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Sept. 28, 2021, 2:58 p.m.

Ozy says it’s great at discovering big names before the mainstream media. But is it?

Does the site’s “signature ahead-of-the-curve coverage” really uncover “the new, the next, rising stars, new trends, that kind of stuff”? Or does it “discover” stars already discovered?

I want to thank The New York Times’ Ben Smith for writing a story I’ve been hoping someone would tackle (and/or been meaning to write myself) for the better part of a decade. It’s about the media company Ozy, which — depending how you squint — is either a world-beating digital media colossus or a brand that only penetrates the public consciousness when one of its self-inflating press releases gets lightly rewritten for a story.

Ben finds evidence suggesting that, well, it’s not a world-beating digital media colossus. You should go and read his column, because it has some truly gasp-worthy tales in it — impersonating a Google executive? on a phone call with a bank? woooow — and because I want to talk about something else about Ozy, something that isn’t about bogus audience numbers or voice-changing apps.

I’m talking about its core claim about its journalism: that it is unusually good at being “ahead of the curve” and excels at discovering big names before the mainstream. When asked by outsiders to define what Ozy is, executives always seem to come back to some version of:

Do you know famous and influential people X, Y, and Z? Well, Ozy was telling the world about them — and supporting them! — years before you’d heard their name.

It doesn’t take a ton of googling for most of those claims — which get repeated in media story after media story — to fall apart.

Ozy, you see, is a digital media company launched in 2013 by TV journalist Carlos Watson and Goldman Sachs alum Samir Rao. They wrote stories, they made videos, they held events. But over time, public knowledge of Ozy seemed to diverge into two categories:

  • Press releases noting how amazingly successful it is, how it has a quintillion viewers an hour and smart investors keep shoveling more cash at it; and
  • The creeping realization that you’ve never actually come across any Ozy content online, shared by anyone you know, ever.

Now, it’s certainly true that this sort of smell test has its limitations. Just because you, Middle Manager at a Media Company, hadn’t heard of TikTok a couple years ago doesn’t mean your nieces and nephews hadn’t. And if it’s jarring to hear that the highest-circulation magazine in the U.S. is published by AARP, I’m guessing you’re not near retirement yet.

But Ozy was, as Ben puts it, “a Gen X dream of what millennial media ought to be: earnest, policy-focused, inclusive, slickly sans-serif.” That may not be exactly my wheelhouse, but it ain’t all that far off either. As of two years ago, Ozy was claiming it had “50 million monthly unique users and five million subscribers.” Could something that big and successful just never come across my content radar?

<extendedaside>

Let me twist my media decoder ring for a second. “Subscribers” is a term that can mean two things: “people who pay for regular access to your product” or “people whose email address we have.” Ozy’s number isn’t the former. They now claim 25 million “subscribers,” meaning they have a database with that many email addresses.

And “monthly unique users” has a pretty clear definition in digital media — the number of people (as best as can be estimated) who visit your website or use your app at least once a month. Having 50 million uniques would put Ozy in fine company — not quite CNN or New York Times territory, but within shouting distance of Vox Media, Vice, or Craigslist.

But Ozy was using its own definition, one that included anyone who might have seen one of its tweets or followed it on Facebook or, presumably, glanced at it once longingly across a grassy meadow. Using the standard definition, Ozy’s website was getting as little as 230,000 monthly uniques this summer, according to Comscore.

In fact, by one at least publicly available measure, this site here, Nieman Lab, gets significantly more traffic than Ozy does. (At this writing, we are No. 45,972 in “global internet traffic and engagement over the past 90 days,” Ozy No. 81,464.) Now, I happen to like this website very much, but if you told me it might be a business worth $159 million (or deserving of $83 million in VC investment), I would laaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaugh and laugh.

</extendedaside>

Ozy knows that people within the industry doubt its claims around audience and reach. One of their major responses has been to push itself as a cutting-edge news operation that sees trends before they break into normiedom. Indeed, Ozy’s about page features a “promise” to “never tell a story that another national or international publication has already covered,” the better to “serve the Change Generation”:

Here’s a prime example of what I mean: an appearance by founder Carlos Watson (introduced as a “media mogul”!) earlier this year on Stephen Colbert’s show. Note the video title: “OZY Gave Us Sneak Peeks At AOC, Trevor Noah, Amanda Gorman, And Issa Rae Before They Blew Up.”

