Omidyar’s First Look Media looking to find its focus, target an audience

Pierre Omidyar has issues. Several problems, actually.

The billionaire technologist, philanthropist, and publisher is stitching together a strategy for his weeks-old First Look Media group, and he’s grappling with some essential questions:

  • What’s the focus?
  • Will First Look be one big brand, or a confederacy of brands?
  • Will it serve a mass audience, or a niche audience?
  • Will it be “problem-pointers,” or problem solvers?
  • Can its journalism innovation match its technology innovation?

First Look Media launched in February with The Intercept, featuring Glenn Greenwald, who, while working for The Guardian last year, was the first to report on the National Security Agency’s far-reaching surveillance program. Greenwald practices what he calls “adversary journalism.”

The hiring of Greenwald has framed the public’s view of First Look. Many people, include journalists, thought that First Look was Glenn Greenwald.

In fact, The Intercept, which focuses specifically on national security and privacy issues at this point is just one of several digital magazines that Omidyar envisions. Another, run by Matt Taibbi, a former Rolling Stone reporter and National Magazine Award winner, will use in-depth reporting to untangle America’s largely impenetrable financial system.

Omidyar and his team will unveil others later. Right now, they also plan to publish more traditional verticals around subjects such as politics, entertainment and other topics yet undetermined.

You might think this would be easy work for the founder of eBay, who created Honolulu Civil Beat, an online publication in Hawaii where he lives, and who supports a host of journalism-related projects through his Omidyar Network and Democracy Fund. (The Democracy Fund has provided grants to The Poynter Institute.)

It’s not.

And so Omidyar gathered, at his expense, several of First Look’s top executives and about a dozen high-profile editors, journalism educators, industry analysts, and former reporters last Saturday in Laguna Beach, Calif., to listen to his vision, dissect his emerging strategy and offer advice on both.

The only catch: The day was governed by what is known as the Chatham House Rule, under which participants agreed not to quote from the proceedings directly.

We sat in a U-shaped formation in a ballroom at Omidyar’s elegant Montage Hotel. The group spent eight hours asking questions, challenging First Look’s brass (and each other), and generally seeking to understand the burdens and opportunities that come when a billionaire decides to push $250 million toward a journalism venture for which he has extraordinary expectations.

Throughout the day, Omidyar, serious and polite in an open-necked sky-blue dress shirt, dark slacks, and rimless glasses, scribbled observations in a black notebook and asked lots of his own questions.

What became clear is that the brilliant, unassuming Omidyar is wrestling with the same questions that presumably dog many technology companies that practice journalism these days. What follows is a sampling of some of those issues:

What’s the focus?
When resources aren’t a problem, it’s easy to try to be everything. Omidyar gets that. Still, he and his team haven’t yet figured out their focus. Do they want to follow the model they’ve already begun with and add other magazines focused on critically important but complex issues? Climate change, for example? And how are they going to pick which verticals to build? Focus on areas that are currently undercovered? Or pick areas with lots of coverage already, and just try to cover those subjects better? Say, sports?

Omidyar recognizes this as a crucial issue in part because First Look’s focus will impact a host of decisions – from hiring to branding. And, of course, just as crucially, its focus will determine not just what it does, but what it doesn’t do.

Will First Look be one big brand or a confederacy of brands?
Clearly, with the hiring of Greenwald and Taibbi, First Look plans to attract big names. The question is whether those brands will fit neatly under the First Look brand, or whether they’ll be a loosely connected group of journalists who all happen to earn their paycheck from the same billionaire.

It’s an important issue.

If First Look is the big brand, then it will hire people based on a clearly articulated vision and set of values. It will find fledgling stars and make them First Look stars. It will bring people in who will do things the First Look Way, whatever that turns out to be.

On the other hand, in an industry that’s increasingly obsessed with personalities, does First Look have a choice but to become a confederacy of brands? The benefits are clear: credibility, (particularly with the fans of those personalities), attention and influence that might take years to build without those stars.

And the risks?

What happens if the star’s persona is a controversial one, even if his journalism is stellar (see Greenwald)? At some point, does that persona become a distraction? What happens if the star’s fans, for whatever reason, abandon him as swiftly as they embraced him? And can any organization build a coherent, compelling brand if it’s just a collection of loosely associated stars?

