Stephan Buckley at Poynter, reported on a meeting hosted by Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire founder of First Look Media, with “about a dozen high-profile editors, journalism educators, industry analysts, and former reporters… to listen to his vision, dissect his emerging strategy and offer advice on both.”
The $250 million venture has hired two high profile reporters, Glen Greenwald and Matt Taibbi, each heading their own digital magazine, with more announcements to come.
However, judging from the Poynter report, Omidyar doesn’t have much of a plan, or an innovative solution for creating a sustainable modern media company. In that regard, he is in a similar position to fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos, and his $250 million purchase of the Washington Post.
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.
There were many questions that weren’t answered:
- With its focus on star reporters, will First Look become a “confederacy of brands?” (The reporter’s choice of “confederacy” implies dunces.)
- First Look executives want their publications to appeal to a mass audience and also engage with them on solving problems. How will that work?
- How will First Look become a sustainable media business given the challenges of online advertising and paywalls?
“Several participants expressed skepticism, at least quietly.” A strange line from the news report, possibly indicating that, “the brilliant, unassuming Omidyar” was more interested in approval than in the feedback from media professionals.
There has been a lot of optimistic talk inside the journalism community that tech billionaires will bring innovation and save quality journalism. It’s clear that those hopes are misplaced for now.
Omidyar and Bezos have no bright ideas on how to save journalism. They don’t know much about how the sausage is made and are trying to educate themselves on how journalism is carried out, and what sustains and motivates journalists.
Here’s my feedback:
- Building a “digital magazine” around a personality such as Glenn Greenwald or Matt Taibbi is a mistake. Each now has to hire their own editorial team and create a professional newsroom. That’s not their strength.
- Newspapers used star columnists to attract readers who bought the entire newspaper and not just the columns. Newspapers were thus able to aggregate larger numbers of readers, which attracted brands as advertisers and sponsors. How will each individual First Look digital magazine be able to offer the scale needed to interest advertisers?
- Each digital magazine has to build it’s own media brand; it takes years, and it often takes decades. [Bezos is ahead of the game here because the Washington Post is a well established brand.]
- Greenwald and Taibbi worked within well established media organizations with veteran, highly skilled editors and production teams, all contributing to the success of their work. You can’t just cherry pick the writers and expect the same results.
- We need innovation in journalism but that innovation must come in the business model and not in how a news story is presented. There’s many ways to tell a story but they don’t matter if there’s no business model to sustain it.
First Look doesn’t yet have anything innovative to offer but it’s willing to try new things. I have some suggestions in my next story.