Ozy Media began in happier days, around the start of Obama’s second term. Its founders, Carlos Watson and Samir Rao, wanted to create a tech-forward platform for the ‘change generation’ – an allusion to one of Obama’s slogans. Ozy would become a movement, Watson said, but it would begin as an online magazine, published daily, expanding quickly to television and events. Instead of merely following the stories deemed newsworthy by big media, Ozy would cover what it called ‘the new and the next’: people and events no one was reading about yet.
I didn’t understand what it meant for a media outlet to be a movement, or what the change generation was, but I could see that Watson was a star. When I first met him he was in his early forties: tall, confident, handsome. The son of a Jamaican immigrant father and a schoolteacher mother, he had been educated at Harvard and Stanford Law School. He had hosted on MSNBC, and worked at McKinsey and Goldman Sachs. Ozy’s backers were some of the most powerful people in Silicon Valley, including the reclusive billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs. If you met Watson you understood why: he was intoxicating. Right until the day I quit, I left meetings with him feeling energised, eager to carry out whatever preposterous task he had assigned.
Building up a readership from scratch is a painstaking slog, and for eight years Ozy’s staff toiled in obscurity. Eight years makes you a Methuselah in Silicon Valley, where men proudly introduce themselves as serial entrepreneurs and engineers measure their careers in four-year chunks. (Equity at start-ups typically vests over four years.) It feels even longer if your publisher can’t find an audience for the stories you churn out. I managed three and a half years. Watson and Rao assured us that Ozy reached millions of people a month, but the sparsity of emails from readers and the light social media engagement suggested otherwise. I never stopped having to explain to sources what Ozy was. Publishers can lie to their employees with relative impunity, but lying to investors and advertisers is more risky. When Ben Smith of the New York Times reported in September that Ozy’s management had done just that, few staffers, past or present, were surprised.
What did surprise us was how brazen the deception was. In February, according to Smith’s report, Goldman Sachs was in the latter stages of diligence on a $40 million investment in Ozy. (Consider what $40 million could have done for one of America’s hollowed-out local papers.) Ozy provided the bankers with the email address of a YouTube executive called Alex Piper, who could attest to the popularity of the Carlos Watson Show, which aired on YouTube. Piper indeed vouched for Ozy, but the bankers thought his voice sounded odd, as though it had been digitally altered, and when they investigated, found that the real Alex Piper had no knowledge of the call. Shortly afterwards, Watson apologised to the Goldman Sachs team. He claimed that Rao had suffered a mental health crisis that led him to pose as Piper. The deal was scuttled. Google called the FBI; the FBI called the bank, presumably to investigate attempted fraud. But, according to Smith, Ozy’s board seemed unconcerned. Its billionaire chairman, Marc Lasry, praised Watson’s compassion for Rao, who wasn’t fired, and promised support. Jobs’s company, Emerson Collective, showed less confidence, noting that it hadn’t invested in the latest funding round or sat on Ozy’s board since 2019.
I had left Ozy in 2017 without exercising my stock options, believing the likeliest outcome for the company was not an acquisition or an IPO, as Watson insisted, but slow shrinkage, dwindling to a quiet death. Like most start-ups, the company would run out of runway. Instead, it blew up. The impersonation attempt was sloppy, even more embarrassing because Watson and Rao were total suits. (They’d met at Goldman Sachs years before.) Twitter, thick with journalists, was scandalised, outraged, ecstatic. This was the media’s own Theranos! In one camp were people who said they’d never heard of Ozy; in the other, people who said they’d always known that it and/or Watson were a sham. Well before the scandal broke, advertisements for Ozy’s summer festival and the Carlos Watson Show had been inescapable in New York City. And now, finally, Ozy was famous.
Smith’s story appeared on the evening of 26 September, a Sunday. On Monday, the cable network A&E cancelled its broadcast of a programme by Watson on (wait for it) mental health. On Tuesday, Watson withdrew as host of the documentary section of the Emmy awards. The board lost its cool, announcing that Rao was to take a leave of absence and that an external investigation would be held. On Wednesday, Katty Kay, who had left the BBC to join Ozy, announced her resignation, following that of Charu Kasturi, a respected editor. A billionaire angel investor called Ron Conway surrendered his shares and made sure the press knew about it. By Thursday, Lasry, the chairman of the board, was out. On Friday morning, Watson resigned from the board of NPR, which had been set to discuss his position that morning. That afternoon, Ozy’s two remaining board members, one of whom was Watson, announced that the company was finished. Smith broke the news on his Twitter account.
