Matt Taibbi, an American author and journalist who famously compared Goldman Sachs to a vampire squid, has left the digital news outfit – Racket – that he was hired to create.
Racket, which has not yet produced any content, is proposed as the second digital magazine launched by First Look Media, a news organisation founded by Pierre Omidyar, creator of eBay.
First Look Media insists on its not-for-profit structure to ensure editorial independence. Its pilot publication, The Intercept, gave a lengthy account of the disputes between Taibbi and senior management of First Look Media providing insight into the circumstances that led to Taibbi’s departure.
The writers at The Intercept explained that the disputes between management and Taibbi were recently (perhaps) exacerbated by a complaint from a Racket employee concerning Taibbi’s conduct. The Intercept published a statement from Alex Pareene, an Executive Editor of Racket, who rejected any allegations on Taibbi’s managerial conduct.
Taibbi has been called the best polemical journalist in America and is known for his idiosyncratic style of writing and scathing commentary. His departure seems like a bit of a blow to First Look Media as they have lost a big-name writer before their second title produced any content.
Where we are in three tweets
Grieving for Racket today. It was a privilege to work with that team and I’m so sorry it did not work out.
— Matt Taibbi (@mtaibbi) October 29, 2014
Also I’ve never doubted Pierre’s sincere commitment to independent journalism, I just think he has some really dumb management philosophies
— alex pareene (@pareene) October 30, 2014
Was a pleasure working with @mtaibbi.
— Edith Zimmerman (@edithzimmerman) October 31, 2014
Balancing Act of Freedom and Constraint
The Intercept’s inside look at Taibbi’s departure from First Look Media highlighted the difficulties confronting First Look’s launch of Racket as indicative of the ongoing struggle to balance well-funded investigative journalism with independent-minded spirits, such as Taibbi’s.
In short, the writers over at The Intercept framed the dispute as one rooted in a culture clash between the First Look executives and the fiercely independent journalists that they hired. I am reminded of Bob Dylan singing, “ain’t it hard when you discover that he really wasn’t where it’s at?!” when I think of this story…
Taibbi left Rolling Stone for First Look Media. Rolling Stone!
In his letter of goodbye to Rolling Stone in February this year, Taibbi candidly expressed his gratitude to a publication with an “iconic cool.” With Rolling Stone he built up a pretty big name for himself. Taibbi is a kind-of flagship-journalist, or, in the parlance of American sports, a franchise journalist. He is the kind-of journalist who would attract readers to whatever he is writing, wherever he writes it.
Based on his reputation, Omidyar was probably well-founded to believe that hiring Taibbi would bring readers over to Racket. Furthermore, I have to presume that Taibbi believed that by moving to First Look, and being given his own title (effectively) he would mould a media outlet in a manner which he could not, obviously, at Rolling Stone.
But like I say when I am reminded of Dylan’s lyrics, I have to think that Taibbi quickly came to the belief that Omidyar really wasn’t where it’s at, for him anyways.
Take, for example Omidyar’s soundbite in January 2014 describing the launch of First Look’s first publication The Intercept, saying that he wanted “publications that have an independent editorial voice and a unique look and feel, led by a visionary and experienced journalist or team of journalists.”
The opportunity seems especially compelling when Omidyar backed his projects with the promise of $250 million (£156.4 million), which is the same amount Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, paid for The Washington Post. Interestingly, both stories (WashPo & First Look) share the trait of money coming from the tech world – eBay and Amazon – to back journalistic projects.
It is not always so easy to translate lofty principles into a workable model. Where The Washington Post already had a format, Racket was starting from zero. The Intercept is getting on okay, but it was not without problems. Indeed, The Guardian asked in March of this year whether Greenwald and co. at The Intercept could ‘reinvent journalism.’
Suffice it to say that journalism itself has not been reinvented. The Pew Research Centre, a Washington DC based ‘fact-tank,’ released a report in March of this year about the media industry and they raised an interesting point that new media start-ups, like those of First Look Media, may be more about fostering new ways of reporting than about building a sustainable revenue structure.
Back to what is important, the writing
Maybe Racket was over-hyped, and, perhaps Matt Taibbi is a journalist who works best in the kind-of freedom that is only created by a very old-media type constraint: having an established platform from which to speak.
Taibbi will return to Rolling Stone and apparently has a piece in the forthcoming issue of the magazine. As such, we will happily get a chance to read some of his vital journalistic output, and move past the business-model struggles he had with Racket.
What do you think? Have your say in the comments section below.