Bad News: When Journalism and Business Collide

/// Bad News: When Journalism and Business Collide

September 4, 2013  |  Blog

Journalism and business have never been on the best of terms. Long before a listicle of cute cat photos passed for investigative longform, Norman Mailer described a journalist as someone who is “not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations.” And until recently, journalists didn’t have to be very good at making money either, reasonably expecting to work at the same newspaper for a good number of years before moving to another or retiring.

But that expectation of stability is gone. In its turbulent wake comes the ethos of the West Coast start-up culture, as well as the steady migration of journalism to the Web, which has many a scribe carving out her own online brand. Hence the advent of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, a hybrid concept that would have been anathema only two decades ago.

“We were told to stay away from business,” laments Tow-Knight director Jeff Jarvis, an old ink-stained hand who founded Entertainment Weekly in 1990 and then departed it four months later, joking that journalists used to “get hives at the notion of the word ‘profit.’” These days business school might be more useful than a journalism degree, at least for those who know that ink-stained fingers are no longer part of the profession. And Rafat Ali, who founded and sold paidContent before starting his latest venture travel industry site Skift, has written that “[s]tarting up a news site has become the easiest thing in the world over the last decade, but building a long-lasting media company from scratch is among the hardest tasks in startupland.”

Online journalism emerged, in many ways, in the wake of the dot-com crash of 2001. Newspaper circulation had been in decline for years and would never again reach the peak year of 1984, when some 1,600 daily papers were responsible for a total circulation of 63 million. And by the early aughts, the trend was all too obvious to some. The operations launched then, chastened by the fate of bloated start-ups like Pets.com, were lean and more reliant on strong personal vision than mythic venture capital cash. In this group are Nick Denton’s Gawker, launched in 2003; the Daily Kos, started by Markos Moulitsas in 2002; Power Line, a conservative group blog started in 2002 and named, two years later, Time’s blog of the year; Harvey Levin’s TMZ, which appeared in 2005. Today, these sites are all in various states of financial health and influence. Yet each survives and, to some extent, does so because it retains the vision of its founder.

Such undeniable success stories have given rise to a mythology that the only thing standing between a journalist and great fortune are his laptop and a server bill. But there are plenty of tales of editorial types who seemed to take only the right steps as they traversed the treacherous landscape of digital media and fared far differently.

Take Reza Aslan and Amanda Fortini. Aslan, an alumnus of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who has pursed religious scholarship while contributing frequently to publications like The Daily Beast, Slate, The New York Times and the Boston Globe, and Fortini, a writer and editor whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Slate, Salon, New York and Elle, seemed to scrupulously follow Jarvis’s advice, yet the fate of their relationship (on both professional and personal grounds) illustrates the potential pitfalls of entrepreneurial journalism.

Aslan became a star this year after a memorable Fox News interview thrusted him into the spotlight and his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, into the first spot on Amazon’s bestseller list and, since then, into the highest reaches of The Times’s list, as well. Yet while Aslan courts fame, he is involved in litigation with a woman who was once his fiancée and claims to be responsible for his rise to prominence — and thus entitled to a fifth of the profits from the company Aslan Media Inc. The two had began dating in 2004. The following year, Aslan Media, Inc. was founded — either by Aslan alone or jointly by Aslan and Fortini, depending on which side you ask – as “a forum where free thinkers can initiate their own conversations about the Greater Middle East.” Aslan Media serves as Aslan’s mouthpiece, while his “transmedia incubator” BoomGen Studios (mainly) produces films related to the Middle East.

By the fall of 2008, their relationship had crumbled, their engagement called off. Aslan has since married and had two children with entrepreneur Jessica Jackley, while Fortini now lives in Montana with Up in the Air novelist Walter Kirn. Their current legal dispute formally began last year with an action by Aslan in Los Angeles Superior Court suing Fortini over ownership of the Hollywood Hills home they once owned together.

Many a couple that has undergone a divorce will recognize the messy, if mundane, squabble over real estate after two lives that were bound together suddenly are not. But the countersuit by Fortini against Aslan has introduced more novel issues to their dispute. Fortini claims she owns a 20 percent share in Aslan’s personal business, alleging she deserves her share of the proceeds from countless hours of writing and editing she contributed to the venture.

In his 2005 book No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, Aslan — then a doctoral student in religious history at the University of California at Santa Barbara — thanks “Amanda Fortini, for fixing me.” Her own take is somewhat more specific. Fortini describes her role in the company as follows in the court records:

Zealot has far exceeded Aslan’s other writings in popularity, thanks in part (though not entirely) to the Fox News interview. And as Aslan has become a media sensation over the last month, surely Fortini wonders how much of his glory belongs to her. Her attorney, Jonathan Levitan, told The Atlantic Wire that Aslan “cannot simply discard someone who contributed so much, in all respects, to where he is today.” He says that Aslan needs to “[confront] and [live] up to his legal and moral obligations.” For his part, Reza Aslan says through his lawyer, Rick Navarette, “Reza feels that it is unfortunate that these types of situations occur between people who were in a meaningful relationship together.”(Neither Aslan nor Fortini wanted to comment directly for this article.)

