In the end, Ozy got the attention it always craved. The digital media site was founded in 2013 with the intention of breaking the mold of conventional media. But few of its stories ever got traction, and the site itself was rarely talked about. That all changed this past Sunday, when the Times’s Ben Smith revealed that its two top executives had attempted to deceive potential investors on a conference call by pretending that one of them was a YouTube executive — an act that prompted an FBI investigation. The story exploded in media circles. Wave after wave of follow-up stories uncovered new layers of deception. Everyone was talking about Ozy but in the worst possible way: as a fraud, a media Potemkin village, as former Ozy editor-at-large Eugene Robinson described it to Smith. On Friday evening, the company announced that it was shutting down.
If the company had merely been an empty shell propped up to lure positive publicity and venture-capital dollars, it likely would have been less alarming than the apparent reality. According to the five former Ozy staffers Intelligencer spoke with, what’s remarkable isn’t how little there was behind the façade but how much. These staffers say that founder and CEO Carlos Watson’s demands, expectations, and plans were often detached from reality, yet were enforced with an intensity that some felt bordered on cruelty. They describe throwing themselves into the challenge, often at the expense of their mental health, even as the company failed over and over to gain popularity with the public.
“It’s an incredible dereliction that speaks to a great tragedy,” says Ozy’s former editor-at-large Eugene Robinson. “It was a really diverse newsroom, there were a lot of really good people, and they were doing really good work. The failures were not journalistic at Ozy. The failures were process-based. Carlos treated people badly, and he bullshitted the investors. And then he got his hand caught in the cookie jar. And that’s why we’re fucking talking about it.”
When Ozy launched in 2013, it seemed a plausible contender among the crop of digital media start-ups —BuzzFeed, Vox (parent of Intelligencer), Politico, and the like — that had sprouted amid the mass die-off of print media. Founder and CEO Carlos Watson, a Stanford and Harvard graduate who had briefly worked on-air at MSNBC, was a charismatic salesman for a website that offered Obama-era corporate-friendly multiracial optimism under the slogan “The New and the Next.”
“My wife called it the ‘Up With People’ digital publishing company,” says one former Ozy editor. (Several of the people contacted for this article asked not to be identified, fearing retribution or professional embarrassment.)
Watson and his business partner, chief operating officer Samir Rao, assembled a staff of 50 in Mountain View, California. “We were shoehorned into this into a small, starter-kit office off El Camino Real,” says the former editor. “To make a call, you had to go out in the hall.” (Ozy did not respond to a request for comment from Intelligencer.)
It wasn’t fancy, but Ozy seemed an oasis in a media industry that for years had been shedding jobs by the thousands. Compared to other digital media outlets, salaries were fairly generous, and Ozy attracted a roster of veteran editors that included, albeit briefly, Jonathan Dahl of the Wall Street Journaland Fay Schlesinger of the Times of London.
“We were a digital news site with big dreams about what we were doing and really good reporters,” says a former manager in Ozy’s marketing department. “And Carlos and Samir are inspiring leaders. They can sell anyone on a dream, and they can galvanize a team.”
Standards were high. Freelancers were given a two-page, single-spaced document detailing Ozy’s ethical standards — first two words: “Don’t lie” — and a four-page list of editorial requirements. A main stated goal was to cover stories that the mainstream media overlooked, so freelancers were told not to pitch any topics that had already been covered by “BBC, NYT, WSJ, HuffPo, Forbes, NPR, Washington Post, Fortune, Buzzfeed.”
The hiring process was exacting and required, at least in some cases, an enormous amount of time and effort from applicants. Kate Crane, a senior editor at Ozy from 2015 until 2017, says she interviewed with eight-to-ten people at Ozy and spent three months editing stories on tryout before she was hired. Freelance writers were directed to submit 25-to-30 story ideas.
Once a new employee was in the door, however, the rules had a way of changing. Crane was told during the application process that she could work remotely, but once she accepted the job, Ozy demanded that she get on a plane the next day and relocate to Mountain View. Another employee was told that she’d been hired to work on an editorial podcast, only to find after she’d completed the project that it was actually advertising.
Inside the company, there was a sense among employees that Ozy’s top leadership didn’t trust them. “You had to be near that phone and laptop in case Carlos and Samir wanted to contact you,” says Crane. “They had put us through this meticulous vetting, and then immediately they treated us with total paranoia.” During one all-hands meeting, one employee complained: “You treat all of us like your girlfriend who cheated on you.”
Employees saw a different side of Carlos Watson once they’d come aboard. He was volatile, switching abruptly from solicitous charm to screaming rage. “The ritual humiliation begins with the lull. He’s like, ‘How’s your family?’ As soon as you’re comfortable, he comes in with a hammer,” says Robinson. “You’re completely fucking shocked.” One time, Robinson miscalculated when a flight would land and was late coming to work. Watson became so enraged that he docked $5,000 from his paycheck, Robinson says.
Says Crane, “One of the HR consultants that worked with Ozy told me that she struggled a lot with Carlos and Samir in ways that she didn’t struggle with other clients in Silicon Valley. I said, ‘What kind of issues are we talking about?’ She looked at me very levelly and said: ‘Humanity.’”
