Showtime for Vocativ
Vocativ, the news organization that promises to mine the “deep web” for stories of global interest that cannot be found using traditional reporting methods, is advancing its television operation. The digital media company is poised to announce a deal to produce an eight-episode television series for the Showtime network, several sources with knowledge of the deal have told Capital.
The deal continues Vocativ’s march to success, the drumbeat of which was begun earlier this year in a smaller way when the company made a deal with MSNBC to provide video segments for “Ronan Farrow Daily” and for MSNBC’s website.
Both in internal communications provided to Capital by sources in the company and in its public relations dealings, Vocativ has heralded that deal as just the beginning for the company, which is built on a fascinating premise: What if you could take a sophisticated technology, originally developed as an intelligence tool—to predict the activities of social elements that could create challenges or problems for corporate or government clients, detect environmental disasters and provide early warnings of major events—and harness it for a journalism outfit, to tell the big stories developing in the world before the lumbering traditional media can get to them—perhaps even before they happen?
But interviews with several current and former staffers at Vocativ and others still closely tied to the organization have presented a twist in that narrative: This software doesn’t make stories.
It has proven difficult, they say, to produce a steady stream of traditional content—articles and videos and blog posts—from that software.
At the same time, those same sources described a milieu in which they and other employees continually misled the company’s leadership about the usefulness of the software in their reporting, writing and video work.
As the company continues to close deals and make headlines, the question many in the media industry have been asking each other in private has been, “what’s really there?”
In an attempt to answer that question, on and off over the last several months, Capital has been speaking to several current and former employees of the company, all but one of whom requested anonymity when contacted for this article, and all for the same reasons: They feared offending or making an enemy of the company’s leadership.
But inside of that group, some also claimed to have been well-served by the company, while others had felt ill-used; some believed the leadership of the company was broken; others that they were simply describing the growing pains of a start-up company with ambitious plans in a difficult environment, and who wished the company well.
All of those we spoke with agreed that it is a company led by true believers; that Vocativ’s genuine goal is to produce groundbreaking journalism, and that its founder Mati Kochavi is committed to the software and to the journalism. In some cases, but not all, that added to the difficulty of speaking about the shortcomings they saw.
This article also includes interviews with several big players in the company, conducted when Vocativ relaunched its site this past fall and before many of these claims about the technology had become available. As Capital’s reporting progressed, much of the follow-up reporting was conducted via email with a company spokesperson.
SHOWTIME FOR VOCATIV
Both the MSNBC deal and now the Showtime deal were sold against what Vocativ views as its “foremost point of differentiation,” to quote a memo circulated to Vocativ staff earlier this summer and obtained by Capital: its proprietary software, called OpenMind, which scans sectors of the worldwide web not crawled by Google or other search engines, analyzing it and producing news leads and stories for the Vocativ editorial staff to turn into stories and videos.
An early script for a “sizzle reel”—an industry term for a snazzy and often overstated trailer made by producers who are presenting to networks—prepared by Vocativ for Showtime, and obtained by Capital, begins: “This is the new frontier—A universe lurking just beneath the surface—Chaotic and dangerous—IT'S CALLED THE DEEP WEB. Governments rise and fall on its energy. Fortunes are won and lost. No one has ever been able to harness it. Until now. We are the next generation of truth seekers. Deciphering the deep web. To find information. Answers. And what’s about to change the world. Vocativ on SHOWTIME.”
When Vocativ launched out of beta in October of 2013, the new media startup was quickly contrasted with other established sites that had millennial appeal—Gawker, Vice, Buzzfeed—for its unique data-mining credentials. Many of the stories on the site seemed to combine the mix of seat-of-the-pants storytelling, interest in far-flung continents at their most lurid and foreign, and youth flashpoints like massive protests and underground scenes, that drive Vice.
But founder and financier Mati Kochavi dismissed the comparison.
“Who? Which companies?” he asked, jokingly, when the comparison was put before him in an October interview with Capital.