Watson brags about Ozy offering “a sneak peek of the future.” Ozy aims to “really report on things that are up and coming, the new, the next, rising stars, new trends, that kind of stuff.”

Colbert: “You identified who you thought were worth keeping an eye on, and were encouraging. Who are some of the people that you, very early on, said, ‘Oh, that person’s a future star'”?

In response, Watson cites poet Amanda Gorman, actor/director Issa Rae, and singer Dua Lipa as early Ozy discoveries, along with two more detailed claims. One: “a bartender in Union Square in New York who ended up becoming AOC” — Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And two: “a young comic from South Africa, Trevor Noah, who — our headline, about a year ahead of time, said, ‘Could He Be the Next Daily Show Host?’

Stephen seems impressed!

Once you start reading Ozy marketing or press coverage, you start seeing these claims everywhere. Here’s Watson talking to Variety last year:

Ozy Media’s mission is simply put: “Helping people be a little smarter a little sooner and doing it in a really flavorful way,” Watson says. He notes that Ozy Media’s digital magazine profiled Trevor Noah before he was host of “The Daily Show” and was way ahead of the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez curve in 2018.

“Way ahead.”

When talking up Ozy’s commitment to diversity, Watson said it helps:

demonstrate an open-mindedness that allowed us to find and profile AOC when she was a bartender in the Bronx and Trevor Noah before the Daily Show.

Speaking of young New York stars, here’s the company promoting itself on LinkedIn:

OZY built its reputation on profiling the New and the Next — we featured Trevor Noah before he was named host of the Daily Show, brought you Alexandria Ocasio Cortez before she became a Congressional nominee and showcased Aaron Judge before he was a Yankee all-star. From fashion to Wall Street to K-Street, from medicine to movies, OZY has profiled more than 1,000 breakout figures and trends before top publications like The New York Times and The Economist caught up. If your preferred pace is several steps ahead, OZY is where you belong.

Sometimes a “relatively unknown judge” pops up too. Here’s Watson speaking to Bloomberg in July:

And I think I’ve always believed and wanted to be a part of supporting those people long before they were obvious choices to others. And whether it was because you recognize a certain talent, whether you recognize a certain drive, whether you just recognize a decency, whether — you and I both know that you can’t always articulate, exactly, why you think that someone, there’s a little bit of magic…

And so you know, at Ozy, whether it’s been a young Trevor Noah before he was on The Daily Show, or a bartender before she was AOC, or an awkward black girl before she was “Insecure” Issa Rae, or, you know, a relatively unknown judge before he was Brett Kavanaugh. We have loved talking to people about folks early on, good, bad, and otherwise, because we think there’s real value. We think there is a sense of what else is possible in the world, when you meet these up-and-comers.

Earlier this year, Axios wrote that most of Ozy’s content is:

based on original reporting that OZY does on people and trends before they get big. Examples include early profiles of people ranging from Brett Kavanaugh to Trevor Noah — years before either became household names.

“Years before either became household names”! Let’s look at some of those claims.

Trevor Noah

This is Watson’s most specific claim in the Colbert clip: “a young comic from South Africa, Trevor Noah, who — our headline, about a year ahead of time, said, ‘Could He Be the Next Daily Show Host?”

To establish the timeline: Trevor Noah was announced as the new host of The Daily Show — replacing Jon Stewart — on March 30, 2015.

This is the story Ozy is so proud of for its foresight. Did it, in fact, run “about a year ahead” of the announcement? No, friends, it did not. It supposedly ran on March 26, 2015. Which is to say, all of four days before Noah was announced as the new host, when he was already being discussed as a potential successor to Stewart.

Which is also to say, it ran four months after Noah had already joined The Daily Show’s cast of correspondents. And two years after Noah’s first hour-long Showtime comedy special.

