John Cook, editor-in-chief of The Intercept, the digital magazine of Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media, is leaving his post and returning to Gawker Media, according to tweets from Vanity Fair contributing editor Sarah Ellison.
That was quick. Cook in March announced he’d be joining First Look Media as editor-in-chief of The Intercept, the national security/privacy-oriented publication whose reportorial anchor is Glenn Greenwald of the Snowden disclosures. Though Cook is returning to Nick Denton’s Gawker Media empire, he’s not going back to the same job he left, as Gawker.com’s top editor. Instead, he’ll guide investigations across Gawker Media Group’s network of sites — for example, working with J.K. Trotter at Gawker, Jason Schreier at Kotaku and Anna Merlan at Jezebel, according to sources at Gawker Media.
Cook’s move back to Gawker Media is a surprise only to those who never read a recent story bylined by him and others at The Intercept. Titled “THE INSIDE STORY OF MATT TAIBBI’S DEPARTURE FROM FIRST LOOK MEDIA,” the story provided a critical look at the dysfunction at First Look Media, an enterprise bankrolled by eBay founder Omidyar in the amount of $250 million. Taibbi, a much-admired writer for Rolling Stone magazine, left First Look after all manner of disputes over his management style and the direction of The Racket, another First Look digital title. Cook & Co. wrote:
Those conflicts were rooted in a larger and more fundamental culture clash that has plagued the project from the start: 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. That divide is a regular feature in many newsrooms, but it was exacerbated by First Look’s avowed strategy of hiring exactly those journalists who had cultivated reputations as anti-authoritarian iconoclasts.
That’s a candid self-assessment. From the start, First Look Media’s hires have spoken wistfully about a new style of newsroom organization, a horizontal one in which decisions would be made by consensus. First Looker Jeremy Scahill captured the idea in a 2013 interview: “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.”
Asked about the free-flowing management culture at First Look, Cook in March told the Erik Wemple Blog, “Obviously Laura [Poitras] and Glenn and Jeremy’s names are on it and they’re the founders and they have a sort of sweat and name equity invested in it and they hired me because I’m simpatico with where they’re coming from and will work consultatively with them, but I’m the editor in chief.”
A confederacy of equal and obstinate journalists at First Look predictably produced gridlock and infighting. What was supposed to be a family of wide-ranging digital titles remains just The Intercept. Still, Cook & Co. in their analysis of the Taibbi departure signaled that they’d worked through the kinks: “The Intercept, through months of disagreements and negotiations with First Look over the summer, was able to resolve most of these conflicts; as a result, it now has a sizable budget, operational autonomy, and a team of talented journalists, editors, research specialists, and technologists working collaboratively and freely in the manner its founders always envisioned,” wrote Cook et alia.
Now they’ll do all that without Cook, who is a towering editorial talent. “I think that he’s the best at what does,” says Tom Scocca, features editor at Gawker. “I don’t know of anyone else who is as tenacious an investigator while also having such a high-quality governor.”
In chronicling the departure of Taibbi, The Intercept may have established a difficult precedent for itself. Does it now proceed to do likewise with Cook? Or leave this one to the people with the Stanford University Hasso Plattner Institute of Design who are studying management practices at First Look?