“We’re not competing, we’re creating something that’s a new entity,” he said. “We don’t look at Vice every morning and see what they’re doing. They’re great, I wish them all the success, but we’re not competing. Vice cannot tell me what is the real story in a place so it’s not a competition.”
And while sources familiar with the company’s content and business strategies readily admit that Kochavi’s news sensibilities seldom mesh with Vice’s programming, all said that a Vice-like contract with a major television player, modeled closely on the apparent success of Vice’s deal with HBO, was regarded as a primary goal of the company post-launch; with no plans to sell advertising or subscriptions, deals like these are the business model.
The thing that made them competitive, according to Kochavi and his then newly minted C.E.O. Scott Cohen, was OpenMind and the stable of “subject matter experts” that use it to dig through the dark corners of the internet.
The media covering the launch were convinced that this was something qualitatively new and, if not an almost sure bet, then certainly a fascinating proposition to write about. This reporter, in fact, given a tour of the technology and extensive interviews with the company’s principals last fall, found the technology resoundingly impressive, though Capital did not ultimately publish a feature story about it, thinking too much was still unclear about how it would work.
Fast Company's Neil Ungerleider broke the news of the site's official launch with the headline “HOW VOCATIV MINES THE "DEEP WEB" FOR STORYTELLING.”
“Agnostic, relatively unbiased search parameters to monitor the web for hidden news is the big idea behind Vocativ, which launches today,” Ungerleider wrote. “One of its big goals is to use the deep web as a primary source.”
Once news broke, coverage of the launch continued with more of the same talking points about founder and “security tech magnate” Mati Kochavi's technology-driven news organization. Headlines included “Vocativ Is Like VICE, With a Lot More Data,” “Vocativ Mines The 'Deep Web'” and “Vocativ Gets Provocative With News Innovation.”
But what exactly is the “deep web”?
“The ‘deep web’ consists of all the things available on the Internet that standard search engines overlook--things like spreadsheets and Word documents, subscription-only journals and pages with dynamic content,” Ungerleider continued. “Vocativ's principals claim they can use the deep web, combined with monitoring of social media in a host of foreign languages, to find news stories other agencies can't. Their search technology is similar to that used by law enforcement to detect terrorist chatter, hedge funds to find hidden financial information, and by intelligence agencies to gauge sentiment and collect intelligence.”
It is a fair and concise description of the technology except in one respect. It is not “similar to that used by law enforcement to detect terrorist chatter, hedge funds to find hidden financial information, and by intelligence agencies to gauge sentiment and collect intelligence” because it is the same technology.
Navigating the new media landscape is not Kochavi's first profession. The Israeli-born entrepreneur-turned-new-media founder founded A.G.T. International, also known as Asia Global Technologies, in 2007. A.G.T. is a multinational umbrella security firm with several portfolio companies under its wing such as 3iMind—which, among other services, monitors “publicly shared content” to pinpoint criminal activities or possible threats to both corporate and government clients.
In March 2008, for instance, in partnership with several companies, A.G.T. International landed homeland security contracts with the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces as well as the Critical National Infrastructural Authority (CNIA), the latter of which continues to provide security solutions for the Abu Dhabi government's offshore and onshore assets.
But that business is winding down. In October of 2013, Rolling Stone published an article that cited 3iMind's contracts with police forces and other governmental agencies that enable them to spy on potential protestors through social media platforms. Soon after, the U.S. Arm of 3iMind rebranded and changed its name to Sentillian, which, in turn, was shut down rather unceremoniously by February of this year.
A NEW LIFE FOR OPEN MIND
The alpha launch of Vocativ in October 2013 promised a new application for this technology, in the service of a media company reporting on global affairs in a totally new way and appealing to a new generation.
Around the time of the launch, Kochavi spoke to Capital in Vocativ’s headquarters on 7th Avenue and 35th street.
He remembered back when an earlier version of the software created for A.G.T. was still in its infancy, and he downloaded the software onto his Blackberry and began receiving daily news alerts about important humanitarian and social issues that he saw going virtually undetected on the radar of mainstream media.
“I became a nightmare to my friends I kept saying look what’s happening here and look what’s happening there […]” Kochavi said. “Why won’t everyone see this information, everyone I showed this data we got were also surprised.”
