Tensions Rise at First Look Media As Company Shifts Strategy

Laura Poitras, a co-founder of the Intercept, signed a letter protesting recent company decisions. Photo: Andrew Toth/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Fe

Employees are worried that one of the nation’s largest and most prominent left-of-center media companies, First Look Media, has lost its way. After the company shuttered two marquee outlets, dozens of employees signed a letter to the board of directors in protest. The letter also asks whether the company has acquired Passionflix, a romance-focused streaming video service started by Elon Musk’s sister.

Launched in 2013 with an investment from Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire founder of eBay, the publisher of the Intercept distinguishes itself with sharp visual journalism and incisive political reporting. But no media company can sail above the turbulence roiling journalism at large, as the industry struggles to adjust to an economic environment with fewer advertising dollars to go around. And there are limits to Omidyar’s charity: The company reduced its staff by 4 percent in March, and the Intercept, its website for investigative and political journalism, announced that it would no longer manage its archive of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks. It didn’t take long for reports of internal divisions to surface in the wake of the decision. In notes obtained by the Daily Beast, Laura Poitras, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who co-founded First Look Media, fiercely criticized company leaders and was subsequently “barred” from a meeting about the company’s decision.

So there were already questions about First Look’s commitment to its early mission by the time it incited another round of public controversy. On June 28, the company announced that it would lay off most staff of Topic magazine, which publishes visual and long-form journalism, and cease to fund the Nib, a highly regarded political-cartoon site. Both sites were critical hits: Matt Bors, the Nib’s founding editor, had been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize by the time First Look acquired his site, and Topic magazine recently won two National Magazine Awards for video journalism. The loss of Topic magazine and the company’s separation from the Nib led to fears among staff that First Look might branch away from its ideologically driven commitment to journalism toward a more commercial direction — fears stoked by rumors that the company had acquired, or planned to acquire, a smutty Netflix clone.

On July 6, dozens of First Look Media employees sent a letter directly to the top, telling the company’s board members that they felt “deep concern” that the First Look mission “is in jeopardy.” Originally drafted on June 28, the day First Look announced the layoffs, the letter also highlighted the departure of Anna Holmes, the editorial director of topic.com. Holmes resigned in protest after First Look announced the layoffs; she is, the letter says, “the most senior woman of color at the company.”

The letter continues:

“Several of us have been told that the reason for these layoffs is to reallocate money towards acquiring video distribution rights to populate a forthcoming Topic subscription streaming service (SVOD). This decision to eliminate Topic.com and The Nib comes only months after an extensive three-year planning process, where both divisions, working with management, mapped out their future plans and had their budgets approved. We are also now learning that the company has recently acquired the romance SVOD Passionflix.com.”

Co-founded by Tosca Musk, the sister of Elon Musk, Passionflix produces and streams adaptations of romance novels. Users can search for content using the “barometer of naughtiness,” which ranks films and shows based on the steaminess of their story lines. It’s unclear why First Look would be interested in acquiring Passionflix. Omidyar presumably knows Tosca’s infamous sibling; Elon Musk was PayPal’s largest shareholder when eBay acquired it in 2002. Romance novels are also a billion-dollar business. But Passionflix’s offerings would indeed be a departure for First Look, whose forays into film typically have more to do with investigative journalism than with sexy hunks.

In an email sent last Thursday, Jeff Alvord, a vice-chair of the board of First Look Productions, told the letter’s signatories that “the specific issues” they raised should instead be directed to executives cc’d on the same email — a list that, according to one First Look staffer who saw the email and spoke to New York on background, included Omidyar himself, along with First Look Media’s CEO, Michael Bloom, its CFO, and various other members of management. (First Look Media’s structure is complicated, even by the standards of media companies. To help fund its journalism — a cash suck that a billionaire is unlikely to tolerate in perpetuity — the company has two divisions. First Look Productions is for profit, and includes topic.com, Topic Studios, and the Nib. It’s meant to generate money to subsidize First Look Media Works, which is nonprofit, and encompasses the Intercept, the Press Freedom Defense Fund, and Field of Vision. Each division is governed by its own board; the letter was addressed to both.)

Reached for comment on Monday, a spokesperson for First Look Media sent New York an internal communication sent by Bloom, the company’s CEO, to staff the same day. In it, Bloom wrote that he believed “it would be beneficial to share further context and perspective around some of the recent changes and activities at the company,” and said that there would be further discussion at an upcoming town-hall meeting. Bloom’s message did not mention Passionflix, but the spokesperson told New York only that “there is no deal to discuss at this point.”

The original protest letter had asked that “a small group” of staff be allowed to attend an upcoming meeting of the board of First Look Productions in order “to discuss our concerns.” But Alvord declined to allow staff to attend this month’s meeting of the FLP board, and shifted responsibility downstream. “We are indeed aware of the recent decisions made by the management team and fully believe that these are management’s decisions to make,” Alvord wrote.

Bloom, for his part, told staff on Monday that although First Look’s “generous funding has provided an incredible opportunity to get started, our resources are not infinite, and the long-term goal of the organization has always been to be financially independent.” He continued later, “Topic magazine and the Nib — while generating provocative and insightful work — did not end up finding a sufficiently sized audience or a path to profitability to justify the ongoing investment. But we’re incredibly proud of the work, we gained a lot from the years of experience with these efforts, and we will apply those lessons as we move forward.”

That explanation might not mollify the letter’s signatories, who span each of the company’s remaining media properties and include Poitras. In an emailed statement to New York on Wednesday, Poitras wrote, “The letter is addressed to the board of directors because these are not the first decisions by management that threaten to undermine the mission of the organization.”

“The resignation of Anna Holmes is devastating for First Look Media and Topic. Not only did we lose one of the most talented and visionary innovators in digital media, we also lost the only woman of color in a leadership role at the company,” she added. “I reject the arguments laid out in CEO Michael Bloom’s email and note that it conveniently elides the fact that this decision came weeks after budgets and three-year plans were approved for all First Look Media units, including Topic.com and The Nib. There is no contradiction between producing great, award-winning content and generating revenue, but you need vision and creativity to succeed, and the decision to shut down these units will profoundly hurt the company.

“When I co-founded First Look Media, I never imagined I would have to spend so much of my time advocating for the basic principles of diversity, pay equity, and accountability, and yet I, and many others, have been doing so for years at this point.”

Neither of her First Look co-founders — Glenn Greenwald, part of a team of journalists who shared the Pulitzer with Poitras for coverage of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks, and Jeremy Scahill, the author of Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield — signed the letter, which was described by a staffer as being circulated “informally.” Signatures are still being added, as not all staff had an opportunity to view the letter before it was sent to the board. Greenwald told New York by email last Friday that he was not aware of the letter before staff submitted it and was not asked to sign it. Asked if he would have signed if he’d known about it, Greenwald responded, “I haven’t seen the letter so I couldn’t say if I’d sign it and, to be honest, I’d probably have to find out a bunch of facts — such as the rationale for why FLM executives made this decision — in order to know if I’d support it.”

“For the record: I think Topic was doing fantastic journalism and I’ve been a fan of Matt Bors’s cartoons in the past, but I just don’t know enough about any of this — including whether it was mandated by the Board or forced by budgetary cuts — to form a meaningful opinion about any of it,” he added. Scahill did not return emails sent to his work account by press time.

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