Watson and Rao had named their company after Shelley’s sonnet ‘Ozymandias’ and the poem’s equation of imperial arrogance with broken statuary in the desert should have been a warning. Perhaps the execs didn’t read poems or they were enlightened businessmen who embraced impermanence or it was a joke that didn’t land. (Later I found out that Watson had just liked the sound of the word.) Later I was just relieved they hadn’t gone with the runner-up name, Smartini.
In February 2013 I had been staying at Yaddo, the artists’ residency in upstate New York when Watson got in touch through my former editor at the Economist, where I had been the Haiti correspondent. I had lived in Port-au-Prince for four years, including during the massive earthquake in 2010, and returned to New York in bad shape: broke, confused and depressed. The book I’d planned to write about the aftermath of the earthquake was going badly. During the day at Yaddo I found myself sketching out characters for a maybe-maybe not novel. At night (in the same room, apparently, where Sylvia Plath wrote ‘The Colossus’ – more broken statuary), I spoke to Carlos about the media company he was building. I liked talking to him. He laughed a lot and never at the wrong time.
As a publisher he spoke nonsense, or at any rate he didn’t tell me about any amazing plans for disruptive innovation in the creation and distribution of Ozy’s stories. I didn’t mind: from my perspective journalism had been disrupted almost to death. I had started my career in newspapers in the late 1990s, when the prospect of earning a decent living wasn’t risible, and watched as Craigslist ate the classifieds, corporations consolidated the local and mid-size papers, private equity firms bought the corporations and stripped them for parts, and major papers shuttered their foreign bureaus. The internet was still cratering everything. Since leaving the Economist I had freelanced, which was degrading – poorly paid, clubby etc – and paid the rent by writing papers for a consultancy. I supposed I could achieve some financial stability if I went back to Haiti, but that felt wrong, maybe even immoral, after I’d seen so many foreigners profit there.
Watson mentioned that Laurene Powell Jobs was among his investors; they had worked together in the late 1990s on a college prep company in East Palo Alto. He let me connect the dots. Having been married to the man who invented the iPhone, Jobs would know what it was to support a visionary. I pressed him on his business model. ‘The wall between advertising and editorial, how are you going to ensure its integrity?’ ‘The wall between advertising and editorial?’ he replied. ‘We’re going to blow it up!’ Another warning, but I laughed. It was too preposterous to be sincere.
After years of reporting on human rights and foreign aid, and years of rejected pitches (‘We did a piece on Haiti last year’), it was easy to come up with ideas for 800-word articles on subjects that hadn’t been covered by major publications. After the residency finished I sent over a list. Watson and Rao asked me to write up a couple of my ideas; I did. They told me about the other writers they had hired: a woman just out of journalism school at Columbia; a Stanford-educated punk-rocker and veteran magazine editor called Eugene Robinson. The only white guy was a self-effacing Rhodes scholar. My stories would round out the team, they said, and, it was implied, so would I, an Indian-American woman. They offered me twice the money I could make as a freelancer as well as good health insurance and thousands of stock options.
I didn’t want a job but felt I needed one. I asked two friends from Yaddo what they thought. ‘Don’t do it,’ the memoirist of no fixed abode told me. This was heartening: he’d read my attempts at fiction and thought they showed promise. The other disagreed: ‘It’s Silicon Valley.’ He had a point. And he’d just sold his third novel. ‘She has a chance to finally make some real money and not everyone can live like you.’ We were in Manhattan, enjoying the spring sunshine. California is sunny all year, I thought. I demanded a salary 50 per cent higher and was amazed when they agreed. But, they said, if they gave me the money I would forfeit my stock options and the chance to get in on a company that would change the world and make its shareholders extremely wealthy. That was fine by me. I didn’t want to be rich; I just didn’t want to be poor.
We agreed that I would work from New York but spend the first three months at Ozy’s headquarters in Mountain View, where Google is based. They wanted the team to cohere. They would not provide housing. Everyone has a manuscript in a drawer, I thought, shoving my manuscript in a drawer. Before leaving for California I had coffee with my old editor at the Wall Street Journal, a curmudgeonly WASP. The family that had owned the paper for decades had sold to Rupert Murdoch some years earlier, and the office now looked like a cross between Heathrow Terminal 5 and the Starship Enterprise. My boss laughed when I told him about Ozy, its fancy investors and Watson. ‘What the hell is a digital daily magazine?’ he said. ‘That makes no sense.’ It didn’t make much sense, but no one else was dropping jobs in my lap. Anyway, a year or so later the old boss was my new boss; he’d agreed to move to California as Ozy’s managing editor.