“I thought of myself as a guy who understands the world,” Kochavi told. “I travel a lot I do business everywhere. I care about the world. I started to get to read the kind of things that are coming from OpenMind and I found a different world from the one that I knew and that really surprised me.”
But it was the events of the Arab Spring that really changed his point of view on the technology’s potential.
“I was very intrigued by the fact such a major event had happened and no one was able to see it before it happened,” he said. “How come we don’t see things before they happen? And it’s not just a small thing. It was clear that basically social media created a new element in our life and that’s the element of millions of people. They have the power to mobilize like never before.”
Kochavi decided then and there he wanted to transform the function of his software from altering the approach to public safety during natural disasters to providing public knowledge based on the voices, stories and opinions of "millions of people around the world." Thus, the idea for Vocativ was born.
“When I was a kid the two things you read about [in the news] were politicians and big businesses,” Kochavi said. “When you want to know what a politician does you have to call congressmen, senators, local politicians. Big businesses you call CEOs [...] who do you call when you want to know what’s happening with millions of people? It’s not something traditional journalism can do anymore. What people feel in the streets and what their emotions are: it’s much more complicated.”
Around the same time, he told Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici that he had always wanted to be a journalist.
“That’s actually what I wanted to be,” he told Forbes. “I never planned to have a life in technology or become a businessman.”
He filled Vocativ’s chief leadership roles with television-industry veterans only too familiar both with the failure of the networks to engage millennial audiences in the news and the success of sites like Vice in creating and distributing video to precisely that demographic from all over the world, to great profit.
It was a short ride from that beta launch to their first deal—The New York Times' Leslie Kaufman broke the news about the Vocativ-MSNBC arrangement in February, less than four months after all that relaunch hype (and the month when Sentillian shut its doors).
By that time, Vocativ’s content-makers were already closely attuned to the needs of potential clients like Farrow.
That very week the partnership launched a package about marijuana legalization that included a video clip from Vocativ exploring the trend in dumpster diving for medicinal marijuana.
It was only four days after that report that Ronan Farrow cited the use of the deep web technology in the reporting of another story, “The Tower of David,” that aired on his show Feb. 28. It was about an abandoned building in Venezuela that has become the world's tallest slum.
“We can do this thanks to an exclusive collaboration with a startup media company called Vocativ,” Farrow said before the segment played. “Remember Vocativ's technology penetrates the deep web which can't be reached with traditional search engines. So sit back and take a look at the people we found with those tools in the world's tallest slum.”
But several sources told Capital that the idea for the “Tower of David” report came to chief content officer Noah Kotch, a former senior producer of “The Today Show” (who left Vocativ in June) after he read an article about the tower in The New Yorker.
And Sam Matthews, who was assigned to produce that segment and one other for Farrow’s show, and who has also since left Vocativ, told Capital: "If OpenMind was used, neither I nor my field producer in Venezuela were aware of it during any stage of the production.”
When the Times piece appeared, negotiations between Vocativ and Showtime were already well established, with correspondence between legal teams for both sides, obtained by Capital, taking place that very same week; at that stage of negotiation an eight-episode series with an approved series budget of $3.2 million was on the table—a pretty big deal for a start-up.
And Vocativ was planning big things. More from the preliminary sizzle-reel script:
“Two years ago an elite corp of software developers from the intelligence community set out to tackle the deep web. Their mission: build a proprietary software previously available to only a few of the world’s most powerful governments. To find connections and uncover information no other public organization can. Not Vice. Not The Wall Street Journal. Not Goldman Sachs. Only Vocativ.”
But there is a branding problem that had quickly been made clear after the Rolling Stone article, and which insiders said had already been haunting the company’s steps since Vocativ’s founders watched the Snowden saga unfurl during the site’s beta phase in the spring of 2013.
The company needed to sell itself on the software’s legacy as an intelligence tool—that’s where the authority and the sex appeal of it lay. But that very same legacy might prove toxic to Snowden-loving millennials developing a serious distaste for all forms of surveillance—especially surveillance of the growing global insurrections that threaten established corporations and governments that also are, or were, Kochavi’s clients and closest connections.
