Fantasy news technology from First Look Media

Following an announcement that Pierre Omidyar has doled out $50 million which represents 20 percent of his initial commitment to his new media venture First Look Media, Jay Rosen, an adviser to the project, says the details include the answer to a question he has frequently been asked: is this going to be a business or a non-profit? The answer is both. The news and editorial operation will be a non-profit and helping sustain this will be a new for-profit media technology company.

At the Atlantic, Robinson Meyer is guzzling the Kool-Aid:

First Look is something curious and iridescent — a technology for-profit making products for a news non-profit, selling those products elsewhere, and giving the proceeds back to the non-profit. First Look is two parts, closely joined, feeding and making a home for the other.

One of the first challenges for any new technology company is to convince investors that whatever kind of genius the company’s founders might possess, they also have some idea about how they can make their innovations profitable.

First Look has an advantage over other start-ups in this respect because its lead investor stepped forward before anyone had come up with either an innovative technology or a business plan. The premise seems to be that the Greenwald/Snowden brand has already acquired such immense value, that the new product can be constructed around the brand (and of course thousands of so-far unreleased documents from the NSA).

In Omidyar’s announcement there is one hint of realism:

The journalism operation, which will be incorporated as a 501(c)(3), will enjoy editorial independence, and any profits eventually earned by the technology company are committed to support First Look’s mission of independent journalism.

The key word there is eventually.

Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Jeremy Scahill, and Jay Rosen, probably aren’t too worried about how long eventually takes, because Omidyar’s investment of $250 million will provide financial security for several years. Moreover, since they are all on the non-profit news side, they can leave it to Omidyar to figure out if or how he’s going to make the technology side profitable.

My prediction is that by the time First Look has either succeeded or failed in demonstrating that it represents a new way of making the news business sustainable, Greenwald will have departed from journalism.

In reference to his role in bringing the Snowden revelations to the world, Greenwald has said: “when you go into journalism, this is exactly the sort of thing that you hope one day you’re going to be able to do.”

I suppose there will come some point in time when I feel like most or all of the documents that are in my possession that ought to be published have been published, and that most of the reporting that I think ought to be done has been done. That won’t necessarily end it, because I’m sure the fallout of that reporting will continue, the public debates over things, the consequences from these revelations will endure. And I will likely play some role in debating those things and talking about them and writing about them, but in terms of the very surreal craziness that has become my life, I’m looking forward to that subsiding.

Having repeatedly said that he has so far published reports on less than half the documents that need reporting, it sounds like Greenwald sees plenty of life left in this story, but it’s an open question whether anything comes after Snowden (apart from the book and the film).

Whether future whistleblowers choose to turn to Greenwald and First Look, may hinge on whether this venture ends up being perceived as a new way of doing journalism or an old way of making money: find a cheap or free raw product and then exploit ones role as an exclusive distributor who can fix prices and control the flow of goods to market.

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6 thoughts on “Fantasy news technology from First Look Media

  1. Davejoe

    Skepticism is good; I too carry a load full of it around. But I wait with my judgment, especially with people who have not disappointed me so far. As for predictions – I leave up to those who are omniscient. Not sure who said that it is difficult to make a prediction, especially about the future.

    I am extremely thankful to Glenn Greenwald for what he has been doing, and that goes way beyond the Snowden affair. Same thing holds true fro Jeremy Scahill. So, I’ll be fully supportive of them until proven otherwise …..

  2. Paul Woodward

    What I’ve noticed about skepticism is that it’s often applied very selectively or not at all when it comes to members of ones own camp. And when that happens, it’s not really skepticism — it’s just a way of differentiating between the good guys (the people you agree with) versus the bad guys (the people who subscribe to some kind of objectionable ideology).

    Predictions by definition deal with uncertainty but if one was to eschew all types of prediction then one would ignore the future and thus refuse to even think about issues like climate change.

    I wouldn’t attach too much gravity to my prediction about Greenwald — I made it simply because I see hints that just as he got tired of being a lawyer and probably got tired of blogging, his foray into investigative journalism may not last any longer than the duration of the Snowden saga. But unlike the previous phases in his career, by the time this one ends I imagine he will have made a lot of money. Whatever circumstances Greenwald is in a year or two from now, my guess is that they will be much more enviable than Snowden’s.

  3. bobs

    I am a huge fan of GG and his friends, but my concern about this venture is that you can’t sustain an entire news outlet on civil liberties issues alone no matter how important they are. I happily read pretty much everything GG writes and I devour any Snowden/Assange story, but I think I get the point; and this endless trickle of NSA revelations is beginning to suffer from the law of diminishing returns. If they don’t expand their coverage to all aspects of democratic malfunctions, I will tune out.
    Trouble is, I am not sure GG cares about anything else.

  4. Paul Woodward

    In terms of its coverage, this venture aims to be as conventional as the mainstream media: “politics, government, sports, entertainment and lifestyle, arts and culture, business, technology, and investigative news,” says Omidyar’s press release.

    On the question about whether Greenwald cares about anything else, if you mean, anything beyond the privacy issues raised by the Snowden leaks, I think this is a legitimate concern for two reasons. A journalist can become over-invested in a single issue and acquire tunnel vision. At the same time, narrow horizons end up becoming boring and then, rather than struggle to reconnect with a wider area of news, the “next step” might mean a seeking a new level of public visibility. Prime-time MSNBC? (That might be a bit difficult working out of Rio, but you get my point.)

  5. BillVZ

    I have followed Glenn Greenwald and his writings from the days of his own blog, move to Salon and the Guardian and while I agree he has become absorbed into and by the Snowden saga don’t forget what an exceptional person and mind he brings to us. I watched fascinated and he ‘humiliates’ those who foolishly try to match wits or diss him in interviews. He is from my view, never vindictive or flaunting his ability with such people. Yes, the new venture does raise some questions and concern and is not as altruistic as he seemed to imply in his first announcement. I guess I am a bit naive about news entities.

  6. bobs

    I missed the press release and I am glad to hear they’re shooting beyond the NSA story. I’ll be rooting for GG until he disappoints because, on the left, he’s one of the fiercest talents there is (well, alongside this guy, Paul Woodward). But that’s his call. He can try to be the new Chomsky or he can keep telling us how outraged we should be that the NSA hacked into…(?) oh, Goldman Sachs. Whatever.

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