Friday, November 07, 2014

nouveau petit elite honeypot for out of pocket journalists?


nymag |  The confusion inherent to any start-up has been exacerbated by Omidyar’s ruminative style. This spring, he went through a period of deep thinking, highlighted by a summit with news-­industry veterans at a hotel he part-owns in Laguna Beach, California. Under “Chatham House Rules,” no one was to talk directly about what was said. “He’s a true believer, I believe,” says Ken Doctor, a media analyst who attended. Many of those who have heard Omidyar and his aides, at that summit and other meetings, have come away thinking his plans sounded naïve and not fully baked. Sandy Rowe, a former editor of the Oregonian who was brought on as a consultant, says the fuzzy vision gives Omidyar flexibility. “This is a man who, since he said he would put down this $250 million, has never said, ‘Here is my plan.’ ”

The absence of a plan, however, contributed to dissension within First Look, and chatter began to emanate from behind its wall of operational secrecy. There was an East Coast–West Coast feud, a divide between the journalists and the technologists. Omidyar’s loyalists out in California and Hawaii grumbled as Greenwald traveled the world, promoting a book, picking up awards, and speaking out of turn. Poitras, meanwhile, was immersed in finishing a documentary on Snowden. There was an internal battle over budgets, which stalled hiring and hindered journalistic output. The Intercept initially published at a piddling rate. In June, the three co-founders of the Intercept and Taibbi wrote a joint letter to Omidyar demanding freedom to proceed with their expansion.

Omidyar then published a blog post saying he had “definitely rethought some of our original ideas and plans.” Instead of quick expansion, he announced that First Look would be in “planning, start-up, and experimental mode for at least the next few years,” focusing its immediate efforts on the Intercept and Racket while working to develop new journalistic technology and design with a team in San Francisco. He also appointed a confidant as First Look’s editorial boss: the former Civil Beat editor John Temple. “I think that the message,” Temple told me in August, “is that we’re not trying hard enough if we’re not failing a little bit, if we’re not saying things that don’t bear fruit.”
The shift proved beneficial to the Intercept, which is no longer under the day-to-day management of its founders. Omidyar lured editor John Cook away from Gawker to run the site, and after a publication pause and a redesign, it has been gaining momentum, breaking big stories about the NSA’s surveillance of American Muslim leaders and the seemingly arbitrary standards of the government’s terrorist-screening system. The latter disclosure reportedly came from a leaker other than Snowden; the FBI recently searched the home of a government contractor suspected of being the source.

The factional conflicts within Omidyar’s enterprise, however, seem far from settled. In August, Temple spoke enthusiastically about Racket, which he said had broadened its focus to include political topics. But as its launch date neared, Taibbi disappeared from the company amid disputes with First Look ­higher-ups. Omidyar announced Taibbi was leaving and that First Look would now “turn our focus to exploring next steps” for Racket, a project that a spokeswoman said had cost him $2 million over its eight months of development. In the wake of the tumultuous departure, the Intercept published a remarkable inside account describing “months of contentious disputes” between Taibbi and his superiors over his management, including a complaint from an employee that he was “verbally abusive.” But the journalists did not spare Omidyar from blame, describing what they called “a collision between the First Look executives, who by and large come from a highly structured Silicon Valley corporate environment, and the fiercely independent journalists who view corporate cultures and management-speak with disdain.” The iconoclasts even questioned Omidyar’s “avowed strategy” of hiring “anti-authoritarian iconoclasts.”

Even before the turmoil, Temple hinted that a strategic reconsideration was under way. “It will be more complex,” he told me, “than an organization of iconoclasts.” He says that Omidyar sees journalism as “the third phase of his professional life,” bringing together his technology experience and philanthropy, and is prepared to be patient, even if it perplexes outsiders. Temple says there is no incongruity between Omidyar’s communitarian ideals and his financing of an insurgency. “It’s not all about civility,” Temple says. “It’s about having a healthy and open society.” There’s a tangible insight buried in that amorphous sentiment: Omidyar’s interest in journalism is mechanistic. He wants to aggregate to himself the power to declassify and to bring about the “greater good,” as he defines it.

In October, the founding Intercept gang — minus Omidyar — got together for a party at Mayday Space, a loft in a graffitied section of Bushwick. The Snowden saga had entered its Redford-and-Hoffman phase with the premiere of Poitras’s documentary Citizenfour, which was partly financed by Skoll’s Participant Media and looks destined for Oscar consideration. A DJ spun songs next to a huge ­propaganda-style poster reading ­WHISTLE-BLOWER! KNOW YOUR PLACE … SHUT YOUR FACE. Smokers congregated on the balcony, which had a distant view of the Empire State Building, lit red. Greenwald hinted of further scoops. “Stay tuned, is all I can say,” he told me.
Greenwald says that he and Omidyar plan to finally meet later this month, when they will appear at a very different sort of gathering: an invite-only event called Newsgeist, co-sponsored by Google and the Knight Foundation. Billed as an “unconference,” it has no agenda other than “reimagining the future of the news.” Greenwald told me “top editors, executives, moguls, and founders” are expected to attend, including Dean Baquet of the New York Times. I asked the organizer from Google about other attendees and speakers, but he said he could disclose no further details, to “protect the privacy and security of our invited guests.” It seems that the Newsgeist is very hush-hush.