In promotional materials prepared by Sentillian during its short life, and obtained by Capital, several case studies describing the utility of the original software Kochavi’s team developed are enumerated.
“Chief executives within Fortune 1000 global enterprises are learning that well-coordinated anti-activist efforts and early intervention can actually build competitive advantage,” one section heading reads.
In a case presented under the heading “Child Labor, Cocoa and Terrorism,” the case study of an unnamed client “concerned about global child labor issues” is presented. The client “wanted to monitor the interest and activity around a particular video and assess the potential of its fueling a major campaign against their company.”
The video is described as having been “launched by activists in the Netherlands,” though pictured next to the text is the cover of a 46-minute documentary called The Dark Side of Chocolate, a Danish production that can still be viewed on YouTube.
The pitch continues:
Sentillian’s unique technology systematically monitored points in open source intelligence within the deep web to provide early warnings and then low signal analysis. Our expert data scientists and regional, cultural and language experts then conducted a detailed analysis, including:
- Monitoring reactions to the videos
- Reuse of the activists’ content, specifically by radicalized terrorist groups in West Africa associated with Al-Qaeda
- Any links between the various activist communications and specific targeting or naming of our customer
The Outcome: The threat monitoring provided an understanding of the geographic spread and influence of the video and we gauged the level and focus of the market reaction. While no specific threats to our customer transpired, the information we provided did allow the customer to prepare a pointed and appropriate corporate social responsibility campaign to preempt reputational attacks.
While such a response by a corporation—hiring a research firm to assess its reputational risks, supposed Al Qaeda connection notwithstanding—can hardly be surprising, it is also hardly the kind of marketing a site like Vocativ wants before a millennial audience craving, as the Vocativ sizzle reel puts it, “NO VANTIY FAIR PARTIES” and “NO BULLSHIT.”
In a series of statements emailed to Capital in response to questions about the technology, the company attempted to draw a bright line between the technology that forms the basis of Vocativ from the technology behind its security services.
“Vocativ is an entirely independent company using open-source data for newsgathering,” company representatives wrote in one email to Capital. “It has its own technology platform, one created specifically for journalism. The company split off a version OpenMind and has developed it in-house, over the course of a year, with a dedicated development team.”
“OpenMind, the technology behind 3iMind and part of AGT technologies, is about leveraging the power of open source intelligence, not the kind associated with agencies like the NSA. Rather, it’s about using open data to make intelligent decisions, from governments creating ‘smart cities’ with infrastructure efficiencies to businesses managing supply chain, market analysis and strategic investment choices,” it read further, offering to clarify what the company saw as some “confusion” about the technology. The statement from representatives continued: “OpenMind technology yields the same kind of intelligence as that is offered by global players such as IBM, Microsoft and Cisco.”
The point they are making is a subtle one: Vocativ’s software does not penetrate into material on the web that has had the slightest security or privacy protection applied to it, unlike N.S.A. surveillance data.
Is that a good thing, or a bad thing, for a product like this?
One more line from the Showtime sizzle reel, produced within weeks of that Sentillian marketing material:
DATA. SURVEILLANCE. INTELLIGENCE.
THOUSANDS OF CAMERAS. GROUNDBREAKING ALGORITHMS. A WHOLE NEW WAY TO PREDICT THE FUTURE—ACCURATELY.
So which is it? An “elite corp of software developers from the intelligence community” or “its own technology platform, one created specifically for journalism?” Stuff nobody else can get (Goldman Sachs, The Wall Street Journal) or stuff everyone is getting already (Microsoft, Cisco Systems)?
KEEPING PACE WITH AMBITIONS
Whether this kind of technology smacks to you of evil surveillance, or just sophisticated technology the ethics of which depend on who is wielding it and why, or as simply rather conventional web-scraping that goes beyond language-siloed search engines (none of which are acceptable descriptions to Vocativ but all of which will occur to our readers) the real problem is elsewhere. The problem, several former content producers for the site tell Capital, is that articles and videos are very difficult to derive from this intelligence software they’re using, whatever you call it and whatever its provenance.
