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Friction At First Look Media Spills Into Public View

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

First Look Media launched one year ago with much fanfare with something new - big money from Silicon Valley, funding a potentially innovative model for an industry desperate for cash, journalism. First Look's billionaire creator, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, promised to spend $250 million on a media company that would hold powerful institutions accountable and he hired prominent renegade journalists, including two who broke the story of the NSA surveillance programs using documents from Edward Snowden. Now friction between some of those journalists and Omidyar has spilled into public view.

NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik has reported on First Look and joins us now to talk more about it. Hey there, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: So this all came to light because a high-profile writer, Matt Taibbi, who had been hired to oversee financial coverage is going back to the Rolling Stone. He's given up on First Look. Why? What happened?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, as you say, the tension spilled into public because of his departure, but what was really extraordinary was that an offshoot of First Look called The Intercept published this long, long detailed account of what had gone awry and Taibbi had resented what he felt was the interference of editors above him, in that - not in protecting subjects that he might want to write about - but just in terms of influencing the tenor and tone of coverage. In addition, they had great reservations about his ability to be a strong leader and to be a manager of people and I think, you know, when you're hiring people who are often very headstrong, who will things into print, who take a very strong stance against authority in the subjects they cover, it turns out that translates into working for institutions as well, even for what they might see as benevolent billionaires. And so there was this cultural tension between the folks at the top of the institution and those they had hired to kind of chart their course.

CORNISH: And why are people watching this? I mean what was supposed to happen with First Look?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, this matters because you know, Omidyar had committed to spending a quarter of a billion dollars over the next five years on the mission of First Look and was to hold institutions accountable, do watchdog journalism of the kind that the erosion of the financing structure for the media and particularly newspapers has really undermined. He said we're going to be a strong actor in that field. And the second thing was, he promised a new model because of his expertise in computing, he said that he'd develop a team of developers and coders who would come up with software and other digital material so vital to media organizations that they would pay a licensing fee to First Look for it and thus underwrite the journalism that was done. What we've seen so far is that, you know, there's been this eternal squabbling over this digital magazine called the Racket and there's been not much from Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras and their colleagues' investigative outlet called The Intercept. You know, this was going to look like a stable of Time Life magazines in the old days but on digital platforms and it hasn't quite turned out that way.

CORNISH: So what does this episode and these tensions really tells about the prospects for First Look and for this model?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think, you know, Omidyar like anyone else deserves time and space to make this work out. After all, The New York Times wasn't what it is today after just a year after being founded in the 1850s. But that said, I think it suggests a couple of things. I think it suggests it's difficult to will journalistic innovation from top down. I think it's sometimes difficult to harness talent that can be somewhat anarchic even as it's incredibly accomplished, if you're looking for them to hold leadership positions, and I think, you know, when you have aspirations and notions of things that will support you financially, that that's a very difficult thing to translate into practical terms as well, and you're seeing Omidyar and his team wrestle with that even as they're dealing with the fallout of Taibbi's return to Rolling Stone magazine.

CORNISH: That's NPR's David Folkenflik from our bureau in New York. David, thanks so much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.