Opinion

An open letter to the next Pierre Omidyar

You're a Silicon Valley tycoon. You want to start an online magazine. Here's some advice.

Dear wealthy left-leaning tech gazillionaires,

You've made a ton of money, you're still quite young, and now you're wondering what to do with the rest of your life. A political career is one option, but you watched Meg Whitman try to buy the California governorship for $160 million only to get easily crushed by Jerry Brown.

How about getting into media, then? All the cool tech kids are doing it. You could easily buy one of the legacy publications that are tottering across the media landscape, they're going for a song.

But maybe you've got a more specific vision. Maybe you want to get into a more crusading variety of journalism, preferably in new media. Journalists, especially left-leaning ones, work for cheap, and you could easily stretch a moderate fortune out for 40 years or more.

If you are in possession of honestly held principles it could work out. It's not even that difficult. But there are major pitfalls you'd do well to avoid.

The example of First Look Media, the journalism start-up that has become a recurring staple of media gossip, is instructive. After a ballyhooed launch last year, a consistent dribble of departures and delayed launches have plagued the company. First, Marcy Wheeler and Jay Rosen severed their connection to the company. Then Matt Taibbi, who was to be editor-in-chief of Racket, First Look's second online magazine after its flagship The Intercept, quit. Then John Cook, editor-in-chief of The Intercept, also quit. Last week, First Look fired the rest of the team Taibbi had put together.

Not having knowledge of any of the personal controversies, I'm going to focus on the managerial disputes that have been at the center of every story about First Look's struggles. If you're really committed to doing some hard-hitting journalism, this may be your number one danger.

I'm going to give it to you straight: for writers, Silicon Valley culture is incredibly obnoxious. The gadgetry obsession, the fussbudget over-managing, the utopian dreams, and most of all the annoying buzzwords. Journalists (or the ones you want to hire, anyway) are congenitally suspicious and have a serious allergy to jargon and MBA-speak. As First Look employees told Chris Lehmann:

At First Look, "strategy meetings are always more important than actually producing things," says one of the journalists still hoping to weather the storm at the company. These confabs tend to perpetuate themselves in all bureaucratic work environments, but at an ostensible journalistic endeavor — which is, after all, tasked with nimbly breaking news and moving just as quickly on to the next big story — they can become lethally counterproductive. [In These Times]

It's fair to say that many tech companies (Amazon, for instance) have some enormously complicated logistical tasks that might require complex management techniques.

The process of journalism, by contrast, has not changed that much during the computing age. Here's what you need: reporters to do research and write up their findings, editors to clean up their copy, and somebody in charge to provide overall direction and enforce deadlines. Yes, you'll probably need a photo editor to make things look nice, some web gurus, a video editor, and so forth. But as far as essentials go, that's pretty much it.

What you don't need is the latest from the business school torture dungeons. Whatever theoretical benefit you might get out of incomprehensible nonsense like a "responsibility assignment matrix" (reportedly in use at First Look) is going to be far outweighed by the white-hot murder frenzy that it will inspire in the people you want to hire.

Investigative journalists are often self-important and cantankerous. (Taibbi has a history of blowing his stack.) But they work on trust and the perception of good faith. That means allowing them to get to work as fast as possible. It means not micromanaging every aspect of the job. It means deciding how much money you want to spend and trusting your editor-in-chief with the purse strings (within reason).

But it is possible to succeed. Vox.com started this year and is doing extraordinary well (some humiliating faceplants notwithstanding). Their success is due to good staffing, quick response time, and ongoing tweaks to see what works and what doesn't.

So if you're really committed to journalism and want to do something with your obscene wealth other than bathe in champagne for the next 50 years, starting your own media property can be fun and maybe even useful. (For an idea, state and local politics are criminally under-covered these days.) Just be willing to let journalists be journalists.

Regards,

Ryan

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