No one does schadenfreude quite like Journalism Twitter. When Carlos Watson’s digital media company OZY was painted in a jaw-dropping New York Times article as a giant scam, the community jumped on the story like a pack of wolves.
“This Ozy business just underlines a basic truth of the modern digital media industry: approximately one third of it is grift, one third is mismanaged, and one third is the new york times,” snarked Los Angeles-based technology writer Brian Merchant.
MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle joked that “at least in Oz, that man behind the curtain was just a feeble fraud & the Wizzard acted alone. OZY is so much worse…”
Culture writer Bari Weiss simply quipped: “This is so delicious.”
In the piece, OZY, which bills itself as a disruptive startup with readers and viewers numbering in the millions, was portrayed as a hype-inflated mirage, reeling in high-profile guests and venture capital but failing to gain traction with an audience. The business had been around long enough that in theory it should have established more of a reputation. Watson, a former CNN anchor, launched the Mountain View, California-based company in 2013.
Even more astonishingly, the story detailed how OZY COO Samir Rao impersonated a YouTube executive during a conference call with Goldman Sachs in February while attempting to secure a $40 million investment. The article also suggests that the company has been paying for inflated traffic numbers.
Now, with all that out in the open, OZY appears to be falling apart at the seams. Rao has taken a leave of absence (the bizarre incident on the call having been attributed to “mental health” issues), a former star BBC journalist Katty Kay has left the company, at least one investor has pulled out, and the FBI is reportedly investigating. Watson responded to the turmoil by calling the Times story “a ridiculous hitjob.”
One journalist has come out speaking favorably of OZY (sort of). Andy Hirschfeld, a freelance writer in New York, has done some stories in the past for OZY (as well as some for us). In a lengthy tweet thread, he called out criticism of the outlet’s work and spoke highly of the journalists there.
“Just because YOU don't know anyone that reads OZY doesn't mean no one does,” he added.
In an interview with The Business of Business, Hirschfeld further detailed his thoughts about the company and the scandal.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Business of Business: So Andy, what makes you think that OZY is legit?
AH: Well, just to be clear, I’m not defending OZY. I’m defending the journalists who work there. Because as any media company operates, there are obviously audience development executives, and then there are writers, reporters, editors, producers, some of which are full-time and some of which are freelancers like me. So I don’t know, framing me as a defender of OZY as a whole is not entirely accurate.
Okay. Well, you talked about how you think that there has been readership and engagement even though there have been questions about the data. What makes you think that there were people reading and engaging with your stories?
I was getting emails. I was getting reader emails. I was getting PR pitches. I saw some conversations about pieces in the comment section. Obviously that’s always a mixed area...not necessarily a gauge of the caliber of readership that you would otherwise want. But I’ve also met people in person that have told me anecdotally that they are readers, some of which I met independently.
So the audience, if the reporting is accurate, which it very well may be, that doesn’t mean that it’s a pretty far job to say this claim of millions of readers is zero. There is readership.
What kind of stories were you doing for them?
That’s a big question. It was a pretty wide variety. I’ve touched on the creator economy, a couple of different stories on news literacy, which is a big issue right now. I have done stories on infrastructure and housing that I pulled in some pretty big interviews for, which is hard to do for a publication that apparently doesn’t have any readership. I interviewed Ben Carson, who was the [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] secretary, for that outlet.
So you know, the questions about the audience, I think one of the big issues here is the way the conversation on Twitter — it just kind of jumps to this blanket generalization from something to nothing. That's why I felt like I should speak up — because the allegations of poor management decisions at an upper level, versus the decisions and the reporting that editors, various levels of producers and writers and reporters, are doing.
I've been in freelancer meetings. And there are hundreds of people in those meetings who were just freelancers, people like me who pitch articles, write those articles, and have relationships with dozens of other publications, as do I. The concern that I have is a lot less about how there's the conversation about the audience, and more about lumping these two groups together.
Ozzy seems to be this kind of exception to the rule for members of the digital media community to stand by writers and say, “Hey, you know, upper management is making some terrible decisions, but [let’s show] solidarity with the journalists.”
As somebody who's done some reporting for them, and reporting that I'm proud of, and that has had impact, I find that personally, I don't know, hurtful, offensive. It’s hurtful to, and it hurts the importance of the stories.
And if the digital media community is saying, “Hey, you know, this story doesn't matter,” it really puts them down. And at the end of the day, that's why we do this to tell stories, to illuminate injustices and be the voice of the voiceless. And if you have an audience of 25 people, versus an audience of 25 million people, as long as the story is getting out there and it's being told, and it's being amplified — that's what's ultimately important, right?
We don’t know for sure what happened here yet, but people soliciting investment based on false information is the kind of thing people go to prison for. When you first learned these allegations in the New York Times, what was your reaction? Did you feel betrayed?
First off, I am not really willing to comment on the specifics. Sure. I always had a level of pleasant surprise when I heard that someone was a reader of OZY. If I was a writer for The New York Times, I wouldn’t have been like, “Oh, I overheard two people in the park talking about how they were New York Times readers. Like, that’s not exactly a notable anecdote. My gut feeling kind of suggests...it’s clear that there’s a little bit of fishiness here.
Are you going to continue to write for them?
I intend to. Obviously, I may want to take a little bit of a step back from this. But when it comes to the caliber of the journalism and the relationships with the editors that I work with, I think that those relationships are fundamentally important and the work that they do individually is pretty strong.