Glenn, Intercepted: Pierre Omidyar's quarter billion dollar journalism project seems to have stopped publishing

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on April 13, 2014

From The News Desk

"If you don’t like looking at dead air, then you should look away for a while." - John Cook, The Intercept
Genuine question: what the hell is happening at Pierre Omidyar and Glenn Greenwald's The Intercept?

I say "genuine question" because, as other writers have discovered, it's impossible to ask questions about Greenwald without being accused by his army of fans of being an NSA shill or worse. Any suggestion that all might not be well in Glennville, or Pierretown, or whatever cute geographic nickname you prefer, is met with howls of "LEAVE GLENN ALONE!"

Which is perhaps why other media commentators have been reluctant to point out that the Intercept, the flagship site of Omidyar's new $250m journalism empire, hasn't posted a new story in almost ten days. This while its biggest target -- the NSA -- stands accused of exploiting perhaps the biggest Internet security flaw ever discovered.

Of the site's high profile hires, Greenwald has posted most recently, back on April 4th, but has since been silent. His colleague Laura Poitras hasn't written a word since the site's opening post back in February, Jeremy Scahill has been silent since February too, and even the usually prolific Marcy Wheeler hasn't published in a month. (Update: The Week columnist Bill Scher points out that Marcy Wheeler's bio, at least as published at The Week, no longer mentions her being involved in First Look. )

It's not that the team has been too busy to write: Greenwald continues to tweet several times a day, and Wheeler has continued to write on her own blog, the most recent entry being just two days ago. As we know, Greenwald and Poitras are currently in the US to collect a Polk award for their national security reporting, mainly while Greenwald was at the Guardian. (Scahill has been mute on Twitter since Pando reported him revealing Omidyar's involvement in First Look media.)

The silence might have gone unnoticed by the media, but it hasn't escaped the Intercept's commenters who are, to put it charitably, getting twitchy.

As one fan writes:

OFF TOPIC – The Intercept is getting ridiculous. Glenn travels to Berlin and NYC to receive well-deserved awards and no new articles for over a week, despite all these, ah so proudly announced writers and / or editors.

Two months after the inception of this website and over six months after this venture has been announced, nothing really new is happening. It’s about a time for the publisher and / or editor to address these concerns. To which another responds:

It does seem a little less than ‘adversarial journalism’ to be silent for great stretches of time. Agreed.
Referring to the NSA/Heartbleed story, one commenter weighs in:
To: The Intercept/Entercrypt: You should be reporting on this story and many more. You are losing credibility (even amongst the tribalistic natives deep within this Internet Jungle)
In response to which, a user called "Oboe" suggests a conspiracy:
Has to be an organized blackout. If I got a “news” startup going and discovered that the entire staff was slacking for upwards of two weeks, I’d can the lot of them.
And on, and on.

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There, are of course, many reasons why a quarter billion dollar news organization would suddenly go silent -- and I can only speculate here, because Omidyar and First Look have always declined Pando's requests for comment.

The charitable explanation is that, having hired new editor-in-chief John Cook away from Gawker, Omidyar has ordered a relaunch of the site, or even a complete pivot. Certainly that would be the most logical answer, given that Omidyar recently flew a group of "high-profile editors, journalism educators, industry analysts, and former reporters" to Laguna Beach for a "Chatham House rules" meeting to help him figure out First Look's editorial strategy. According to Poynter, the meeting was prompted by the fact that the Intercept is struggling to find its audience or its focus.

(At the risk of enraging the Glennbots, I'll leave the reader to decide precisely how Omidyar's meeting to determine the editorial strategy of First Look squares with recent assurances that "Pierre has no involvement in the newsroom’s day-to-day operations. All editorial decisions at First Look... are made exclusively by our team of editors and reporters. Questions of journalism – what issues to cover, and how best to cover them – belong entirely to our journalists.")

Of course, plenty of sites relaunch, or tweak their focus, or make editorial staffing changes (Pando did so recently) -- but most, particularly the well-funded ones, manage to keep to a regular publishing schedule at the same time. The total lack of posts on the Intercept, while writers continue to publish through their own social media channels, suggests a more fundamental problem of management. It also highlights one of the big risks of hiring stars and leaving them to their own devices.

When Omidyar recruited Greenwald to the Intercept, the latter made a big deal about how the former wouldn't get in the way of his reporting. By having a more collaborative editorial process, the Intercept would avoid the logjams apparently caused by traditional newsroom hierarchy like that of... uh... the Guardian.

The hiring of Cook, and the convening of a brains trust in Laguna beach, suggests that Omidyar has realized the other important role of an editor, beyond getting in the way of genius: to actually make sure genius sits down at its desk and writes.

The big question is what happens if genius decides it doesn't like being told what to do.


Update: John Cook has responded to Pando's "attention and curiosity" with the Intercept's first new update in ten days. In it, he confirms that he is busy getting the Intercept team "conceptually prepared for the launch of a full-bore news operation" and invites readers to ask him specific questions in the comments.

The first of those questions -- and Cook's answer, to Gawker's Hamilton Nolan -- should provide comfort to anyone worried that Cook might bring Gawker's "bros club" mentality to The Intercept's critically important national security coverage...

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Update II: Transparency...

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[Illustration: Brad Jonas for Pando]