Matt Taibbi, the star magazine writer hired earlier this year to start a satirical website for billionaire Pierre Omidyar's First Look Media, is on a leave of absence from the company after disagreements with higher-ups inside Omidyar's organization, a source close to First Look confirmed today. (UPDATE: Taibbi has left the company. See statement below.)
Taibbi's abrupt disappearance from the company's Fifth Avenue headquarters has cast doubt on the fate of his highly anticipated digital publication, reportedly to be called Racket, which First Look executives had previously said would launch sometime this autumn.
When he was hired, amid much fanfare, Taibbi's website was meant to be the second in an envisioned fleet of titles to be published by First Look, an ambitious digital journalism company funded by Omidyar, the founder of eBay and one of the richest tech moguls in America. Like its counterpart the Intercept, launched earlier this year by Glenn Greenwald and others to pursue investigations of NSA surveillance and the intelligence world, it was a venture centered around a brand-name polemicist without much management experience. Prior to joining First Look, Taibbi made his name by gleefully skewering fat targets for Rolling Stone — most famously, he described Goldman Sachs as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity" — and he said at the time of his departure that he was lured away by the chance to lampoon the financial industry in the "simultaneously funny and satirical voice" associated with the legendary magazine Spy. Over the succeeding months, the mission of the publication broadened to encompass political satire as well, and it brought on a number of high-profile names from the New York digital scene, including deputy editor Alex Pareene, formerly of Salon; Laura Dawn, a digital video producer who formerly worked with Moveon.org; and Edith Zimmerman, editor of the Hairpin.
"Journalists should be dark, funny, mean people," Taibbi told New York in an interview in March. "It's appropriate for their antagonistic, adversarial role."
Omidyar originally conceived of First Look as a network of interlinking sites run by "independent" journalists, many of whom took a similarly adversarial approach to journalism. Over the last year, however, the center of gravity of the organization has shifted, as Omidyar and his Silicon Valley braintrust have exerted control over budgets and vacillated over the journalistic mission. Over the summer, Omidyar appointed a longtime confidante, John Temple — a former newspaper editor who previously led an Omidyar-financed civic journalism venture in Hawaii — to be the president for audience and products, putting him in a position above Eric Bates, the former Rolling Stone editor who was brought on as a First Look editorial director, who is close to Taibbi. The confrontational approach that made Taibbi's name at Rolling Stone — and before that, as a co-founder of the gonzo Moscow expatriate magazine The eXile — appears to have contributed to internal trouble at First Look.
Sources confirmed that Taibbi has been absent from the office for several weeks, only returning on one brief occasion to address the staff. Although those hired have been reassured that the project would continue on during the unspecified term of Taibbi's absence, the launch date for Racket — which Taibbi indicated in September would be coming "in a month" — now appears to have been pushed off.
"We have a target date but I wouldn’t make a launch date public," said Temple, who is based in San Francisco, when reached by phone this morning. "I don’t comment about internal matters and I don’t comment on personnel matters. ... I mean we’re a private company, so why would we ... no."
Taibbi's absence is only the latest in a series of shifts inside First Look, which Omidyar founded last year, originally in response to the disclosures of NSA surveillance leaked by Edward Snowden to Greenwald and his Intercept colleague Laura Poitras. Omidyar initially committed $250 million to the project and began laying plans for a large general interest website and a number of more narrowly focused "digital magazines." In July, the billionaire announced he was scaling back the plan for the time being, choosing instead to focus on Racket and the Intercept as prototypes for a new technological model of journalism. The Intercept has lately been publishing vigorously, breaking several major stories — federal investigators are reportedly pursuing the alleged leaker responsible for a story on the site about the government's voluminous terrorist watch list. But Racket has been much slower to materialize, leading to rumors of staff anxiety.
In August, Temple told me Taibbi's site was experimenting with a variety of journalistic approaches — not just satire and humor but also investigative journalism. For instance, Ellen Miller, head of the campaign finance watchdog the Sunlight Foundation — a nonprofit also heavily financed by Omidyar — met with the staff over the summer to discuss how it might dig into issues of money in politics.
"We're supporting Matt in creating something unique — and it's Matt's," Temple told me. "He's building a team and there's great esprit in Matt's team."
Taibbi's clashes with those at the top are likely to drive further speculation about the fate of the long-incubating project and about the journalist's own continued involvement. Nonetheless, the site is apparently still hiring.
UPDATE: Omidyar announced on Tuesday night that Taibbi has left the company. Here's the full statement posted on FirstLook.org:
I regret to announce that after several weeks of discussions, Matt Taibbi has left First Look. We wish him well.
Our differences were never about editorial independence. We have never wavered from our pledge that journalistic content is for the journalists to decide, period.
We’re disappointed by how things have turned out. I was excited by Matt’s editorial vision and hoped to help him bring it to fruition. Now we turn our focus to exploring next steps for the talented team that has worked to create Matt’s publication.
I remain an enthusiastic supporter of the kind of independent journalism found at The Intercept and the site we were preparing to launch. As a startup, we’ll take what we’ve learned in the last several months and apply it to our efforts in the future.
Above all, we remain committed to our team and to the First Look mission.