That was the thing about Ozy. It (or maybe Watson) had an uncanny ability to recruit legitimate journalists, some at the start of their careers; others midway and successful. In its first year, Ozy scored a massive investment round led by the German media giant Axel Springer. Matthias Döpfner, the Springer CEO, joined the Ozy board. When he visited the newsroom he praised a recent story as the best profile of Angela Merkel he’d ever read. That was weird, I thought. The writer hadn’t talked to anyone so there was nothing new in it.
Until the Springer investment Ozy’s cofounders hadn’t seemed to care about journalism, or to understand it. They had no idea just how labour intensive it is to source, report, write and edit. Breaking news was out of the question, incompatible with the ‘new and next’ ethos. Investigations were too expensive; hot takes and memes too cheap. Writers were squeezed to produce three or four features a week, a workload Watson claimed was insignificant; he refused to concede, to me at least, that there was any trade-off between quality and quantity. Weekend work was expected and vacations forbidden in the first year, except for a week at Christmas when no new stories were published. I worked gruelling hours and had no life outside the office. But I probably had it better than most. I remember one of my colleagues, a veteran journalist, asking me if I’d read Crime and Punishment, and if so, whether I remembered the old horse Raskolnikov dreams about. The horse is charged with an impossible load. It tries to pull, but can’t. The owner whips it. A crowd gathers to watch the horse keep trying and failing, jeering as the sadistic owner flays it to death. ‘Is that the one?’ I asked. ‘That’s the one,’ he said.
Given the constraints and the pressure we were under, the standard was pretty good, I think, although I’d rather not delve into the archives to check. There were some good gets: Bill Clinton criticising the rollout of Obamacare; an interview with Simone Biles before she became a household name. The veteran reporter interviewed Howard Schultz at Starbucks headquarters. Ozy’s video stories were terrific but there were never enough of them to convince Watson that the video team wasn’t malingering. At its best, Ozy was clever, original. I managed a handful of stories I remember with pleasure. I wrote about nerdy lefty stuff – measures of inequality, gig labour, supply chains, activist techniques, tax avoidance – until Watson said I was turning Ozy into the Utne Reader. I wrote sketches about encounters with people like Raoul Peck, Rem Koolhaas and Steve King, the racist Iowa congressman. The work was good but it didn’t add up to much. Would it have felt any more meaningful if people had read it? It’s impossible to know.
About a year in I spent a day applying for a job at a publication that people did read. The following day, I had to travel to Washington for a professional matter unrelated to Ozy – I’d agreed to vet new directors for the non-profit institute that had given me a fellowship in Haiti. After midnight on Friday the phone rang. It was the bright, ambitious 22-year-old who had become Watson’s editorial consigliere. She scolded me for missing my article quota for the week and said everyone was mad at me, meaning Watson. As I was fifteen years older than her and sceptical about the whole enterprise, I couldn’t take her seriously. She was the Silicon Valley version of a child soldier. I can’t remember how the call ended but within a few months we were good friends. I didn’t get the job. She left to get an MFA and recently published her first novel.
After Springer invested, Watson finagled me a suite in their posh company house in Palo Alto, rent-free. It was the nicest house I’d ever lived in. Ozy was hiring more reporters, and I shifted to editing, answering to the managing editor, my new-old boss. Working with him felt familiar and Ozy began to feel more like a real publication. I felt myself becoming a company woman – coaching new reporters and raising our editorial standards seemed more meaningful than churning out articles. But as the months passed I began to feel sorry for my boss, who was stuck on the concept of a daily digital magazine. He spent long hours in Watson’s office; they often argued and he radiated misery when he came out. When our stories didn’t find an audience, Watson’s usual response was that we needed more of them. Not more staffers, not better marketing or distribution; just more stories, and smarter ones, and probably sensational headlines, too. Late in 2015, Ozy laid off a chunk of editorial staff, including a star reporter: the charge was underproduction. Soon after that, the old-new boss left as well. I became one of three deputy editors, responsible for managing the team, upholding a quota I thought was bonkers and reporting to Watson.
It helped that there were three of us. Three mere mortals could almost keep up. We spoke to one another daily at 9.30 a.m., and I never wanted to get off the phone. Watson didn’t yell at us. We were all old enough to know that Ozy needed us more than we needed it, but not so old that it would be hard to find another job. We sometimes worried that Rao, who was fifteen years younger than Watson and very much the junior partner, was deployed to do the jobs no one else would take. I didn’t enforce the quota and I tried to teach younger reporters with the generosity my recently departed boss had once shown me. But there was never enough time. Watson liked to pull his deputies into meetings to brainstorm and strategise; at my desk the top edits piled up. Maybe it’s impossible to be a good boss in a bad workplace – or maybe that’s just an excuse for lapses I don’t want to remember.
