Glenn Greenwald's New Media Company Is a Bespoke Firm

And we may be about to see a lot more like it.
Glenn Greenwald, national security journalist and one of the leaders of First Look, works on his laptop in Rio de Janeiro. (Sergio Morales/Reuters)

In October, American media received a gift: The birth of a new, major publication that wouldn't be predicated on listicles or emotional headlines. Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, announced he would found a new media company, temporarily named “NewCo,” to highlight the work of star national security journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill and other, yet-to-be-named investigative journalists. 

NewCo isn't just a boutique investigative team. It aims to be a complete news publication, living inside a larger media company, called First Look. That corporation feels like the origin of a new species. In a blog post, Jay Rosen, an NYU journalism professor and advisor to the project, says the company will contain two smaller entities:

One is a technology company, a business run for profit, that will develop new media tools for First Look properties and other markets. Another is a 501(c)(3), a non-profit under U.S. law. Its mission will be to publish and support independent, public interest journalism.

Jay Rosen in 2008 (Joi Ito/Flickr)

First Look is something curious and iridescent—a technology for-profit making products for a news non-profit, selling those products elsewhere, and giving the proceeds back to the non-profit. First Look is two parts, closely joined, feeding and making a home for the other. 

It isn’t alone in melding a for-profit to a non-profit: Rosen names the Guardian and ProPublica, for instance, as two journalistic institutions that meld non- and for-profit elements. The Guardian is a for-profit owned by a trust, tasked with maintaining its longevity. ProPublica is a non-profit that will publish investigations with corporations.

But First Look, Rosen writes, “is different. […] The entire operation is designed to support the mission of independent public service journalism, achieve sustainability and attract talent.” First Look is a symbiote. It's a technology division feeding a media division, which then empowers the technology division.

As my colleague Andrew Golis wrote on Twitter, “Omidyar is baking in as many subsidy models for investigative journalism as he can into the org structure.”

Companies are organized to produce technology, but their organization is a kind of technology, too. First Look belongs to an interesting moment where media companies are discovering new ways to organize themselves to more smartly approach the challenges of making and distributing news.

The Org-Tech Revolution

I wonder if we’re seeing the rise of the bespoke firm. I’m not alone in this. “I am half-expecting a Cambrian explosion of organisational forms over the next ~decade,” the British futurist Justin Pickard wrote in November.  “The firm is a technology too.” (In the Cambrian explosion, simple organisms diversified into many of the loose types of animals we still see today. The eruption was rather quick, in geological terms, taking place roughly between 580 and 540 million years ago.)

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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