Was the headline “Could He Be the Next Daily Show Host?” No — it’s “Ozy First: The New Jon Stewart.” Still, that’s pretty predictive for a piece written four days before the announcement, right?

No, things get weirder. That wasn’t the original headline. On March 26, it was published under the headline “What an African Finds Funny About America.”

A few days later, at 8:00 a.m. on March 30, the embargo lifted and Trevor Noah was officially announced as “the new Jon Stewart.” It’s only after that, sometime in the late morning or afternoon, that Ozy republished the story under a new headline, “Ozy First: The New Jon Stewart.” The first tweets to the story’s new URL don’t appear until 12:46 p.m.

That would explain what’s so strange about the story itself. It doesn’t even mention The Daily Show until the final paragraph — and even then it’s just to note that he’s a correspondent there, not to say that he might be a contender to be the new host. It doesn’t even mention that the hosting job is open!

It’s a giant stretch to call it a “profile.” It’s more of an appreciative and bloggy summary of his Wikipedia page. It’s all of 448 words. It includes zero original quotes, zero evidence of an interview. It’s basically just: “Hey, this guy’s a good comedian, you should watch his stuff!”

On its own, there’s nothing wrong with changing a story’s headline to respond to events. But this means the sequence of events is something like this:

  • March 26, 2015: Ozy publishes a 448-word, zero-interview story whose thesis can be summed up as “Trevor Noah: That guy who appears on The Daily Show is a good comedian!”
  • March 30, 2015: Trevor Noah is picked to take over The Daily Show from Jon Stewart. Ozy changes the headline on its story to call him “The New Jon Stewart,” even though the story itself doesn’t mention Stewart, the Daily Show job being open, or that Noah has been hired for it earlier in the day.
  • 2021: Ozy’s CEO goes on national television to describe this set of events as Ozy having been on the cutting edge of culture and, “about a year ahead of time,” asking “Could He Be the Next Daily Show Host?”

That does not strike me as an accurate summary of the situation. You?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

AOC won the Democratic primary for her congressional seat, shocking longtime Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley, on June 26, 2018. A month earlier, on May 22, Ozy had run a 970-word piece on her, headlined “This Berniecrat Aims to Unseat a Queens Power Broker.”

Good for them! But here she is in Mother Jones seven months before Ozy’s piece. And here she is in The Wall Street Journal, three months before Ozy. (“Ms. Ocasio-Cortez drew a comparison to the Tea Party Republicans who ousted established conservatives in the wake of Mr. Obama’s 2008 presidential victory.”)

Here’s a long Ocasio-Cortez profile in The Intercept that came out the same day as Ozy’s. (Though it appears to have been published earlier in the day, from what I can tell; Ozy didn’t tweet out its piece until the following morning.)

And — perhaps most damning, since it’s a very Ozy-like site — here’s Mic with a piece that hits all the same notes as Ozy’s, except it was published three months earlier.

These are all pieces that ran before Ozy’s, several of which are longer and more informative. (I’m not even mentioning the pieces on her campaign in local media. Or, you know, the documentary crew that was following AOC around at the time.) The Ozy story is fine, but c’mon, you didn’t break the AOC story to America! But they’re so certain they did that there’s a note appended to the top of the piece:

Update: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stunningly beat 10-term incumbent Joseph Crowley to win the congressional primary in New York’s 14th district in late June. She is now being dubbed “the future of the Democratic Party.” OZY told you about her first.

Amanda Gorman

Amanda Gorman shot to fame in January 2021, when she recited a poem at Joe Biden’s inauguration. But Ozy had written about her back on May 14, 2017 and even given her an award on March 30, 2017.1

Great! But it’s not like they picked her out of obscurity. After all, the previous year, she’d been named a finalist to be the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate, a title she won in April. She’d published her first book of poetry two years earlier. She already had things like “performed at the Kennedy Center” and “helped introduce Hillary Clinton at the 2017 Global Leadership Awards” on her resume.

Eight months before Ozy wrote about her, she’d been introduced to Elle’s readers as “heralded as one of the next great poets in America…She has served as a United Nations Youth Delegate and traveled all over the world to speak up for girls’ education and empowerment.”

