Embattled digital firm Ozy Media says it is shutting down, just days after a New York Times column exposed a range of dubious and even potentially criminal behavior by its executives.
Since the column by Ben Smith was published online last Sunday, a drip-drip series of events has ensued, with board chairman Marc Lasry and marquee hire Katty Kay both stepping down. Current and former employees came out of the woodwork to paint the company as a “Potemkin village,” in the memorable phrase of former staffer Eugene Robinson.
“At Ozy, we have been blessed with a remarkable team of dedicated staff,” the company’s board of directors said in a statement to the Times and other outlets. “Many of them are world-class journalists and experienced professionals to whom we owe tremendous gratitude and who are wonderful colleagues. It is therefore with the heaviest of hearts that we must announce today that we are closing Ozy’s doors.”
Carlos Watson, a charismatic former banker who had been an anchor on MSNBC, founded Ozy in 2013, envisioning a news and video hub with wide-ranging coverage plans. It raised nearly $90 million in venture funding and was deep into discussions with Goldman Sachs about a $40 million investment. Attracting editorial talent was not a challenge given the ongoing decline of traditional print and the increasing investment in digital properties. Those talks were derailed when it was discovered that the company’s co-founder and chief operating officer Samir Rao had impersonated a YouTube executive during a conference call. Watson blamed it on a mental health crisis being experienced by Rao.
Backers of Ozy had a notable pedigree. They included Laurene Powell Jobs and Marc Lasry, a hedge fund billionaire and co-owner of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks. Lasry, who had been appointed chairman of the Ozy board in early September, stepped down from the post earlier this week.
In addition to the conference call fiasco, which is potentially a criminal matter given the fact that investors were being presented with a misleading picture of the company, there were other missteps. As chronicled in the Times and elsewhere, Ozy is believed to have exaggerated its social media following, traffic, YouTube audience and other statistics. It also had a penchant for repurposing publicity in the form of affirmation, once even repurposing a quote from Rao published in a news article on Deadline and positioning it as praise from Deadline. A similar blurb was attributed to the Los Angeles Times, but appears to stem from an advertising supplement Ozy took out in the newspaper.
Smith heaped on another shovelful of dirt in a piece published Thursday by the Times, in which former Entertainment Tonight producer Brad Bessey went on the record to assail Watson. The crux of his critique — which he backed up by showing Smith emails he had sent to Ozy and others warning about the brewing problems — was that Watson had claimed the daily talk show Bessey was producing would air on A&E. The cable network later confirmed that it never had actually agreed to air it, but had shown other Ozy programming in the past. The company at one point had TV and streaming deals with Hulu, OWN and PBS.
While most accounts of Watson have been favorable and note his warmth and charm, another theme to the coverage of the company’s meltdown has involved the culture at the company. Sunday meetings were a regular part of the work week, numerous workers told CNN, Axios and others, and Watson often pushed them back and started them late. The company had not been on a secure footing even before the media maelstrom of this week. Axios reported that the company had laid off 20% of its workforce and also reduced pay in 2020, citing Covid-19.
CNBC, meanwhile, reported that Watson had falsely claimed Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne invested in Ozy Media. The Osbournes filed a trademark lawsuit in 2017 over the name of the company’s annual concert and festival: Ozy Fest. (OzzFest was a summer metal and hard rock music festival.) “This guy is the biggest shyster I have ever seen in my life,” Sharon Osbourne said.