Numerous former employees describe the environment as abusive and cultlike. A big part of that characterization is Ozy made it very hard for its workers to sleep. Editors were expected to turn out eight or nine pieces a week and have their stories polished and filed two weeks in advance. But it wasn’t enough to simply get one’s work done. Ozy wanted its employees to work long hours. Crane says that she would routinely start working at 7:30 a.m. and go until 1 a.m. on weekdays, with only a slightly lighter schedule on weekends and holidays.
“I would get shouted and screamed at if I didn’t work all day Saturday,” says Crane. “They would email people on Christmas Eve just to see if you were checking your email. No one was ever committed enough and driven enough.”
“He kept saying, ‘I need you all in,’” Robinson recalls. “It was weird and culty.”
“Carlos didn’t like that people slept,” Crane says. “There was one meeting where he stood up and he said, ‘I’m sick of hearing about how people need to sleep! This is a start-up! This is not for the weak!’”
The way Watson and Rao defined the editorial mission of the site created an ongoing challenge for the staff. It was hard enough to find topics that no major outlets had covered; to do that at a fast pace, with a freelance budget that might amount to no more than $150 per story, at times felt unworkable, former employees said. The story mix that resulted leaned toward obscure topics in remote places.
“The reason those stories weren’t reported by the big outfits is that they weren’t that significant,” says the former Ozy editor. “You have to be a real social-justice trooper to read article after article about, you know, the fight for women’s rights in some province in Nigeria. It’s great that Carlos wanted to cover stuff like that, but it turns out there’s no audience for it.”
Even as Watson was running around telling advertisers and investors that Ozy had tens of millions of readers, staffers knew the truth. Each story had a counter at the bottom showing how many people had read it. “You work your ass off on a thing, and then it gets like 60 readers, you know?” says the former editor. “There was just no one there. It’s crickets.”
Ozy removed the counters.
For the publication’s editors and writers, it was demoralizing to work so hard and feel that their work was having no impact. It was even more demoralizing to confront the suspicion that a digital publication with no audience had no exit strategy. Watson rallied his troops with the familiar Silicon Valley logic that they needed to work all-out until they were bought out or went public. Yet “there was no way that this website was going to make enough money to interest anyone,” says the former editor. The real bottom line was that Ozy staffers were working grueling hours with no hope of a payoff.
The confluence of these dynamics resulted in high employee turnover: Over the course of one two-year period, 42 people on a staff of 50 quit or were fired, according to a list compiled by Crane.
As the website failed to gain traction, Watson and Rao looked for other ways to generate attention and revenue. In 2017, they launched OZY Fest, an ideas festival in New York City that featured an eclectic range of guests including Malcolm Gladwell, Laverne Cox, Jeb Bush, and Hillary Clinton. Ozy staffers had no experience putting on such an event but did their best to improvise. “The mind-set was, ‘Why can’t we put on a festival with people who’ve never done anything like this before?’” says the former editor. “Under the circumstances, we did a pretty good job.” Press coverage was largely scathing — “It is the arrogance of modern neoliberalism,” declared The Week— but the event gave Watson a chance to publicly hang out with celebrities.
“He liked being a big shot,” Robinson says. “He liked hanging around with famous people. He liked being able to tell me he stayed at Tony Blair’s house. If you’ve got fame, you can usually convert that into money and access.”
Continuing its quest for profitable angles, Ozy branched into podcasts and online video, and the staff grew to 85. The focus was shifting from granular, original stories to promoting the brand of Carlos Watson himself. The company spent millions on outdoor advertising and a supplement to The New York Times Magazine promoting his interview shows, even as it was cutting employee’s salaries by 19 percent last year.
Longtime staffers who’d been drawn to Ozy’s original editorial mission were dismayed to see the focus shift to Watson. “He used to say that The Carlos Watson Show could be to Ozy what House of Cards was to Netflix or what Ted Lasso was to Apple TV. It would open the floodgates to the broader platform,” says the former marketing manager. “That was his excuse for putting the entire marketing budget solely behind his show.”
But as with Ozy’s online readership numbers, Watson played fast and loose with the facts. The ad campaigns presented glowing quotes about Watson that sounded like they’d come from third parties, when in fact they had come from Ozy itself. Sponsors and guests were told that Watson’s eponymous interview show had been picked up by networks when it was in fact only going to air on YouTube and Ozy’s in-house video channel. And on and on.
Ozy’s failure to catch on had a silver lining for Watson: The lack of attention also meant a lack of scrutiny. That free pass came to an end on Sunday with Smith’s New York Times column and its detailing of Ozy’s apparent deceptions, spurring other reporters to dig into what was happening at the company.
In the days following the publication of Smith’s column, Ozy’s situation deteriorated rapidly.
On Monday, A&E announced it had canceled plans to air a show that Watson hosted; on Wednesday, the Emmy Awards said that Watson would longer be hosting its news and documentary category. Marc Lasry, the chairman of Ozy’s board, stepped down on Thursday. On Friday, Watson announced that he would step down from the board of directors of National Public Radio. Hours later came word that the company was folding.
The former Ozy staffers Intelligencer spoke with are left trying to make sense of their experience there. “We were surprised but not shocked” by the unraveling of Watson’s deceptions, says the former marketing manager, explaining that everyone at Ozy understood how deep management’s habitual dishonesty ran. “You’d see small things every day, medium things every week, and relatively big things every month. If every year or two there’s a criminal thing, that sounds fitting.”
This article originally ran on October 1, 2021, in New York magazine.