In November, First Look Media, the startup general-interest news project bankrolled by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, announced it had hired former Rolling Stone Executive Editor Eric Bates. The announcement carried some trademark features of a job memo, including boastful biographical information on Bates as well as a description of his mission: “Eric will be instrumental in helping us define our editorial strategy for a general-interest audience as well as the editing infrastructure we will need to support our independent journalists.”
One thing missing: A title.
A recent post on Dylan Byers’ Politico media blog identified Bates as a “lead editor” of First Look. Upon seeing that description, Bates asked himself, “Is that right? I haven’t even thought about it that way.”
Leadership at First Look Media is an unsettled matter. There are no titles at this point, except for Omidyar, the publisher. The title-less approach comes with a reason: Creating an organizational chart at the outset will end up “boxing you into preconceptions,” Bates told the Erik Wemple Blog. Perhaps it’s best to call Bates simply a “worker.”
No org chart means no “editor-in-chief” or “executive editor” or “president, news” or whatever, at least not yet. Asked about whether First Look will have a single, commanding editor, Bates responded, “That’s a great question that we talk about every week and we don’t have an answer to yet.” Don’t get the notion, though, that First Look won’t embrace traditional journalistic concepts — it has made a commitment already to fact-checking, research and investigations, he says.
When news of the venture broke last fall, the startup became synonymous with journalist Glenn Greenwald, then of the Guardian, who spearheaded a series of revealing articles about the National Security Agency based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden. Yet Greenwald never aspired to become a leader of the organization. “It seemed like this was going to be Glenn Greenwald’s news organization, and that was really never what it was,” says Greenwald, who had been planning with journalist Jeremy Scahill and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras to found their own news site. Rather than bossing people around, Greenwald will settle in as a reporter for one of the site’s topical areas and do his thing, free of the infringements of some big-footing, big-salaried editor: “By and large, the idea is you’re going to have your world over here,” says Greenwald, who also acknowledges that he has made known his views on key First Look editorial matters. “Of course, I’ve been involved in lots of discussions, on ideas of who we should pursue. I’ve definitely weighed in on a lot of those things.”
The First Look main Web site, says Bates, will launch later this year, and the organization also will have a “family of digital magazines” that’ll begin debuting in the coming weeks. The entire project has a $250 million commitment from Omidyar, though Bates says he has “no answer” on the staffing levels for these platforms, noting that, depending on topic, they’ll be “as small as they need to be or as big as they need to be.”
However: Any “family” — whether it consists of humans or digital magazines — generally has someone who’s in charge, someone who directs traffic and the like. In an interview last year, though, Scahill sketched out a different idea:
One of the reasons why we’re really excited about working with Pierre is that he said that he didn’t want to have a top-down model of editorial process where editors are telling reporters what to do. So we’re going to develop more of a horizontal model where editors are supporting the work of the journalists but that it’s going to be a journalism-driven website. . . . We’re not just trying to fill positions with people. We’re trying to bring people on board based on [a] proven track record of great journalism and trying to create a space for them where they can do that journalism without being hindered by bureaucratic institutions or processes.
In such a horizontal world, who decides when to hold meetings? Everyone! “We all do, seriously,” says Greenwald, noting that staffers are online all the time, grinding through stuff. When something can’t be resolved on the keyboard, the staffers get on the phone. And if a meeting doesn’t produce a decision? “I think in the cast majority of cases, we’ll be able to do things by consensus. On those rare occasions where people can’t agree, yeah, we’ll have a mechanism for it to be decided but ultimately the key is for us to be working with people with the same vision,” says Greenwald.
A horizontal-leadership-journalism scenario: First Look publishes a story on national security that kicks up a great deal of controversy. Government officials say the piece compromises key U.S. intelligence information. Fox News is thumping the site in nearly hourly segments. Media critics are pounding First Look for a defense of the work. In lieu of banging out a statement — a staple of hierarchical news organizations — First Look journos respond collectively. Greenwald tweets out a defense of the story, as do other First Lookers. The tweets bear some inconsistencies.
That would be totally awesome.
Another benefit of a (possible) headless approach to newsroom management is the ditching of inscrutable titles. For instance: Does an “executive editor” outrank an “editor in chief”? What about just plain “editor”?
The drawbacks are perhaps easier to foresee. Who’ll fire the staffer who’s been coasting since day one? Or better: Who’ll make it her business to notice the staffer who’s been coasting since day one? Who’s going to take responsibility for key tasks that have managed to slip through the horizontal cracks? Who’s going to take the calls from whiners? How many editors will want to work at a site where they can’t boss around the reporters? Who’s going to insist that a decision be made right now? Like . . . a decision on whether there’ll be some uber-editor? Will unresolved business just end up in Omidyar’s inbox?
And who’s going to tell Greenwald that his lede is clunky and over the top? The guy who’s been mowing down critics in television interviews for the past eight months has to be a beast internally, right? Not at all, says Greenwald. “I was at Salon for six years, I wasn’t running anything. I got along with every single person there and left on great terms,” he says.
Reuters media critic Jack Shafer, who has worked at his share of companies, says, “Every forward-thinking organization tries to eliminate hierarchy, get rid of titles and build buildings that don’t have corner offices so people don’t fight over corner offices.” The result of any leaderless approach, says Shafer, is a group-home dynamic: “No one will clean the bathroom and there will be endless fights over who has to clean the bathroom,” says Shafer, who wishes the First Lookers luck in their structural re-engineering project.