Will First Look serve a mass audience or a niche audience?
Throughout the day, Omidyar and his First Look executives said they intend to serve a mass audience. They also said they plan to produce high-quality content that impacts users and engages them as both audience members and citizens.

What’s unclear is what they mean by a mass audience. And is there a mass market for high-quality, high-impact journalism?

Several participants expressed skepticism, at least quietly.

One answer may be that First Look does both – cultivates a highly educated, civically engaged audience even as it serves more popular, mid-brow content to a broader audience.

First Look may decide that its digital magazines should provide content for the former and that its more traditional verticals cater to the latter.

If that’s the case, will First Look dilute its ability to impact its audiences? And will that make it harder for First Look to craft a clear identity?

Will First Look be about “problem pointing” or problem solving?
Let’s start with the answer: Omidyar and his editors want First Look’s journalists to do both.

The question really is, how?

Glenn Greenwald is known for his passion and blade-sharp intellect, and for lacerating his opponents. He’s not famous for laying out solutions. He’s famous for breaking news – and for breaking china.

And no one has necessarily called upon him to do otherwise.

But Omidyar and his team aren’t interested in just breaking stories, or just “problem pointing,” as one participant called it. Nor are they interested in just fomenting controversy. They want to provoke intelligent discourse that gives their audiences options for actually solving the problems that Greenwald, Taibbi and other First Look stars surface with their reporting.

Which only leads to more questions for First Look’s leaders: How does this desire to solve problems influence how they hire their stars?

First Look is being constructed around personalities who combine deep expertise and a distinctive voice to drive engagement. Can First Look also depend on those same personalities to guide an audience toward solutions for some of America’s (and the world’s) most complex problems?

And what are the risks First Look faces if that it wants to do that? And what opportunities will go wasted if it decides not to?

Can First Look’s journalism innovation match its technology innovation?
First Look is a technology company that does journalism.

Its founder created eBay, a first-of-its-kind business.

When Omidyar discusses technological innovation, he does so with an ease and authority that bespeaks the depth of his knowledge and experience.

Omidyar is far less at ease with journalistic innovation.

He heard several participants on Saturday tell him and his team that journalists want to innovate, but they’re afraid of failure. Omidyar was unsettled by this. He has a technologist’s mindset, which is to say, he understands that innovation and failure go hand in hand.

Participants sought to calm his fears. They told him that journalists are eager for leadership that’ll support innovation not just with words but with action and resources (which presumably won’t be an issue at First Look). He heard the group tell him to provide financial incentives to his journalists who innovate, and to hold everyone in the organization responsible for innovation. They told him he’ll need to stress that innovation isn’t just about technology; it’s about solving problems – all kinds of problems — in new ways.

Omidyar, ever serious, nodded and scratched more notes. At the end of the day, he appeared stimulated, if weary, after eight hours during which he inched toward a few answers, but no doubt walked away with even more questions than he had when the day began.

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  • arcdigita

    Soon the excitement of the NSA documents is going to run out. Yes, it’s shocking. However, now we know (as we always did) that anything sent over the internet has a chance of being intercepted, read, and stored. Any stale PowerPoint slides released tomorrow will not have the same reader value as the ones today, and so on.

    I look forward to Taibbi’s contribution and see where he takes that. But to have another publication that sets out to enrage and cry foul about societal ills seems like a bad business plan.

  • br felix

    Good god, it’s taken this long for these brilliant minds to do the basics of strategic planning for such an ambitious start up? What gives? First Look was incorporated a year ago in February, so the idea of it had clearly been percolating in Omidyar’s mind for some time before that. Hiring began last year and limited publication began in February of this year, and only now are unnamed principals getting together to figure out what it is they’re supposed to be doing or trying to do?

    This would be embarrassing if it weren’t so… sad.

  • Mister Bunny

    “… the brilliant, unassuming Omidyar.” Big chunks of this piece sound more like a job application than reporting. The rest could best be summed up as “Don’t freak the Golden Goose.” And rewarding innovation (i.e., clicks) makes the whole shebang sound like the Gawker empire as reimagined by Donald Trump.

  • Tom Foremski

    I’ve suggested he rename his media organization: Omidyar Media Group! (OMG!) because it will remind his staff that everything it produces is OMG! in quality, accuracy, and impact.

