Sunday, November 30, 2014
Can a Silicon Valley billionaire still learn? First Look Media may depend on the answer to that question
“Eventually First Look Media will just be Pierre’s Second Life avatar wandering around an open-space office plan,” one employee says.
by Larry Geller
- Related: Through a crack darkly: The Intercept, a billionaire, a controversy, many questions (11/2/2014)
The author of Reports from Inside First Look Media Suggest That Maybe Silicon Valley Shouldn’t Manage Journalists, (In These Times 11/25/2014) is not hopeful that Pierre Omidyar’s second venture into journalism, his creation of First Look Media, may not end well, and may not last. It’s a good read from someone who claims access through “sources.”
The subhead is: Feverish speculation surrounds First Look’s recent troubles. But perhaps the most obvious culprit is its reliance on truckloads of tech money. Well, truckloads of money can accomplish much. Who knows.
At the same time, we might keep in mind that the $250 million investment was made by a person who struck it rich with the success of eBay. Not to begrudge Omidyar his money at all, but putting it in perspective might be useful: he only needed to be right once.
What I find interesting, as an organizational professional is the number of leaks and revelations emanating from the venture. It’s unusual for a private organization to expose its dirty laundry to this extent. Is it just an abundance of “transparency,” a word with multiple meanings and implications, or is it desperation? Could it be a way to seek healing by stirring up enough outside concern and pressure to get through to First Look management (and Omidyar) that there needs to be change?
Whatever it all means, it does not bode well for the organization. First Look has gathered people with powerful personalities and solid records of achievement. Maybe they haven’t made billions yet, but they know their trade, they are on a roll, they are at the peak of their professions, and they are not willing to lose the potential influence their work might have.
That’s stronger than any number of billions of dollars.
So Omidyar has to deal with it—there is no choice. Further leaks could drain anything useful out of the venture. There’s likely a limit to how long an organization can continue to work cooperatively if the bottom is leaking like a sieve.
The In These Times article describes what appears to be an old-fashioned, not a modern, management style. There are alternatives: one is to hire competent people and let them learn to manage and use the investment made. Sure, that there will be mistakes, even failures, is a given. But in the corporate world, mistakes can be designed. That is, with the right methods and analysis applied to execution, even a failure is a learning experience for the organization and an opportunity to improve.
In a revealing account of [journalist Matt] Taibbi’s departure, a team of First Look journalists candidly noted that the start-up was hobbled at the outset by a “highly structured Silicon Valley corporate environment” riddled with “management-speak” and “a confounding array of rules, structures and systems imposed by Omidyar and other First Look managers.”
Mistakes and failures are part of how successful organizations grow. Omidyar, to the extent he may be responsible or able to bring about improvement, can still learn. So it will be interesting to see how this plays out.
We will all benefit if he does learn. If not, Glenn Greenwald and the others could easily find another base of operations, and likely have been smart enough to protect the supply of Snowden material against being corralled even by a Silicon Valley billionaire. Or so I hope.
Thank you for reminding me of that -- I had forgotten. So my fear for the safety of the Snowden files may be more than paranoia.
Omidyar, as chairman of eBay, could pull the company out of ALEC. He cannot be ignorant of what eBay's participation implies.