It was 2007 and I was in some kind of a souk in Tel Aviv. A three-card monte dealer was encouraging passers-by to “find the red” as he lifted and dropped the cards from the left to the right. Later, over drinks, I asked the dealer to show me how the grift worked. He put down his glass and looked me in the eyes for longer than felt comfortable before he hit me with it: “No one who knows anything about life plays this game, Eugene.” I felt almost embarrassed for asking.
Six years later, I found myself standing before a whiteboard in the Mountain View, Calif., headquarters of Ozy Media, a digital-media start-up focused on the “new and the next,” thinking of that dealer in Tel Aviv. On that whiteboard someone had drawn several concentric circles that seemed to lay out the company goals.
The board and those circles would later appear in a photo taken by Fortune. In front of the board sat Carlos Watson, the chief executive and a co-founder of Ozy Media. Mr. Watson had done time in the trenches at Goldman Sachs, McKinsey and MSNBC and had been educated at Harvard and Stanford. He seemed groomed for this master of the universe moment.
“I think you might be a visionary … that is, seeing things that are not there,” I recall telling him, as we sat in his office sometime during the first year of working on the launch, plotting the Ozy global takeover. If he managed to deliver on, say, 80 percent of his promises, he’d make a believer out of me.
Eight years later, I received a call from Ben Smith, The New York Times media columnist. He was preparing what turned out to be a brutal piece about Ozy’s apparent lies about its readership and its wildly misleading branding campaign. The article would include an incident from February in which Samir Rao, the co-founder and chief operating officer, had apparently impersonated a YouTube executive to boost the company’s profile before a possible Goldman Sachs investment.
In the couple of days after the article was published last month more questions about Ozy’s apparently preposterous reader numbers and the veracity of its marketing claims emerged, alongside tales of a toxic workplace. Suddenly, the company seemed to have become the Theranos of the media world.
In Silicon Valley, there’s a gospel that says hard-driving expectations beget growth, which, in turn, begets greatness — riches. But that approach has come to seem increasingly hollow.
Five days after Mr. Smith’s piece ran, Ozy announced it would be shutting down, mere months after I had been fired from the company for a second time. Then on Monday, Mr. Watson said that the shutdown announcement had been “premature.” He insisted the company would rise from the dead like “Lazarus.”
I was not exactly surprised by Ozy’s collapse, just amazed that it took so long.
I started at Ozy as it was working toward its 2013 launch. As a Stanford-educated, successful freelance journalist and former staffer at the now-defunct Code magazine who’d also booked time at MacLife, I knew both Silicon Valley and the media industry. So I was a sensible pick for Mr. Watson.
At Ozy, I had come to believe that a small, scrappy outfit like ours could unearth stuff the legacy news outlets would miss. At the very least it was a thought experiment. I was pleased to find that billionaires — including Laurene Powell Jobs, an early investor, and later, Marc Lasry — were willing to put some money into it.
So we published easily consumable stories, on topics like Haitian poverty crusaders and 30-something South American politicos. Not what I liked reading, for the most part. But the world had changed, and this was the kind of stuff my kids definitely did like to read.
Mr. Watson created a demanding environment for his small team of editors and reporters. But the excitement of building something new and alive was infectious. In a moment of macho exhilaration, I had even suggested that each reporter publish 14 articles a week. Was the journalism good? Sometimes. As good as it could be at a fast pace. But the objective was to build the Ozy brand. So we did.
The expectations were steep. In part, this is just life in Silicon Valley. But the culture also stemmed from Mr. Watson’s origin story. I recalled him sharing a lesson from his mother: “No one should be able to outwork you.”
In close to a decade at Ozy, I think I averaged something like six to eight articles a week. Sometimes my pieces drew on original reporting. Sometimes they did not. By my count, I worked at least two 24-hour days leading up to the launch. Twelve- to 18-hour days were not unusual, and weekends belonged to the company. “I don’t want employees here,” Mr. Watson would say. “I want owners.” And he got them: We were a lovely mélange of racial, gender and age diversity.
