Vanity Fair has a long piece on the troubles at First Look Media. That, coupled with other reports about the media startup’s recent turbulence, makes it sound like part of the problem is a clash of cultures between the company’s Silicon Valley founder and its legion of journalists. According to the Vanity Fair story,
The problems at First Look are many, including an essential culture clash between people who appear to have antithetical opinions about everything from management style to subject matter to seating arrangements to whether journalists should have landlines. Disagreements over “process” have been at once petty and paralyzing.
And then you start reading the examples of this culture clash, and it strikes you just how ridiculously petty these things seem to be. The entire “Up Your Asana” section of the Vanity Fair story just makes you go, “You guys are grumbling about that?” To wit:
The editors were encouraged to use a task-management system called Asana. It works like this: a person creates a task on Asana and invites relevant colleagues to join the task. The task has a deadline, and everyone invited can see the chains of conversation about the task. When the task is completed, a box is checked, and the task goes into an archive. Jeremy Scahill jokingly called the program “up your Asana.” Matt Taibbi used the program so infrequently he had to be continually reminded of how it functioned.
First Look managers also encouraged the use of RASCIs—responsibility assignment matrices—to manage various projects, whether it was site design or promotional spots. The acronym stands for the five different categories of people on a given project: Responsible, Accountable, Supportive, Consulted, and Informed. Although many of the journalists were not expected to use RASCIs very frequently, editors occasionally had to. In an organization that First Look editors had billed as non-hierarchical, the use of responsibility assignment matrices rubbed some people the wrong way.
First, Asana: The description makes it sound like a typical project-management system, and as someone who has used such systems before, it’s the kind of thing that I would just shrug and go, “Yeah, it’s a new system. Big deal.” Also, how big an annoyance can it be if, in Taibbi’s case, you use it so infrequently that you can’t remember how it works?
Same with the RASCIs. They do sound antithetical to the way many journalists are used to working (but hey, so is “digital first”). But if the story is correct that the journalists were not expected to use them very often and that editors only “occasionally had to,” you have to again wonder why an infrequent annoyance could become a sore spot. Get it done and move on with life.
The other part that struck me as kind of interesting from the Vanity Fair piece:
In late July, Omidyar announced in a blog post that, instead of launching a variety of sites, First Look would be “building out” The Intercept and Racket. No other sites were immediately planned, and First Look would focus on experimenting with the technical aspects of distributing First Look’s journalism, rather than simply creating new content. For some of the journalists who had joined the site expecting to be part of a large, reporter-driven, and all-purpose media organization, the news came as a shock. Omidyar’s technical curiosity about the distribution of news was trumping his interest in actual news, some of the journalists said.
So let’s see: The journalists at First Look apparently
- are more interested in mocking a piece of unfamiliar software instead of trying to make it work for them;
- scorn a workflow that’s different than what they are used to; and
- see leadership’s interest in the technical aspect of journalism distribution as a negative and distraction from what’s really important (writing stories)
Granted, the Vanity Fair article comes off as much more sympathetic toward Omidyar than the other accounts of the problems at First Look. Still, if these attributes were ascribed to journalists at a traditional media outlet, we would say they sound downright curmudgeonly and that their refusal to adapt to a new system is partly why their companies are flailing. How this can be a problem among employees at a startup founded by a Silicon Valley star is … befuddling.