Matt Taibbi has been missed. He went into a writing black hole when he decamped from Rolling Stone to Pierre Omidyar’s wannabe media empire, First Look in February. But when the billionaire’s news venture was launched, the press was sloppy in reporting on Omidyar’s financial commitment. It was widely depicted as a $250 million venture, when the tech titan never committed anywhere near that amount of funding. Admittedly, it takes time to get a new publication going, but the lack of any apparent progress was becoming noteworthy. From the outside, it looked like the project might be going pear-shaped, and it appears it did.
I had heard, second hand, that Taibbi had envisioned a publication that would mix satire and serious reporting, and would have a strong focus on skewering plutocrats. That may have struck too close to home. The official announcement of Taibbi’s departure is clumsy:
Pierre Omidyar October 28, 2014
I regret to announce that after several weeks of discussions, Matt Taibbi has left First Look. We wish him well.
Our differences were never about editorial independence. We have never wavered from our pledge that journalistic content is for the journalists to decide, period.
We’re disappointed by how things have turned out. I was excited by Matt’s editorial vision and hoped to help him bring it to fruition. Now we turn our focus to exploring next steps for the talented team that has worked to create Matt’s publication.
I remain an enthusiastic supporter of the kind of independent journalism found at The Intercept and the site we were preparing to launch. As a startup, we’ll take what we’ve learned in the last several months and apply it to our efforts in the future.
Above all, we remain committed to our team and to the First Look mission.
Yves here. Notice the tacky grousing by Omidyar that he’s been left with some Taibbi hires and now he has to figure out what to do with them.
The denial about “editorial independence” is so defensive that is it pretty much a given that it was about that. The beef was unlikely to have been on the story level, which is what Omidyar is defining as journalistic freedom, since it appears Taibbi never got far along with putting a first issue out (otherwise you’d expect to see a reference to it, that the staff was finishing it up despite his departure). So the differences could have been over the formats Taibbi wanted to use, as in the types of stories and regular features he had envisioned, or who he wanted to bring on board, or the level of resources he wanted versus what Omidyar was prepared to provide. Given that Omidyar is reportedly controlling (he’s been cited as being the most active person on First Look internal e-mails), the most likely sources of friction was over what the overall shape of the publication or a bad personality fit. This suspicion is confirmed by New York Magazine:
Over the last year, however, the center of gravity of the organization has shifted, as Omidyar and his Silicon Valley braintrust have exerted control over budgets and vacillated over the journalistic mission. Over the summer, Omidyar appointed a longtime confidante, John Temple — a former newspaper editor who previously led an Omidyar-financed civic journalism venture in Hawaii — to be the president for audience and products, putting him in a position above Eric Bates, the former Rolling Stone editor who was brought on as a First Look editorial director, who is close to Taibbi. The confrontational approach that made Taibbi’s name at Rolling Stone — and before that, as the founding editor of the gonzo Moscow expatriate magazine The eXile — appears to have contributed to internal trouble at First Look.
As reader CEA pointed out:
Looks like Omidyar really changed tune, and now is playing off First Look as if it’s just a “startup venture” and treating it not like a non-profit-type public service he’s willing to fund regardless of profitability, but just a stupid little VC project.
I had said privately it was unwise to join Omidyar’s venture when he hasn’t yet hired the person who would run Fist Look. Any journalist who joined was destined to have a boss different than Omidyar (or worse, two bosses).
I assume that this change will work out for the best for Taibbi and am looking forward to seeing his hard-hitting articles again soon.
Update: Pando flagged the probable basis for the outtrade months ago, that Omidyar discovered journalism is hard and costs money, and appeared to want to steer Taibbi towards doing satire, which to him may have meant fluff. This is pretty much what we surmised. Hat tip CEA:
Omidyar is both sole investor and publisher. And apparently he’s just realized that, even with a $250 million dollar budget and a big pile of NSA leaked documents acquired along with Glenn Greenwald, creating a serious journalistic enterprise is hard. A platform, on the other hand, is something Omidyar has built before and clearly believes he can build again. Someone else can take care of actually fixing American journalism and delivering on all the promises he made in his weirdly Pierre-centric launch video.
But while others discuss Pierre’s pivot, and what it means for Greenwald’s future at the project, there’s another pivot tucked away in the announcement that most people seem to have missed. Here’s the line (emphasis mine):
“[W]e’ve partnered with the talented Matt Taibbi to plan and launch this fall a new digital magazine with a satirical approach to American politics and culture.”
“A satirical approach to American politics and culture.”
Now compare that with Taibbi’s original plan on joining First Look, as reported in the New York Times back in February… (again, emphasis mine)
Mr. Taibbi will start his own publication focusing on financial and political corruption, he said in an interview on Wednesday. First Look is financed by the eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who is worth $8.5 billion, according to Forbes. Mr. Omidyar has pledged $250 million to the project.
Even the Times couldn’t resist pointing out the juxtaposition. Were we really supposed to believe that Taibbi would be allowed to investigate financial corruption, and Wall Street hi-jinx, when his boss is one of the richest men in America?