Something had to change. I didn’t expect Donald Trump to be the catalyst. Watson made it clear to me that, despite the new president’s flaws and his own disappointment at the result, Ozy would continue on its nonpartisan course. We would balance left-leaning reporting with opinion pieces from B-list Republicans like Grover Norquist and Karl Rove. During my years at Ozy, I’d made a kind of peace with not being read, but this was beyond me. So much for the change generation, I thought. Before the inauguration I handed in my notice.
Smith’s story about the attempted fraud dealt a severe blow, but Ozy wouldn’t have died so swiftly if it hadn’t been for the torrent of follow-up stories, many of which relied on information from people who had worked there. For us, the week Ozy closed felt like a virtual reunion. We gathered round the bed of the dying patriarch. Many of my former colleagues assumed that Watson was in on Pipergate, if not the impersonator himself, because they couldn’t imagine him not controlling every aspect of a potential multimillion dollar deal. (Watson maintains he didn’t know about the impersonation in advance, and Rao hasn’t said anything in public.) We lamented the blight on our CVs, and the years of work and good faith we’d given the company. Tentatively, we asked one another if we were talking to reporters, and if so which ones. We dug around for our employment contracts and parsed them: would we be sued if we talked? Could this or that off-the-record story be traced to an individual? We criticised the emerging stories for neglecting certain angles, or overlooking the actual journalism. Some of us said we couldn’t face talking about it to anyone, let alone a reporter. Most of all, I think, we asked ourselves why we’d stayed so long.
Many did talk, especially those who had worked at Ozy in the last few years, when Watson and Rao shifted their focus from reported features to television, events and the Carlos Watson Show. Ex-employees reported being hired to work on a programme for cable television when in fact it was destined for YouTube. They confirmed that internal analytics didn’t always square with the data given to outsiders. Competitors groused that Ozy, with its anodyne politics, had been the main beneficiary of a campaign to advertise in Black-owned media. Several stories reported that Ozy had falsely attributed quotations from its own promotional materials to other publications. For example, an ad for Watson’s show, which appeared on the side of a New York City bus, quoted the Los Angeles Times: ‘Anderson Cooper Meets Oprah.’ The quotation came from Ozy’s paid promotion on the Times website.
Staffers, most of them anonymous, reported the obliteration of the division between work and life; having pay docked for missing meetings; being shouted at; and, in one instance, having a copy of Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing about Hard Things thrown at them by Watson. (He missed.) Robinson, who is Black, published a piece on his Substack alleging a pattern of twisted, racially inflected control and psychological abuse that ended with his firing in June. For a CNN story, Ozy’s former creative director, Eva Rodriguez, recounted her eighteen-hour days creating branding for the Carlos Watson Show:
I felt so helpless because I desperately needed to sleep and take time off, but Carlos had expressed how critical my role is to the show. And if I didn’t do this, the show cannot go on. I really didn’t want to let him down. I never want to let him down. If you meet him you know he’s a very charismatic leader and he’s not someone you want to let down.
She went to hospital with blurred vision, shortness of breath and stomach pains; the doctors diagnosed a panic attack. She later learned that Rao had called the hospital to confirm she was ill and then, posing as the company’s HR director, demanded to see her medical records. Rodriguez enrolled in a six-week outpatient programme for severe depression and returned to work, only to quit in February after she fell ill with Covid and was told she couldn’t take time off.
Three days after Ozy announced its closure, Watson appeared on the Today Show to announce its resurrection. He had had, he said, ‘some very bad advice from crisis communication folks’ and regretted not speaking out sooner. ‘This is our Lazarus moment,’ he said. ‘This is our Tylenol moment’ – a reference to the murder of seven people by cyanide-laced Tylenol in Chicago in 1982. If I were a crisis communications professional, I’d have advised Watson not to mention cyanide (which was also what the cult leader Jim Jones put in his followers’ Kool-Aid). Despite the Tylenol reference, which he repeated in subsequent TV appearances, Watson spoke beautifully, almost convincingly. Television comes close to capturing his charisma. He wrote to the Ozy staffers who thought they were out of a job, and invited them to come back. But for most of them, the Lazarus moment was long gone; we were at Judgment Day.