Frazzled employees would tell me how Mr. Watson would ream them out or threaten to dock their pay for even the most minor of errors — a missed meeting, in my case, led to my pay being docked.
[When asked by The Times for comment, Mr. Watson confirmed that Mr. Robinson was fired twice and that his pay was docked, but he disputed the circumstances.]
After the first time I was fired, I came back. I saw something in Ozy.
The West Coast has always been a strange beast. Outside the normal media-industry churn, surrounded by people who cared much less about the industry’s drama and gossip than they did about tech widgets and the sale of tech widgets, I thought, maybe we could do something great here. This was a chance to work with some people who took media … seriously?
The company also granted me the freedom to pursue projects I cared about, like my series about organized crime in New York and my work on “Ozy Confidential,” a podcast covering the edgy and the outré.
But throughout it all, my colleagues and I endured angry encounters with a shrieking Mr. Watson about some missed benchmark. He went through several assistants; one lasted a week.
Neither Mr. Watson nor any of the investors I managed to side channel into a conversation seemed concerned about employee attrition. It seemed that our human resources were fungible but the pressure to meet magical targets was not.
By year four, we were still having to explain who we were to our sources.
The employee turnover made it tough for Ozy to build something lasting. This and the lack of wider public recognition increased suspicions for me and others that our much-touted figure of 50 million monthly unique users — and other numbers, like more than 20 million newsletter subscribers — were far from real. With grinding weekly demands, I spent little time questioning the analytics. Any lingering doubts were dispensed with fresh rounds of happy talk. In the Valley, anything is possible.
There’s been some chortling on social media that no one read Ozy. That’s unfair. Plenty of people knew about it; 50 million a month of plenty? I don’t think so. But there were plenty of someones.
The thing is, investors don’t care about someones fewer than 50 million. To Ozy’s investors, this number must have been exciting. And the temptation to give big money what it wants is substantial.
Over time, I was dispatched to several sections of the site, like True Stories, our biography section. I believed in what we were creating.
Eugenius, a video series I worked on, was a moderate success, but it was shelved a few years ago. But over the years, it seemed much of Ozy’s video content became a shrine honoring the “greatness” of Mr. Watson.
My work languished and went unpublished, including an interview with a Holocaust survivor who died before we had our final interview for “Ozy Confidential.” The company back-burnered the podcast. At the start of the Covid pandemic, once management cut our salaries, I took my unpublished work to Substack. Four months later, I was told that I had to write a letter of apology and take down my Substack if I didn’t want to be fired again.
I refused to do either. So after nearly a decade at Ozy, I was paid for my unused vacation time and bid adieu in June — months after Mr. Rao’s bizarre apparent impersonation incident, I would later learn. (Mr. Watson attributed Mr. Rao’s actions to a mental health crisis.)
Mr. Watson told me in one of our final conversations that he didn’t think there were many people who believed in my talent more than he did.
A few years ago, a reporter from the business publication Inc. reached out to me to ask about Ozy’s poisonous culture. She made the fatal error of writing to me at my Ozy email address. I was worried that Mr. Watson and Mr. Rao read employee emails, so I wasn’t about to respond. But I wonder now: What might have happened had I spoken out sooner?
Nothing, I suspect. In 2017, Ozy was riding high on the hog. The valuation of employee feelings was not at all competitive when measured against cash. But I’d probably have felt a little better — definitely a little more sane — just to have been able to tell the truth in some small measure.
For many of us who worked at Ozy, the revelations of the past week and a half have been a eureka moment. Mr. Smith put some flesh on the weirdness and paranoia that had been part of our daily lives at the company. And the back-from-the-dead announcement cemented once and for all that bad ideas are like bad jokes, which bad comedians seem to have in abundance.
So I guess in the end, despite all attempts to conceal it, true character reveals itself. Or maybe the failures and foibles of the characterless characters who prize prizes over substance have just always been a part of the Valley Hustle.
Eugene S. Robinson was a writer and editor at Ozy Media from 2012 to 2021 and is the author of “Fight: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ass-Kicking but Were Afraid You’d Get Your Ass Kicked for Asking.”
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