Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Are you willing to pay for Prepare to be asked before year’s end
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Oct. 4, 2021, 3:13 p.m.

This is why you always wait for the post-credits scene: Ozy changes its mind and claims it’s still alive

After announcing Ozy’s closing Friday, Carlos Watson now seems to believe there are still advertisers, investors, and partners who just can’t wait to do it all again.

I can see Carlos Watson’s thinking — no, really, I can. It’s a damned shame, he must be thinking, that — after so many years of fake claims, about fake audiences and fake scoops and fake TV deals and fake YouTube executivesOzy was now truly part of the zeitgeist.

People were talking about the site, without Ozy having to pay them to! I mean, look at this traffic spike, which rocketed all the way back to its traffic glory days of [checks notes] mid-July.

And yet Ozy wasn’t in a position to benefit from that sudden buzz, mainly because on Friday, it announced it was committing an act of corporate seppuku and shutting down. After all, it had just gone through a nightmarish week in which the media ecosystem had methodically stripped away its costume as a legitimate media company — all because of just one measly case of likely securities fraud.

It was now clear that Ozy’s audience was mostly imaginary or bought, depending on how you looked at it. That its journalism was less about “the New and the Next” than about columbusing things other publications have been writing about for years. That its executives were unusually comfortable lying in the name of business and demanding sudden Sunday morning meetings at the CEO’s house. (Exactly zero things Ozy did were urgent enough to merit that.) “Ignore your schedule and win the moment,” after all.

Given all that — not to mention all the investors and business partners brainstorming ways to deny having heard of this “Ozy” thing (“Is it Australian?”) — shutting the thing down seemed like the only option to its board. Ozy seemed destined to be remembered as a one-week blip in internet consciousness, a Balloon Boy or Bros Icing Bros for the media world.

And yet! There Carlos Watson was on the morning shows today — in the same chairs where he’d spent so much time pumping hot air into his overinflated brand — saying that Ozy was still a going concern, actually, still a “part of this moment,” still a thing that could get him invited back on television.

We’re gonna open for business. So we’re making news today. This is our Lazarus moment, if you will. This is our Tylenol moment. Last week was traumatic, it was difficult, heartbreaking in many ways. And at the end of the week, we did suspend operations with a plan to wind down. But as we spent time over the weekend, we talked to advertising partners, we talked to some of our readers and our viewers, our listeners are investors. I think Ozy is part of this moment.

The most profound mistake Watson seems willing to cop to is that, when crisis communications people told him to shut up amidst all the stories last week (“incredibly bad advice”), he should’ve kept, I guess, tweeting? Through the rest of his performance here is sufficiently meh to suggest returning more reporter phone calls would’ve only sparked more criticism and mockery.

His plan seems to be to acknowledge there might be some issues around “data” and “marketing,” which are usefully anodyne ways to describe “rampant lying about ourselves.” He even admits, using masterful understatement, that “there’s some things we could do better on leadership and culture.”

Twice, he calls the situation “heartbreaking,” which seems to be his favorite descriptor; all last week, the two top tweets on his account had him “heartbroken” over both (a) violence against “the #violence growing against many of our #AsianAmerican #brotherandsisters” and (b) “this ridiculous hitjob from the NYTimes.”

What about the former Ozy television producer who said Watson had lied to him repeatedly, saying that “The Carlos Watson Show” would be airing on A&E in prime time — only to discover that there’d never been such a deal and A&E had in fact turned the show down?

Originally, we did conceive of this show for A&E…and originally we talked to them about it. They moved too slowly on it. We notified them that we weren’t going to do it there. We were going to move it to YouTube.

You see, A&E turning down this Carlos Watson brand vehicle wasn’t really a rejection — it was just a case of the network “moving too slowly.” And while those fusty old network execs were still turtling through their to-do lists, the speedy Watson told them that the show would be on YouTube instead. (That’s right: Ozy couldn’t afford to wait and see if A&E would give them millions of dollars — so they decided to put it up on YouTube, which paid them zero dollars for the privilege. “Ignore your schedule and win the moment“!)

What about Sharon Osbourne, talk show veteran and wife of the one true Oz(z)y? Back in 2019, Watson went on CNBC (the “media partner of Ozy Fest”!!!) and said this:

Fun fact: our friend Ozzy and Sharon sued us briefly, and then we decided to be friends and now they’re investors in Ozy. Now they’re investors, they’re part of the family.

Last week, Sharon Osbourne said Watson was no master of reality and that she’d never even met him, much less invested or become part of the family. (Would that have made Kelly Osbourne and Samir Rao cousins?)

So it’s true that she hasn’t met me. And it’s true that, as a result of her suing us — so she sued us over the name Ozy Fest, which is our music and ideas festival, she had Ozzfest — the agreement was that we were going to give her shares in the company. And the way I think about it, I think a lot of people think that if you own shares in a company, you’re an investor. Now, she may not have liked that word. And let’s be really clear: I’m not going to raise money by telling sophisticated people that Sharon Osbourne’s an investor. No smart investor is gonna say, “Oh, great. You’ve got Sharon Osbourne.”

(Inappropriate dig at Sharon Osbourne, who has had roughly 100× Watson’s success at building profitable media companies, even though she has neither Goldman Sachs nor McKinsey on her resume.)

