First Look finds the hard part isn’t the journalism, it’s reinventing how a newsroom works

Ever since former Rolling Stone investigative reporter Matt Taibbi suddenly left First Look Media — which had wooed and finally won him over by promising him his own magazine-style site devoted to politics called The Racket — there have been questions raised about why, and whether it meant that all was not well at the new-media entity, created with much fanfare by eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar last year. Now the organization itself has reported on Taibbi’s departure, and provided a glimpse at the turmoil that has been going on inside the startup.

This inside look at the functioning (or lack of functioning) within First Look was published by The Intercept, which is one of the other flagship “magazines” launched by the company — staffed by former Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald, filmmaker Laura Poitras, former Democracy Now correspondent Jeremy Scahill and former Gawker Media editor John Cook. All four have their bylines on the Taibbi piece.

According to the Intercept post — which is remarkable for a number of reasons, but mostly for the objective tone in which it reports on incidents involving First Look writers, including the authors themselves — a substantial amount of friction developed between Taibbi and the rest of the Omidyar organization as a result of what he took to be meddling by the company in the affairs of his magazine. That apparently came to a head over concerns about his behavior toward one of his writers.

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]Taibbi’s dispute with his bosses instead centered on differences in management style and the extent to which First Look would influence the organizational and corporate aspects of his role as editor-in-chief. Those conflicts were rooted in a larger and more fundamental culture clash that has plagued the project from the start: A collision between the First Look executives… and the fiercely independent journalists who view corporate cultures and management-speak with disdain.[/blockquote]

A battle with bureaucracy

Although the incident with Taibbi and his writer was the tipping point, there was apparently just as much frustration over the bureaucratic approach of the management at First Look. Eventually, the Intercept piece says Taibbi decided that his relationship with his superiors at First Look had been irreparably damaged, and he chose to move on. According to the story, he saw it as “a refusal to accept a work reassignment,” and the company describes as a resignation. The future of the Racket magazine appears to be in limbo at the moment.

On top of that, the Intercept piece makes it clear that most of Taibbi’s concerns about bureaucracy and management interference — requiring approval for even small expenses, a freeze on hiring (which Omidyar says was actually the result of a misunderstanding) and minor irritants like choosing which office software to use — were shared by the staff of the Intercept as well.

At one point, the story says that Greenwald, Poitras, Scahill and Taibbi were so upset with the meddling and indecisiveness that they wrote a joint letter to Omidyar saying the future of their respective magazines was in jeopardy if the problems weren’t addressed. From the sounds of it, outright mutiny was around the corner. And the shift from having a stable of magazines like The Intercept to being a “research lab” for journalism didn’t sit well either, apparently.

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]Most of the journalists hired by First Look by that point were under the impression that they would be joining a large, ambitious, general-interest news organization, and the shift left many staffers deeply concerned about the company’s commitment to journalism and confused about its mission.[/blockquote]

Abstract principles vs. actual reality

Ultimately, the Intercept writers say their concerns were dealt with. Cook, who is the editor in charge, was given a budget to hire staff and build out the organization, and was promised there would be no meddling — and the suggestion is that this solved the issue for the Intercept staffers. Similar promises were made to Taibbi about his magazine, the piece says, but since it hadn’t even launched yet it was more difficult to tell whether it was on solid ground or not.

Whatever the full truth may be behind Taibbi’s leaving, and despite the appealing transparency of the Intercept piece when it comes to First Look’s internal state, neither one is going to be much help in attracting new writers or managers to work at the Omidyar company — at least, not without a large parachute. In a statement added to the Intercept piece after it was published, Taibbi’s executive editor Alex Pareene said:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]The management of First Look Media repeatedly took incidents that should’ve been minor hiccups of the sort experienced at any media company or startup and, through incompetence, escalated them into full-blown crises.[/blockquote]

Part of the problem, as the Intercept story notes, is that Omidyar and his team didn’t just want to hire a bunch of writers and build a traditional media organization — they wanted to reinvent the way that media entities and even companies in general are run at the same time. So even as recently as January, former Rolling Stone editor Eric Bates didn’t even have a specific title, because First Look didn’t believe in them. But as the Intercept piece points out:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]First Look and the editorial staff it hired quickly learned that it is much easier to talk about such high-minded, abstract principles than it is to construct an organization around them. The decision to create a new editorial model left space for confusion, differing perspectives, and misaligned expectations.[/blockquote]

Experimentation often means failing

For the record, I hope that Omidyar and First Look succeed — not just because it is nice to see someone commit to putting $250 million into digital journalism, and investigative journalism at that, but because I am in favor of experimentation and the willingness to rewrite the traditional journalistic rule book. And hiring smart and passionate writers like Greenwald and Taibbi seemed like a great way to jump-start something interesting in online media.

Despite Taibbi’s departure, and what some see as the slow start and uneven output of The Intercept, there is more to First Look than Greenwald and Taibbi. One of the things I’m looking forward to the most is seeing what former NPR editor Andy Carvin is building — something he has described as a team of social journalists who will engage in something similar to the real-time curation that Carvin did during the Arab Spring. (Full disclosure: Andy is a friend).

It’s easy for those who have an axe to grind against First Look to portray the upheaval as part of a train wreck at an over-hyped online-media startup. But as much as I love a good train wreck, I prefer to see it as one of the casualties of the kind of experimentation that Omidyar clearly wants to encourage — not just in terms of the journalism the company is doing, but in terms of how the company itself functions as well. And sometimes experiments fail. That’s how we learn.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Thinkstock / Northwoods Photo