Five months before that, Teen Vogue had interviewed her about diversity in poetry, and she was judging the magazine’s poetry contest not long after.

The Wall Street Journal, of all places, published a poem by Gorman in June 2016, almost a full year before Ozy mentioned her. The Longview (Tex.) News-Journal even wrote about her in April 2016! (“Her emotion touched me at the center. I wish I could write with such passion…We need more people like her.”)

She was on the Today Show in 2015.

So yeah, good on you for writing about a future star, but you were far from the first.

Issa Rae

Here’s Ozy’s first story about Issa Rae. It first appeared on January 17, 2014. It’s about her YouTube series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, and here’s the fifth paragraph:

If you haven’t seen it yet, you may be one of the last: The show has racked up over 20 million views and damned near 150,000 subscribers on YouTube. Rae made it onto the Forbes “30 Under 30” list and won a 2012 Shorty Award for Best Web Show. Add to this an ABC TV series she’s working on with Shonda Rhimes, a 30-minute comedy show she’s doing for HBO and a book of friggin’ essays scheduled to come out in 2014, and you have the makings of a very good 2014 for at least one super-talented and awkwardly inclined black girl.

If you’re writing about someone who is a YouTube star, made it to a Forbes 30 under 30 list, won a “Best Web Show” award two years earlier, and already has deals in place with ABC and HBO, may I suggest that you are not, in fact, providing a “sneak peek” into our cultural future so much as a brief look at the present? The New York Times had run a profile of Rae and her show a year and a half earlier. Ditto The Washington Post, Time, et cetera, et cetera.

By the way, that fifth paragraph was also the last one in the story, because the whole piece was only 335 words, with zero original quotes.

Brett Kavanaugh

Was Kavanaugh really “a relatively unknown judge”? I guess that depends on how you define “relatively unknown” — most people would probably struggle to name three judges not named Judy. But Kavanaugh was a sitting federal judge on the second most powerful court in the country.

Ozy ran a piece on Kavanaugh June 25, 2018 — nine days before Donald Trump nominated him to the Supreme Court. (Not “years before” he became a “household name.”) It’s a fine piece, 1,030 words — clearly pegged to the widely expected retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy. The author talked to two lawyers about Kavanaugh.

But there’s nothing in it that was particularly new. Both the Post and the Times immediately had Kavanaugh on the nominee shortlist as soon as Kennedy announced. (Kavanaugh’s was one of three profiles of potential nominees Ozy ran.) And of course Kavanaugh had by then been written about hundreds of times by national media, dating back to the 1990s and his work on the Clinton impeachment.

Dua Lipa

On January 31, 2016, Ozy ran this story, headlined “Dua Lipa, the Next Big Thing in Pop.” It’s another short piece: 438 words, no original quotes.

The now-20-year-old singer has just two singles, but it appears the verdict is in: She’s the next big thing. At first glance, it’s not hard to see why. Lipa looks like a pop star, packing the usual one-two punch of big hair and bigger lips, which likely explains why Next Model Management signed her at 16. She’s got the management team of a pop star, specifically that of Lana Del Rey. More important, she sounds like a pop star. But then again, she doesn’t.

This story actually was on the early side of the Dua Lipa celebritization cycle — some major outlets wouldn’t write about her until 2017 — but again by no means first. She’d been signed to a major label for nearly two years and both music and mainstream outlets had been talking her up for months.

In general, if your angle is “it appears the verdict is in: she’s the next big thing,” you’re probably not the first person to say she’s the next big thing.

Aaron Judge

Ozy profiled the Yankees outfielder on April 21, 2017, three weeks into Judge’s rookie season, in which he was terrific. Nice!

By that time, The New York Times had written about him more than 100 times, and ESPN had already labeled him a physical “freak,” said that at batting practice “it is nearly impossible to look away,” and “it’s easy to imagine the Yankees rookie becoming one of the biggest stars in New York.”

I mean, seriously, in what alternate universe is it possible for a news outlet to “discover” a starting outfielder for the New York Yankees?