Internally, the staff at Vocativ maintains logs that show how many stories published on the site or produced for clients make use of the software.
Capital obtained a copy of those logs for the period between Oct. 4 and Nov. 14 of last year. The log included columns for a description of each story; its author, date, and topic (which were listed as hashtags); whether it was international or domestic; the “weight” or what is seemingly the seriousness of the article; whether it was a long-form or short-form article; whether it was breaking or exclusive; and, crucially, whether open source intelligence or Open Mind was used, and the origin of the article.
A preliminary count from the period in the log obtained by Capital showed that of 230 items, 99 were listed as having either originated in or involved the use of OpenMind. Two of those were the “Tower of David” and “BronyCon” segments, which aired on Farrow’s show and which were assigned to Matthews.
Presented with this information, Matthews, the producer who worked on those pieces and said he never heard of Open Mind as a source for those stories, said: “They don’t call them data ninjas for nothing.”
Further, these sources tell Capital it was not uncommon for the logs, which are monitored closely by the company’s management, to be doctored to show a provenance in OpenMind, a move meant to keep at bay company executives eager to see the software and its engineers as the stars of the site’s reporting operation.
Presented with these findings, representatives for Vocativ first suggested the logs provided to Capital were unknown to them; pressed on the matter, and asked whether the numbers from that month were typical, they had the following statement: “Yes, of course Vocativ tracks the usage of its technology in its day-to-day operations. But those are internal business metrics.”
Asked whether they were aware of any instances of employees falsifying the logs to show that editors had used the OpenMind software to create stories when they hadn’t, Vocativ representatives provided the following response:
“Absolutely not. The company is meticulous in its internal reporting.”
The company also provided its own numbers, assessing over a longer haul the extent of the site’s use of its proprietary software.
There was this clarification:
“Vocativ's technology is a powerful, flexible tool that is used in many ways: bottom-up reporting, where it delivers story leads or germs of ideas; top-down reporting, where it can flesh out ideas that come from reporters and editors; and everything in between, such as research, data collection, validation, social media tracking, source development and character identification.”
From that point of view on the way the technology is used in the newsroom, Vocativ representatives provided the following summary:
“We’re thrilled with OpenMind’s utility as a journalism tool–especially as it’s in its infancy–and we’re excited about using it in new ways, with increasing frequency. Currently, Vocativ uses OpenMind on a daily basis, with the technology deployed in some way on roughly 50 percent of stories–a percentage that we’re pleased with, and working to grow.”
Those numbers actually seem to square up pretty nicely with those we found in that monthly log. But for the people who have worked at Vocativ and who talked to Capital for this story, the sense was that management was less than thrilled with them.
As chief content officer, Kotch was responsible for finding ways to transform the data-diving powers of OpenMind into stories and video segments for the site.
Kotch—who according to Brian Stelter in an excerpt of his book about the morning-show wars that was published in The New York Times Magazine was known as the “Trash Doctor” at the “Today” show for his aggressive programming mix of dubious celebrity news and lurid crime stories—was not universally loved at Vocativ.
Though some sources admit they did not always appreciate Kotch's editorial vision, the bottom line, all of our sources said, was that neither Kotch nor the upwards of 80 staffers could draw enough stories from the technology to run a robust site, a grievance they said most at the company were too scared to air to higher-ups.
The imperative to use, and be able to prove the use, of the software has been a point of contention at the company. When Kotch left the company last month, the move was conveyed as an amicable break-up, and a memo announcing his exit obtained by Capital said that Kotch would continue to provide consulting to the site.
Sources told Capital several different versions of the story: that Kotch’s editorial sensibility was a bad fit for the company, that he clashed with his staff, that he was fired by Kochavi. Most describe the relationship between the site’s chief content officer and its founder as stormy. And some chalked it up to Kotch’s failure to deliver a product that genuinely emerged from the technology—a failure that was attributed more to the technology than to Kotch’s use of it.