As Jarvis pointed out, media spats have been around ever since Johannes Gutenberg feuded with his funder Johann Fust (the episode is described in Jarvis’s ebook Gutenberg the Geek). But the feud between Aslan and Fortini can – and should – serve as a cautionary tale for journalists in the digital age.

In the last decade, many other fledgling media companies have found themselves in similar turmoil. They are often run by people navigating a treacherous, oft-combustible mixture of business, the media and personal relationships. For example, Andrew Baron started the video blog Rocketboom in 2004, publishing a webcast with a growing audience that would soon hit the impressive daily figure of 300,000 visitors. His first, seemingly auspicious hire had been Amanda Congdon, a photogenic journalist trained at Northwestern (pictured at left) who had at least partly been responsible for the site’s success – New York Times tech reporter David Pogue would come to call her “a fantasy figure for thousands of fans.”

However, two years later, Congdon and Baron quarreled publicly, and she left the company via a video announcement – taking her 49 percent of Rocketboom shares with her. A nasty fight ensued, with Pogue noting that Rocketboom, having once served as “shining proof that Internet opens the power of the broadcast press up to anyone” had now “fallen apart.” The site has since reemerged, with Baron now retaining 100 percent ownership. “It’s been quite a ride, but it’s not over yet,” he told The Atlantic Wire. (Congdon did not respond to a request for comment.)

A similar (though not identical) dispute appears to have doomed Mischief & Mayhem, an editing and publishing collective started by the novelists Dale Peck, Lisa Dierbeck, Joshua Furst and D.W. Gibson, as well as blogger and one-time Peck roommate Choire Sicha. When the collective launched in 2010, Gibson told The New York Observer that “it…sort of feels like a land of opportunity.”

Three years later, having published only two titles — Dierbeck’s The Autobiography of Jenny X and Peck’s The Garden of Lost and Found — Gibson and Furst have departed in what Peck acknowledges was an “acrimonious” split. Though the company is currently on hiatus, Furst maintained in an email to The Atlantic Wire that he and Gibson remain silent partners. Peck disputes that assertion. “Things can get contentious,” Peck said of starting a company with friends – or lovers.

According to court records filed in 2012 and 2013, Fortini says that her former fiancée is “simply not credible.” Fortini accuses him of “unjust enrichment,” of using Aslan Media funds to pay his own bills and salary. The company’s current value — or even its current business activities — are unclear from court records; Aslan’s representatives declined to disclose a figure, as did Fortini’s. The website AslanMedia.com is actively published by a team of contributors. And Fortini’s court filings suggest significant cash flow at the company, with allegations that Aslan withdrew funds of $30,000 and $40,000 for various purposes, including the payment of taxes. The records also claim that Aslan routinely withdrew smaller amounts, from $3,000 to several hundred dollars, from Aslan Media’s coffers.

Figuring out what Aslan Media is worth is, essentially, the challenge of this new entrepreneurial model of journalism. In encouraging aspiring writers or media professionals to brand themselves as aggressively as possible, it asks them to not simply be good journalists and self-promoters, but also lawyers and accountants. And those without the business skills or legal expertise to do so may find their enterprises beset by unanticipated challenges. That was the case with Brianne Garcia, a fashion blogger who started a site called Parceld in 2011 while working with a foreign developer without her lawyer’s consent.

“I didn’t tell my lawyer about this agreement,” she told The Atlantic Wire, “I just wanted to start building.” She and the developer, whom she calls “Tim,” simply signed an agreement they found online. But the developer was a reluctant partner — and as Garcia (pictured at right) readied to show her new fashion site to a potential investor, she discovered that he had done little of the work, creating a site that was, in her words, “shitty, manual and buggy.” In the summer of 2012, their disagreement led the developer to leave the site — taking his code with him, thus spelling the end of Garcia’s venture.

Her message for other journalists is unambiguous: “Aspiring entrepreneurial journalists should trust anyone touching the product as much as or more than his/her own mother. I didn’t listen to my gut. The best journalists do. That gut sense doesn’t change when the product is a business instead of an assignment.”

As for Aslan and Fortini, they head to court this fall, arguing over who owns the Hollywood Hills house, whether Fortini helped found Aslan Media and whether she was instrumental in its success. Should the court rule in her favor on either of the last two assertions, she will be in good standing to receive 20 percent of the company’s profits.

Gloucester says in King Lear, “love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide.” That is the case with all of the above companies, and while their fates are not identical, they all sound a similar warning for media entrepreneurs looking to make money and a name on the Internet. Talent is not enough, nor inspiration. Not even a promising lead. A lawyer is what today’s neophyte journalists need most of all.

Link: Bad News: When Journalism and Business Collide

The Atlantic Wire - Alexander Nazaryan

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