  • Tom Foremski

    Pointing out problems and offering a way for readers to work on a solution would be wonderful but the timelines of the two: reporting on problems, and fixing them, are years apart.

    Also, it’s fine to have personalities, acting like columnists, to attract readers but they now have their own publications and staff. The point of newspaper columnists was to attract readers to buy the entire paper and not just the columns.

    There is no online business model for just the columnists alone, the advertising model still needs scale.

    Omidyar needs to collect his reporters into one mass newsroom.

  • mic_drop

    I already sent him a suggestion. In the e-mail, I said it would be a good idea to create something I called Coalition Builder, where you can join with other people in a cause, presumably superimposed on a map. One of the problems with doing anything in this country is simply information asymmetry. If we knew just who supported what, we could get a lot more done.

  • Philip Cohen

    Frankly, I don’t care what Pierre Omidyar does with his money but if he had any principles he would instruct eBay Inc. to cease its demonstrable, knowing and calculated facilitation of massive auction fraud on the consumers of the world. And, I suppose that it would be too much to expect that Omidyar’s “investigative” journalists might take a look at and report on eBay’s demonstrable criminal activities?

    Fraud is endemic on eBay “nominal-start” auctions …

    If you try to buy anything at a “nominal-start” auction on an eBay site, take great care …

    Shill bidding fraud by professional sellers on eBay “nominal-start” auctions is demonstrably endemic; where you see bidders bidding early and often on such auctions they will most likely be sellers’ shills, and eBay Inc. is – also demonstrably – the greatest knowing and calculated facilitator of such fraud on consumers that the world is ever likely to know and, doubtless, only the most naïve will believe that there will not be a trickle down effect of like criminal activity to other eBay operations …

    The ugly reality of eBay Inc.:
    eBay’s crooked auctions marketplace …
    eBay Motors (UK sampling): Auction Fraud Galore …
    eBay Motors XSS Redirect Scams in Action: video …
    Barclays Bank–eBay/Gumtree Motors Scams …
    eBay’s clunky, unprincipled “PreyPal” …
    The ongoing joke of eBay Inc. …
    Fun quotes from the eBay executive suite …

    The only thing that surprises me about eBay, this lazy, greedy, utterly unscrupulous, criminal operation is that it has not yet summoned up the gall to even further obscure this endemic shill bidding fraud—that it knowingly facilitates—by converting its auctions wholly to its optional, devious, seller-selected, “private listing” format, or by changing bidding IDs to “Bidder 1″, “Bidder 2″, “Bidder 3″, etc, as they initially were going to do/did when Johnny Ho first introduced the additional layer of anonymity for (shill) bidders in 2008, nor – surprisingly – have they yet ceased to publish the details of “completed” listings, a post-sale analysis of which, with some effort, can clearly demonstrate this endemic fraud, and eBay’s calculated facilitation thereof, on the consumers of the world …

    And what does the “smart money” on Wall Street think about eBay? Well, in August 2007, when the “Pain From Bain”, Johnny Ho, was already effectively in control of eBay, the share prices of eBay and Amazon were both ~$40; now eBay is ~$54; Amazon is ~$322. Clearly, Wall Street considers eBay to be a “dog”, and Johnny Ho to be a very poor dog handler …

    One has to wonder if Omidyar has ever thought about just how much more fabulously wealthy he might now have been had he not ok’d the handing over of the control of eBay to the unscrupulous, delusional, destructive, incompetent, narcissistic, sociopathic Johnny Ho? Indeed, had he, in August 2007, traded in the ~108 million eBay shares, that he still holds today, for shares in Amazon, instead of ~$6 billion, his worth would now have been ~$38 billion! Now that, surely, is something for all of eBay’s long-suffering “long” investors to think about, is it not? …

  • CB

    What does your post have to do with Pierre Omidyar and his media group?

  • West Seattle Blog

    We have learned through our journey that there’s no reason for your business if you’re not filling an unfilled need. I hope somewhere in the day of discussion that very simple point was addressed. Perhaps “unfilled need: news that presents solutions as well as discovering/exploring problems” is it. Best of luck to them from us here at Bootstrap Central :) – Tracy

  • mememine

    And if 32 years of science never “believing” beyond “95%” is good enough for you to “believe” billions of children are doomed to a CO2 crisis, you don’t love the planet you just hate humanity!