Through spokespersons, Vocativ continued to describe the technology as continually evolving to be increasingly useful in a newsroom environment. But its focus is still on original content—not on responding quickly to evolving news stories with intelligence from the deep web.
Though the site prides itself on not selling advertising, demonstrating a robust audience for its website is also an important proof of concept for the company as it pursues deals. As many content companies that produce largely original content can attest—Vocativ has claimed that 80 percent of its content is purely original reporting, a high percentage in an age of aggregation—with originality can sometimes come marginality.
A case in point: Last week, while much of the media was focused on the downing of a Malaysian commercial jet over Ukrainian airspace and on the escalating war in Gaza, Vocativ was rolling out a series of reports on the unrest in Libya. Ukraine has been a big topic for Vocativ, but it was not Vocativ that broke the news that a series of tweets from Ukrainian rebels had seemingly established that they were responsible for the downed aircraft, a report many organizations deepened and ran with. Services like Storyful, recently acquired by News Corp. in a $25 million deal, were vetting the web for more information on who was responsible for the tragedy—but rather than having to come up with stories themselves, they provided the information to subscribing news organizations.
Vocativ has been left mostly to do a very sophisticated form of aggregation on the Ukraine and Gaza stories: sophisticated in that its talented staff sources video to local YouTube accounts produced in Arabic with Arabic metadata (that are also indexed on Google) to produce idiosyncratic reports on both stories. They may have been sourced from Open Mind but they wouldn’t have needed to be.
And then, on Saturday, Vocativ was looking prescient to those who were following the unfolding story in Libya: As The New York Times’ Kareem Fahim reported, U.S. diplomatic staff was evacuated from the country that day.
“Ronan Farrow” used one of those Vocativ videos last week, and by Monday was touting the impressive prescience of the segment. But it was difficult to hear over all the noise coming from Gaza and Ukraine.
Devoting resources to growing traffic and devoting resources to producing original content can often be mutually exclusive propositions for a relatively small newcomer like Vocativ.
According to Comscore, Vocativ garnered 913,000 multi-platform unique visitors in April and 1,050,000 in May. But only 4 percent of that is organic or direct traffic. A Comscore spokesperson told Capital that 38 percent of site entrants were from Facebook, 5 percent from Google sites and the remaining 53 percent from referrals from other sites and Twitter.
Comscore numbers are invariably low compared to internal metrics, but many media companies are understandably reluctant to provide independently verifiable internal numbers to refute them. Presented with the Comscore data, Vocativ representatives provided the following internal metric:
“We can confirm that unique visitors to the website in June were roughly 3 million, and factoring in our YouTube numbers, over 4 million.”
But Capital sources said reaching these numbers has not always been a straightforward proposition.
One executive, in an email provided to Capital on the condition it not be quoted directly, even suggested that a series of tweets from Twitter celebrity and former “Star Trek” star George Takei promoting Vocativ articles had been paid for under-the-counter by Vocativ executives eager to make quotas. Four sources contacted by Capital, all former employees of the company, had heard the same complaint, though Takei’s own representatives would not comment on whether that had happened, and Vocativ representatives provided the following statement: “We’re delighted that media outlets and personalities embrace and share our content on a daily basis. And while we don't comment on PR and marketing strategy, we can tell you that your assessment is incorrect.”
At any rate, since Vocativ does not and has no plans to sell advertising against those traffic numbers, they are largely a secondary consideration. What Vocativ needs are deals that directly underwrite their content-production operation.
Is the ratings-obsessed 24-hour news-cycle the place to get them, though?
Kochavi has shown he can get in the door. To anyone who has met him that is no surprise. He is well connected and has a certain swagger, authority, even intellectual heft. His message discipline is complete: Reading quotes from him carried in multiple news outlets it is sometimes impossible to imagine they came from interviews conducted singly, but they did. They are just Kochavi doing Kochavi: He can repeat the same successful pitch over and over again almost verbatim, to the frustration of unlazy reporters who interview him looking for something new.
If it is difficult to get in the door for a meeting with MSNBC or Showtime without big numbers, it has been easier for Vocativ, with Kochavi at the table—and across from people one step away from his well-nurtured connections.
