Why Matt Taibbi left First Look Media

First Look Media, the media venture started by billionaire Pierre Omidyar, was the corporate entity that would publish different online magazines in which the journalists would have much freer reign to investigate and report on stories than they would have with the mainstream media. It hired a whole slew of highly respected independent-minded journalists, not your usual subservient stenographers dutifully transmitting the talking points of their confidential sources.

The Intercept was the first such venture and it has published a lot of important stories that I have linked to. But the next publication to be called Racket was to have Matt Taibbi at the helm and it has not yet appeared. Another blow to it was dealt yesterday when Taibbi resigned after just seven months on the job.

Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitra, Jeremy Scahill, and John Cook give the inside story behind the resignation and it seems like a familiar one of people from the corporate world (Omidyar made his money in Silicon Valley) not knowing how to deal with free-wheeling, iconoclastic reporters, and people who are good reporters not successfully making the transition into managerial roles.

Taibbi’s dispute with his bosses instead centered on differences in management style and the extent to which First Look would influence the organizational and corporate aspects of his role as editor-in-chief. Those conflicts were rooted in a larger and more fundamental culture clash that has plagued the project from the start: 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. That divide is a regular feature in many newsrooms, but it was exacerbated by First Look’s avowed strategy of hiring exactly those journalists who had cultivated reputations as anti-authoritarian iconoclasts.

But First Look and the editorial staff it hired quickly learned that it is much easier to talk about such high-minded, abstract principles than it is to construct an organization around them. The decision to create a new editorial model left space for confusion, differing perspectives, and misaligned expectations.

Taibbi and other journalists who came to First Look believed they were joining a free-wheeling, autonomous, and unstructured institution. What they found instead was a confounding array of rules, structures, and systems imposed by Omidyar and other First Look managers on matters both trivial—which computer program to use to internally communicate, mandatory regular company-wide meetings, mandated use of a “responsibility assignment matrix” called a “RASCI,” popular in business-school circles for managing projects—as well as more substantive issues.

I like Taibbi’s work a lot and had missed his writing while he was starting this new venture. I am sorry to see him go and hope that he finds a good home soon and starts writing again. Meanwhile I hope that Omidyar sticks to his promise of creating aggressive reporting outlets.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    What they found instead was a confounding array of rules, structures, and systems imposed by Omidyar and other First Look managers

    This surprises me. I’ve seen a fair number of Silicon Valley companies evolve, and in almost all cases the people who start up companies are pretty disdainful of rules. They usually run their companies by the seat of their pants until the companies get so big that that doesn’t work anymore. Then, the founders are either eased into some out of the way corner of the business to keep tinkering or they are tossed out on their ears a la Steve Jobs. It is the people who replace the founders that are usually the rule-oriented suit-wearers.

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