It’s possible I’m being a little petty about all this. News outlets brag about things they’ve done well, and sometimes those brags get stretched in the retelling. But these aren’t a few little corporate asides I’m picking at. The idea that Ozy was first (or, at a minimum, very early) in discovering all these stars is a core part of their marketing message. And there’s just not much good evidence for it.

The supply of these faux discoveries is almost endless. This entire story is just a list of them.

Consider us astronomers, of a type. OZY has a knack for spotting people on the way up — the way, way up — and telling you about them before others glom on to their trajectory. We call our subjects Rising Stars. Some will take ages to attract mainstream media attention; others never will. But among the stories and trends we’ve covered before anyone else told you about them, we’re especially proud of some.

Yep, we’re proud we were chillin’ with ballerina Misty Copeland well before the American Ballet Theater named her its first African American principal. Did you know she never thought of herself as a star of anything, let alone ballet?…

Christian McCaffrey was profiled in our pages before he was Heisman Trophy runner-up.

And our reporter was catching waves in Hawaii with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard two months before The New York Times agreed with us: She is, indeed, a rising political star.

By the time Ozy wrote about Misty Copeland in March 2014, she’d been in more than 50 New York Times stories, including an extended profile that ran the month before Ozy’s. Why was Copeland getting a lot of media attention in early 2014? She was promoting her new book from Simon & Schuster, an “instant bestselling” memoir, which was released 10 days before the Ozy piece. If someone is on a book tour, you’re not really covering them “before anyone else.”

Ozy found Stanford running back Christian McCaffery on October 29, 2015. He was hardly a new discovery at that point: He led the nation in all-purpose yards and had been tipped as a Heisman candidate for more than a year.

And its Tulsi Gabbard piece ran in 2015 (or 2016?), when she was already a two-term member of Congress. (Ozy’s social copy for the story: “She’s a veteran with seats on three bumpin’ committees in Congress. Quite the résumé for a 34-year-old from Hawaii.”) And she’d already been a “rising star” in the national media for three years before Ozy found her. (These were all headlines in 2012: “Tulsi Gabbard’s star shines at convention.” “Tulsi Gabbard, one to watch.” “What Does Tulsi Gabbard’s Rising Star Do For Hawaii?” “Meet Tulsi Gabbard, The Unlikely Rising Star Of The Democratic Party.” She had a Vogue photo shoot in 2013!)

Here’s how that collection-of-Ozy-brags story ended:

We’re not going to take credit for these stars’ brightness. But we will take credit for not just catching you up, but for vaulting you ahead.

The problem with all of this is that, if Ozy’s audience numbers are sketchy, what it has to fall back on is its journalism. And, to a rough approximation, no one reads their journalism. So they base their claims to journalistic excellence around the idea that they find these future stars before everybody else. And, from everything I can tell, there’s very little to support that.

Have there been times when Ozy is the first to uncover some future trending topic, some influencer early in their influence? I’m sure there are. It would be pretty sad to be a news organization that never uncovers something new! On the flip side, there will always be times when you’re the second, or the fifth, or the seventeenth to get to a story. It’s no crime!

But it’s awfully hard to say you’ve “built [your] reputation on profiling the New and the Next” when some of the most popular news outlets in the country profiled those same people years earlier. Those claims seem to be as hollow as “50 million monthly unique visitors.”

I keep coming back to one of the very first stories about Ozy, when it launched in September 2013. It hinted at the problems to come.

[Carlos] Watson wore a gray fitted T-shirt and a bright smile to our meeting at Times Square’s Blue Fin restaurant. He buzzed excitedly about sports, startups and the media, breaking only once to accept a phone call from his mother.

Watson is the kind of person who is so charismatic, an interview about Ozy required a follow-up phone call. He is a great schmoozer and I admittedly fell for it during our first meeting. He escaped tough business questions the first time around.

  1. I originally listed the May 14 piece here but not the March 30 one. Doesn’t change the point — she’d been featured in national media for years by either date — but just for the record. ↩︎
POSTED     Sept. 28, 2021, 2:58 p.m.
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