Then comes the rhetorical twist that I am choosing, with zero evidence, to take as a personal insult. NBC’s Craig Melvin asks Watson about accusations that Ozy has bought much of its alleged audience. Specifically, he asks: “Have you ever paid for digital traffic?” Which is tough, because in a sense all digital advertising could be called “paying for traffic”; after all, advertising is paying a third party to send some of its readers/viewers your way. Watson exploits that a bit:

Like everyone, 100%. And you know, this is such a good conversation to get into, because guess who else pays? NBC. NBC advertises on Ozy.

Melvin notes that the accusations against Ozy are much more extensive than “you bought some ads.” “I don’t know about that,” Watson replies, and then:

But here, but here’s what Ozy does. We are unwilling to take our smart reporting, our terrific videos, our really good podcasts and let the algorithm decide who gets to see it. Why should we do that? Hang on one second. If we want to make sure that really interesting young audiences see our good work — whether we’re profiling a young Amanda Gorman, a young Trevor Noah, a young Issa Rae, or other folks — I think it’s smart of us. HBO does it, Spotify does it, Uber does it. You definitely say I want this audience and you’ve got to invest in marketing to do it.

My god. Let’s review.

First: Ozy’s popularity among “really interesting young audiences” was (is?) vanishingly small. “The classic demographic for Ozy was a retired female white teacher who used Ozy to stay young and stay woke and loved learning about the world from it,” a former staffer told the Times, which also noted COO Samir Rao “would sometimes joke about bringing in the AARP as an advertiser.”

Responding to the Times, Watson said Ozy’s audience was “smart millennials and Gen Xers with a strong and growing dose of Gen Z.” But this is what the site’s age distribution looks like, according to Quantcast. Compared to the average U.S. website, Ozy’s audience has 42% more readers who are 65 or older, and 29% fewer readers who are 18 to 20.

Compare that to, say, Refinery29, a site that wants to reach women in their 20s and 30s and…actually does.

Second: It’s amazing to me that “the algorithm” is now so universally regarded as evil that Watson would find it appealing to attach Ozy’s flop to Facebook bashing. At the risk of being obvious, the problem with Ozy’s audience claims has nothing to do with the algorithm. It has to do with the astonishing scale at which it has had to pay other people to have its content consumed.

Third: “Whether we’re profiling a young Amanda Gorman, a young Trevor Noah, a young Issa Rae, or other folks.” Oh, come on. I spent waaaay too much time last week searching around your site for these ahead-of-the-curve discoveries to hear the same nonsense repeated again.

To recap: Ozy wrote about a “young Issa Rae” a full year and a half after she’d been the subject of lengthy profiles in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, and just about every other national middlebrow outlet. She’d been on a Forbes 30 Under 30 list. She was on Katie Couric’s daytime show a full year before Ozy found her. And its “profile” of her was all of 335 words, with zero interviews.

Ozy wrote about Trevor Noah not “about a year ahead” of his becoming host of The Daily Show (as Watson has claimed in past media appearances), but four days before. (Which was two years after his first Showtime comedy special.) And its story (448 words, no interviews) doesn’t even mention him as a candidate for Jon Stewart’s job, so after he was announced as the host, they rewrote the headline to make it seem like they were soothsayers.

And Amanda Gorman? By the time Ozy wrote about her, she’d been on the Today Show and performed at the Kennedy Center. She’d “served as a United Nations Youth Delegate and traveled all over the world to speak up for girls’ education and empowerment.” She’d had her poetry published in The Wall Street Journal and been featured in Elle and Teen Vogue.

Receipts for all this here, by the way, if you like reading the footnotes. As I wrote last week: “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.” So core, apparently, that Carlos Watson literally can’t spend seven minutes on national television without repeating his hoary old tales.

Is Ozy really going to come back — whatever “coming back” would mean? I mean, I suppose someone could buy the rights to the name “Fyre Festival,” claim there were just some misunderstandings around sandwich quality, and try again. Watson has proven skilled at separating rich people from their money, and maybe he’ll do it again.

As one media executive told CNN today: “Carlos is doing what Carlos has always done — he’s rolling out new ideas in the media without addressing any of the old questions.”

He also didn’t address some new ones. He was unable to tell Melvin who, exactly, would be funding Ozy 2.0. The Ozy “board” that had announced its shuttering on Friday was down to just two people — Watson and Silicon Valley investor Michael Moe — and they’re apparently now the board that wants to breathe some life into this mannequin. Ozy’s email accounts were shut down over the weekend (“Your message couldn’t be delivered to”). Ozy staffers were apparently surprised by Watson’s attempted proof-of-life, calling the idea “delusional.” One person in accounting is on board, so there’s that.

More to the point: What brand is going to want to make an Ozy ad buy now? What TV network is going to want to air one of its shows? What investor will think: “Ah, this is the perfect time to jump in — buy low and all that”? What non-ironic New Yorker will want to spend a sunny afternoon watching Larry Summers chat with Ja Rule at Ozy Fest 2022? What ambitious journalist will want to add a post-2021 stint at Ozy to their resume?

The curtain’s been pulled back, and now you can’t unsee what’s behind it.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Oct. 4, 2021, 3:13 p.m.
Show tags
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Are you willing to pay for Prepare to be asked before year’s end
The cable news network plans to launch a new subscription product — details TBD — by the end of 2024. Will Mark Thompson repeat his New York Times success, or is CNN too different a brand to get people spending?
Errol Morris on whether you should be afraid of generative AI in documentaries
“Our task is to get back to the real world, to the extent that it is recoverable.”
In the world’s tech capital, Gazetteer SF is staying off platforms to produce good local journalism
“Thank goodness that the mandate will never be to look what’s getting the most Twitter likes.”