The view from the 19th floor of First Look Media’s swanky Fifth Avenue headquarters shows a sliver of old Manhattan: the iconic Empire State Building punctuating a skyline of ornate pre-war structures. Inside, however, everything is new. Chairs remain wrapped in plastic; kitchen appliances are still in boxes. And the startup’s new president, Michael Bloom, is halfway through his third month on the job. “That’ll be a studio,” he says, gesturing toward an open space that will soon house a start-of-the-art video facility. “And we’ll have showers, too.” And desks. And lots of people. Bloom’s job is to fashion a business out of the startup established by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar in 2013 to produce “fearless, adversarial journalism.” There are a few things to fix, and many many things to invent. And Bloom has so many ideas!
Initially, Omidyar wanted to build a network of sites run by independent journalists, an effort he bankrolled with a healthy $250 million in October 2013. He first hired former lawyer and Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald and documentary filmmakers Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill. Poitras and Greenwald had been instrumental in bringing Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA snooping to light. The three planned to publish their reporting on a site they’d call The Intercept. Omidyar then hired former Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi in February 2014 to launch a hard-hitting yet satirical news site to be named Racket.
'Their first year, like a lot of startups, they had growing pains.' Michael Bloom, First Look Media President
By fall, Taibbi left. The trio of Intercept editors, along with editor-in-chief John Cook, published a detailed account of what went wrong, calling Taibbi’s departure “a serious setback for First Look.” They positioned it within a larger problem: “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.” Soon after, First Look announced Racket would be shut down before it ever launched. And at the end of the year, Cook returned to his former employer, Gawker, where he is now the interim executive editor.
Most of what Bloom knew about all of this came from the media, which chronicled the turmoil with soap operatic attention to detail. He’d read the January Vanity Fair piece entitled “The Unmanageables,” which painted a portrait of clashing egos, immense hubris, and dysfunction. The editors came off as entitled and conflict-prone; Omidyar as naive.
Bloom is a veteran Internet and media business executive who has spent time at both AOL and Viacom, and he’d most recently been at The Guardian, where he built and ran the company’s North American business. He was considering raising money to start a media company of his own when he got the call from a recruiter working for Omidyar. He had been at The Guardian when the Snowden revelations came out, and so he knew Greenwald a bit already. Bloom met with John Temple, Omidyar’s confidant and deputy, and liked him instantly. He then met with Omidyar and described a man whose patient approach and committed vision did not square with the media’s description of another billionaire with a media vanity project. “It became clear to me that what I thought was the case, wasn’t,” Bloom says. Omidyar, he maintains, is committed to figuring out how to make First Look work and willing to be patient. “Their first year, like a lot of startups, they had growing pains,” he says. “The fundamental belief he has is that independent media is critical for a thriving democracy and a vibrant culture.”
When Omidyar asked him to become president and general manager, the opportunity seemed too good to pass up: “He’s doing it for all the right reasons. We have an opportunity to create a new company essentially from a blank slate.”
The Creators of Counterculture
And so, here we are, staring at the Empire State through the loft-size windows that frame the highest of First Look’s three floors. That’s 55,000 square feet of prime Manhattan real estate just south of Buzzfeed’s headquarters, and four blocks east of Google. First Look also has a San Francisco office where the more technical of its 60 employees work. The current editorial staff is mostly here. I follow Bloom down a connecting staircase to the 18th floor, where a dozen editorial staffers for The Intercept work in a cluster of industrial-looking desks. He introduces me to Betsy Reed, who joined The Intercept as editor-in-chief in January from The Nation, where she’d been executive editor.
The Intercept is funded by First Look Media’s nonprofit arm. It has delivered regular hard-hitting stories since its launch February 2014. “You can think of The Intercept as our version of ProPublica,” says Bloom, referring to another nonprofit that supports investigative public interest journalism. First Look’s nonprofit arm also supports its only other media property, a small experimental project called Reported.ly.
'The idea is that it is important work. We think we have a way to make it a sustainable property.' Michael Bloom, First Look Media President
In addition to running this operation, Omidyar has charged Bloom with building a companion for-profit business that will support the entire enterprise. Bloom envisions building what he calls “the world’s leading platform for the most compelling independent voices.” He believes the future includes all manner of media—videos, photos, shorter posts, podcasts. He’ll broaden the scope of the company to include “arts, culture, media, entertainment, possibly even comedy and sports.” Any voice, he explains, that’s outside of the mainstream. By this, he means that First Look is well-positioned to support the creators of counterculture: activists and artists with strong opinions of any sort—right or left—who seek to express those opinions through media. It stems from Omidyar’s feverish belief in the importance of supporting free speech.
Bloom anticipates that First Look will meet directly with media creators to figure out what they need and help them with it, much like a literary agent helps its authors, say, or the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz supports its entrepreneurs. If they need an editor, First Look will offer it. If they need a video studio, say, or office space, done. “We’re going to produce content for our own platforms and for others,” he says. “The HBOs, Netflixes, Hulus of the world.” The objective is to give writers, filmmakers, and producers the place and tools they need to “create their most ambitious work,” and then help them build and make money off of their audiences. It’s not clear just how First Look will do this yet—perhaps advertising or subscription or partnerships with other media companies—but Bloom reminds me that he’s very early in his tenure. He won’t go into the specifics of how he plans to execute this, though he says we’ll begin to see new products starting this fall.
Of course, lots of other media companies are doing their best to attract and partner with standout talent as well. As a master of content distribution, Buzzfeed is a formidable competitor. Platforms ranging from Medium to Maker Studios are aiming to attract the same creators. Bloom is undaunted. He’s putting together a team. He just hired Dan Shearer to develop products; Shearer comes from Major League Baseball Advanced Media, where as vice president of product, he’d worked on the HBO Now and WWE Network launches. Bloom believes that with talent, funding, and faith from the startup’s very patient backer, First Look will certainly prevail. “Pierre’s not doing this for the money,” he says. “The idea is that it is important work. We think we have a way to make it a sustainable property.”
One day, Bloom hopes, First Look will be as venerable as the towers on which it looks, and as iconic as the Empire State.
Go Back to Top. Skip To: Start of Article.
contentFirst Look Mediafuture of news