Pierre Omidyar published a blog post today that gave an update on First Look Media, the company he started with Glenn Greenwald and others and backed with $250 million of his own money. Nine Months in, First Look is Still Very Much a Startup.
As regular readers of PressThink and my Twitter feed know, I am an occasional adviser to First Look, but not an employee. So factor that in. I am not a spokesman for First Look and did not clear this interpretation with them.
In my opinion, this was the most important part of Pierre’s post today:
…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…
For First Look the way to a large user base isn’t “one big flagship website” or an “everything you need to know” news app to go up against, say, the Guardian or npr.org. That kind of “omnibus” product will not be forthcoming anytime soon, today’s announcement said. Instead:
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.
You begin with the users of news in a few well-defined communities of interest. By understanding their “needs and aspirations” better, you try try to generate more trials, more fruitful errors, and — if the method works — products and services that mesh with people’s lives more effectively.
This is not a part of Pierre’s thinking, so don’t use it to characterize First Look’s approach, but the argument is similar to my PressThink post from March: When starting from zero in journalism go for a niche site serving a narrow news interest well.
That’s my advice to individuals starting in journalism. Get yourself into a journalistic situation, first. A “journalistic situation,” as I define it, is when a group of people who share a common interest are actually depending on you for news. From there the rest will flow. What you learn by trying to provide a living community with news instructs you in what to try next. But you have to succeed in becoming their provider.
First Look will test an approach that “starts with being part of well-defined communities of interest.” Begin with a journalistic situation. From there a distinct approach may grow. Of course, journalists who are distinct and talented enough can sometimes create their own community of users through a unique mix of investigation, commentary, reportage— and personality. First Look has been testing this proposition too.
Which leads to the second item of news in Pierre’s blog post. Combined with a doubling of the editorial staff to 50, it was this:
…rather than immediately launching a large collection of digital “magazines” based on strong, expert journalists with their own followings, as we imagined earlier, we’ll begin by building out the two we’ve started and then explore adding new ones as we learn. Whatever direction our experiments lead us, we will continue to invest in our journalists and support their commitment to fearless, fact-based reporting. We will continue to fund deep investigative reporting and back it up with the travel and research budgets necessary to support it.
Building out The Intercept and the Matt Taibbi venture will be the primary publishing project for now as First Look turns one of its founding phrases, “fearless, fact-based reporting” into actual journalism (and other projects.) When key learnings from The Intercept and Taibbi come in, the collection may be filled out. Or not. Also: There doesn’t have to be an editorial brand called First Look, and there may never be.
This was the third bit of news:
I expect we’ll be in this planning, startup and experimental mode for at least the next few years as we explore how to become integrated into people’s lives in meaningful ways.
In other words, First Look has none of this figured out.
At least until Cook showed up, the whole venture seemed to have a hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show character. Why does all the planning and structure seem to be coming after the fact, or very late in the day at least? Was it more of a Silicon Valley “beta” philosophy of shoving onto the market product that isn’t meant to be close to ready? Or the blogger’s one-person-show mentality? It’s not like this crisis and strategic retreat are surprises.
Where did you get “crisis?” There’s no crisis, as far as I know. Not sure how you got there.
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. It’s harder to be distinctive than it looks.
It’s true that the structure is emerging after some of the hiring and publishing began. Key factor: Everyone felt that bringing out further stories from the Snowden files had to continue, whether First Look as a company was ready or not.
Thanks. I retract “crisis” (journalese hype) and substitute the clunkier and more responsible “public acknowledgment of a reality diverging radically from fundamental presumptions, as had become evident almost from the outset, several months earlier.” The irregularity of posts, and even more the glaring imbalance in who on the staff has and hasn’t posted, speak for themselves.
I’d bet a way could have been found to start publishing NSA stories quickly WITHOUT creating the gulf that resulted from announcing grand plans first and only then staffing up (and from the reporters up, at that). It wasn’t made clear to the outside world early on that the need for editing and day-to-day editorial management had even been recognized.
It will be very interesting to learn what Cook realized he was up against in trying to reconcile the mandate he was handed with the situation he walked in on, and how he broke his conclusions to people.
That’s for John Cook to say. I had no view into that.
I think everyone agrees that for months it was hard for readers to know what to expect from The Intercept. Certainly I would say that, just as a reader.
Another angle that Pierre’s approach allows for, though he doesn’t explicitly mention it, is that the two publications that they’re focusing their efforts on may actually yield a big business opportunity on to themselves. This focus could result in not needing to build out other properties. With the current state of investigative reporting having challenges in being supported within the traditional pop media biz models, a set of sites uniquely focused in this area may generate enough of a draw (the aggregate of viewers who really care about substance in their news reporting ;).
If we start viewing it from this angle, then it would make sense for First Look to look at acquiring other pubs like Pro Publica and maybe even Democracy Now, as complements to their greater mission. I’m sure there are other well read investigative reporting focused publications that could also fall neatly under this umbrella to create critical mass of viewership by being focused on high quality investigative reporting.
What I love about Pierre’s comments is the fluid approach he and his team are taking to exploring this opportunity without putting the sort of structure that kills innovation before it can take root. Admitting you don’t know and are willing to explore is a better mantra than saying “this is the way”, especially in the midst of the chaos in our landscape.
I’m a little confused – how will Taibbi’s snark norg differentiate itself from Mother Jones’s equally (from what I can tell, from the tabloidesque covers) snarky product? And while snark engages readers, it engages them at a go-team-go level, right? Is this an underserved level and community?
I’d like to see more specifics, more stories, about what sorts of digital communities of interest FLM has in mind, and how it might go about serving them.
Something else I’d like to see: an airing of the ways sophisticated PR can go about employing (or silencing) journalism so as to paralyze rather than catalyze needed change, and what measures journalism&journalists can take to counter this.
“I can’t wait to tackle some of the thorny technology and product challenges we know exist” – P. O.
Most of these are actually human challenges, right? In the sense of, how to tune the technology to bring out the best in the tribal “crooked timber” of humanity that makes up the society and readers FLM will serve.
It’s looking to me like a swing, and a miss.