journalism

More than anything else, what Omidyar is describing sounds like a real-time journalism lab, one that will test out different ways of interacting with readers around a topic — albeit a lab that happens to have a quarter of a billion dollars behind it. And the First Look founder said one important aspect of these experiments will be to find existing “communities of interest” and figure out how to serve them better, or find journalists who have integrated themselves into those groups.

“We’ll test an approach to journalism that starts with being part of well-defined communities of interest, understanding the people in them and serving their needs and aspirations in new ways. The digital world gives us unprecedented opportunities to meet this vision… we’re trying to create a healthy future for journalism by supporting ventures and practices that empower citizens in new ways.”

Although Omidyar didn’t mention any specific examples of this kind of journalism, I can think of a few offhand, including the approach taken by Lara Setrakian of News Deeply with a site like Syria Deeply — a topic-specific site that focuses on using whatever means available, including first-person reporting and aggregation, to bring news and information to an audience that wants it. Another example would be something like Jersey Shore Hurricane News, which began as a Facebook page.
I would argue that some of what the founders of Reddit’s Syrian War sub-Reddit have been doing with the new live-reporting tools on that site would also qualify, as would British Blogger Eliot Higgins, also known as Brown Moses — who has launched a Kickstarter aimed at financing his own take on topic-specific journalism. It will be interesting to see what First Look comes up with.
There’s been a certain amount of predictable backlash towards Omidyar’s project for not really knowing what it wants to be when it grows up, but why should it? As I tried to point out when the same complaints were made about Ezra Klein’s Vox (before it got a name and became part of Vox Media), even massive traditional media entities like the New York Times haven’t figured out exactly how digital media works or what they should be doing with it. How could we possibly expect First Look or anyone else to have done so? Experimentation is good.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Sculder19