Some sources attributed the success of the MSNBC deal to Kotch, whose awkward exit from NBC nevertheless left him with deep connections to MSNBC president Phil Griffin. A spokesperson for Vocativ said that Chief Business Officer Steve Alperin, a former ABC executive, drove the deal. Either way, in the Times article breaking news of the deal, Griffin was said to be particularly pleased with the “Tower of David” segment.
Nor did the company find itself without friends when it sought an audience with Showtime. That deal started to take shape late last year, just as W.M.E. was acquiring the agency IMG, with the help of a minority investment from Abu Dhabi government-backed investment entity Mubadala Development Co., charged with diversifying the country’s investments beyond oil.
Martin Edelman is the International Chairman of A.G.T. International, Kochavi’s security company, and according to Mubadala’s website, when Capital looked at it in June, an advisor to Mubadala—though, by the time of another check of the website in July, all reference to him had seemingly disappeared from the site.
At press time, however, that title is mentioned in several of Edelman's bios elsewhere, including Aldar Properties, an Abu Dhabi-based real estate developer that the Abu Dhabi government is a shareholder of; Four Star Leadership with General Tommy Franks, a leadership program offered to students and “a partnership between the General Tommy Franks Leadership Institute & Museum, the National Center for Policy Analysis, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, and Oklahoma Christian University’s Academy of Leadership & Liberty” and Grove International Properties, a global real-estate equity company.
Sources say in the weeks leading up to the W.M.E.-I.M.G. transaction W.M.E. co-C.E.O. Ari Emanuel personally sat in on many of Vocativ’s meetings with TV network executives, including those with Showtime executives, even making the trip to New York meetings. By the time the February Times article was published, Emanuel was in a position of telling the Times reporter: “As soon as I saw [Vocativ’s] technology, I wanted to be involved,” and that W.M.E. was negotiating a stake in the company.
(Vocativ confirmed to Capital through a spokesperson that W.M.E. has completed the transaction and now holds a minority stake in Vocativ.)
Emanuel is connected all over the TV business, of course. But his legacy with Showtime concerns a particular type of programming: It was he who brought the C.I.A. thriller series “Homeland” to the network, an adaptation of a hit Israeli series created by Gideon Raff and drenched with insider knowledge about contemporary spycraft.
With Emanuel’s enthusiastic backing and the promise of a news show plunging deep into global digital spycraft to create its narratives, Vocativ would seem to have had a compelling case, and to be building on a background of successful tropes for the cable channel.
Just as the details of a Showtime deal were taking shape, Kochavi implemented a reorganization of his company with the goal of managing the company’s message across its rapidly growing platforms.
Kochavi put in place a layer of management above the triumvirate of Kotch, Cohen—formerly editor of digital at Daily News—and Alperin.
That new layer of management, called the “Vocativ Experience,” was led by Kochavi's former chief of staff Danna Rabin, who was named chief operating officer, according to a memo Kochavi made available to AGT International employees via a password-protected section of the site, and obtained by Capital. That memo read, in part:
While vocativ.com is being our showcase to the world, we have expanded our Vocativ business beyond digital into a TV programming and are planning to further expand it to additional media domains and beyond USA.
As such, I have decided to establish the Vocativ Experience Group, which will handle the entire brand identity of Vocativ group, its global strategy, ensure consistent and efficiencies as well as manage and cover the shared services within the different activities, technology, content, Business Development and more.
In her new role, as Vocativ Experience COO, Danna will be responsible for managing all hand-on operational aspects of the company, aligned with the strategy as defined by the CEO. Assist the CEO in the aggressive and successful growth of the company, provide the management necessary to ensure Vocativ has the proper operational controls and, procedures, and people systems in place to effectively grow the organization and to ensure financial strength and operating efficiency.
It’s another iteration of the company, and another stab at parlaying this technology, and an attendant newsroom, into the next, bigger deal. If people keep liking what Vocativ makes, the software might start not to matter so much anyway. But would Kochavi be happy with that?