First Look Media and the personal franchise

Feb.
11
The bet is that a news brand can be both: its own thing and the thing that talented, driven, fully-voiced individuals want to do in journalism

First Look Media, where I’m an advisor, launched its first “digital magazine” yesterday. It’s called The Intercept. (A name I like.) The Intercept is led by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill. It has a masthead, a mission, its own look and feel and the following URL: http://firstlook.org/theintercept.

Attention should properly focus on the journalism that The Intercept launched with. It’s a story by Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Schahill that essentially says: the U.S. doesn’t know who it’s killing with some of its drone attacks because the targeting is done by tracking SMS cards in phones. The article is based in part on the Snowden documents and also on the testimony of a new source: “a former drone operator for the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) who also worked with the NSA,” and who cooperated with The Intercept without revealing his name.

Read the story. Read how it departs from consensus judgment in the press. And about the public service, troublemaking tradition it is a part of. I just want to make one point here for those who are following First Look’s development from the concept I wrote about in October, to the initial sketch of its structure, to the video where Pierre Omidyar described his intentions in more detail, to this week’s developments (“Glenn Greenwald’s new website launches with fresh NSA revelations.”)

Recently I have been writing about the “personal franchise model” in digital journalism:

There are lots of sites built around individuals, like almost every blog in the world. There are lots of born-on-the-web news companies, and they were all begun by individuals. By “personal franchise” I mean something more: a central figure or personality has given birth to a newsroom, a larger operation. But the larger operation still feels like an individual’s site.

First Look has been structured so that it can support the emergence of any number of such sites. The Intercept is just the first. It is grounded not in a topical niche as much as an editorial approach, and some convictions that three editors share, like

The prime value of journalism is that it imposes transparency, and thus accountability, on those who wield the greatest governmental and corporate power.

When Ezra Klein proposed to the Washington Post a newsroom built around his interest in explanatory journalism and the sort of background knowledge that breaking news coverage often leaves out, Katharine Weymouth, the publisher, received his proposal and concluded that it was a poor fit. Her exact words: “It seemed to be potentially a bigger distraction that would take resources without building the Post.” And so Klein left to try his idea with Vox Media.

All Things Digital was a personal franchise site and conference brand owned by the Wall Street Journal, and run by Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, two exceptionally talented technology journalists. When their contracts were up, they negotiated with the Journal but wound up leaving, along with their staff, for a new venture: Recode.net. The Wall Street Journal then folded the All Things D site into the Journal’s souped-up technology coverage. The old URL, allthingsd.com, now forwards to WSJ: D, the Journal’s technology section.

The logic is pretty clear: why have two brands when the Wall Street Journal is such a strong name in business coverage?

But what if this conflict — between a franchise built around a few individuals’ editorial ambitions and the requirements of the larger newsroom brand — didn’t exist, because the larger newsroom brand acknowledged the strengths of the personal model from the start? This is a key feature of First Look’s design. It accepts and incorporates the personal franchise style, treating it as no threat to the editorial ambitions that First Look has for itself.

In fact, the hope is to attract others who can launch sites like The Intercept, and to offer a common core of services — data skills, design help, good publishing tools, strong legal advice, marketing muscle — that the founders will need to succeed. (And the quality of the services keeps centrifugal forces in check.) Under this model, the diverse paths that such sites may take are not a “distraction” from the core business or a subtraction from the editorial brand but a vital part of both.

First Look will also do curation (sometimes called continuous news) and it will have its own staff of investigative journalists digging and publishing under the First Look name. The bet is that a news brand can be both: its own thing and the thing that talented, driven, fully-voiced individuals want to do in journalism.

3 Comments

  1. Jozef Imrich says:

    My first impression is that FirstLook and itself Intercept will be on a radar of most European countries where truth really matters … out of the current 39k followers on the twitter one wonders how many Italians subscribed after this story http://www.repubblica.it/tecnologia/2014/02/10/news/nuovo_sito_greenwald-78188950/

  2. Heidi Legg says:

    I think your story is very on the mark. I am building a franchise interviewing smart people, some great minds and disruptors, in long format singular interviews but I need help. How can I be considered by First Look? I just posted an interview with niche media and seasoned news veteran Phil Balboni. It’s an important interview because he has quiet billionaires backing his niche to own international news coverage for the US. And they are growing fast. See TheEditorial.com – Heidi

  3. Looking forward to First Look Media reporting on Pierre Omidyar’s PayPal blacklisting of Wikileaks at the behest of the U.S. government — especially relevant given the resources Wikileaks has provided to Edward Snowden.