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.)

Does First Look’s organizational structure show such a diversification is happening? Not by itself—but in the light of other recent organizational innovations, maybe.

The first involves the U.S. Open Data Institute, a project funded by the Knight Foundation. The U.S. ODI, as its called, is based off the British ODI, which was planned and is operated by Tim Berners-Lee. (That’s the same Berners-Lee who invented the worldwide web.) It’s meant to provide experts and money to steward the government’s digitization and publication of its legally public, but technologically closed-off, data. The U.S. ODI wants to create ecosystems and markets around the opened public data, and then go away and leave them to their own devices.

The American ODI is designed to disappear.

“We’re gonna term limit it, and we’re thinking that limit will be four years,” the institute’s founder told me when I talked to him in October. That is: In the best of circumstances, the U.S. ODI will scuttle itself in 2017.

An organization with a half-life. It’s not so far off from Spark Camp, a journalism meet-up—I hesitate to call it a conference—that brings a small group of people together to talk about a specific issue. Spark Camp calls itself a “pop-up think tank.”

“It’s a different animal than [the major journalism conferences] or any of the other big names in the space,” Josh Benton, the editor of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Labwrote earlier this month. “It’s a small, curated, topic-focused gathering that tries to build community as it builds content.”

It is a purposefully intimate institution, and it recently released standard and instructions on how to build similar events—or organizations, or whatever it is. You can make more of these things now, for free.

The firm is a technology, too. Here, we have three new human groups: the first, a public-private, techno-media symbiosis; the second, an advocacy institution plotting its own demise; the third, the pattern for an event somewhere between the think-tank, the pop-up, and the open-source movement. Do they constitute an explosion in organizational types?

I’m not sure, but they’re undoubtedly interesting, and they're all media organizations. So perhaps there’s a simple explanation: The changes in the media industry have led to a change in organizations therein.

Or perhaps it’s something broader. The standard American for-profit corporation can’t be asked to solve every problem (not that it ever could). We accept that our tools should be designed to fit their aims, and group structures are just one of those tools. Why not apply the same precision to them?