In the space of six days and five New York Times reports from media columnist Ben Smith, Ozy Media has gone from a largely unknown content producer to closing its doors. The eight-year-old media startup was unrecognizable to most. It operated in anonymity despite a roster including some well-known journalists, the high-profile guests who appeared on CEO Carlos Watson’s show, or NYC subway riders who were occasionally inundated with advertisements for its Ozyfest event.
Ozy Media acknowledged that its COO and co-founder pretended to be a YouTube executive on a conference call.
If you don’t follow too many reporters on Twitter, you might not have heard, but last weekend the first New York Times report revealed two shocking things about Ozy Media. One, that co-founder and COO Samir Rao went on a conference call with Goldman Sachs bankers about a potential $40 million investment and impersonated a YouTube executive extolling the virtues of Ozy Media’s video channel. Two, that after the deception was revealed, the leadership of Ozy Media blamed it on a mental health issue and allowed Rao to stay in his executive position.
The next day, Carlos Watson tweeted that it was a “hit-job,” and pointed out reasons to consider Ben Smith far too conflicted to report on the company. Smith still owns a share of Buzzfeed, and Watson said that in late 2019, as Buzzfeed editor in chief, Smith tried to arrange negotiations to acquire Ozy Media.
Over the next few days, more of the stories told by Ozy Media and Watson started to unravel.
That includes pretty much any claim about its reach and traffic (a site claiming to have 25 million newsletter subscribers should be more well-known), and its claims to have reported on public figures like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) before other outlets. While those claims were echoed in reporting like this article on Axios, Nieman Lab reporter Joshua Benton investigated and found that even in the cases Ozy cited, its coverage came months or years after the subjects had been covered thoroughly in mainstream publications.
Watson told reporters on CNBC that after a dispute over the name of its festival, Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne started investing in the site. This week Sharon Osbourne said to CNBC that they have never been shareholders and called Watson “the biggest shyster I have ever seen in my life.”
A former producer for the Carlos Watson show revealed that its big-name guests had been told the show would air on A&E and that it was a part of the YouTube Original package. A spokesman for the network told the New York Times that A&E said no to the show before taping ever began. A magazine-style ad for Ozy Media ran in the New York Times with a large tagline crediting Dateline with a statement referring to Watson as “The best interviewer on TV.” As this tweet points out, the ad doesn’t mention that those words appeared on Dateline as a quote from Ozy COO Samir Rao.
Over the last several days, former BBC journalist Katty Kay publicly resigned, advertisers ran for the hills, and its chairman Marc Lasry — owner of the NBA World Champion Milwaukee Bucks — resigned just three weeks after taking the post. This morning, Watson stepped down from the board of National Public Radio. Then, this afternoon, the news broke that Ozy was shutting down entirely.