January 5, 2013 by Speakers' Spotlight
The Prime of Leonard Brody
From BC Business/By Tony Wanless/April, 2010
A superficial scan of the homepage of Vancouver-based NowPublic reveals an architecture much like any other media site. There’s a front page with all the top stories and separate sections for local and world news, culture, sports, business and style. But look a little closer and it soon becomes apparent how different NowPublic is. First, there’s the predominance of social media tools. Where traditional news sites struggle to incorporate videos, comments, ratings of contributors and blogs into their daily grind, on NowPublic social media is the message. A story about the late-night feud between Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno is told via an animated video sourced from YouTube. Readers get to vote on which developing story deserves to be on the homepage, while commentary on a story regularly runs longer than the piece itself. Where a picture, or video, can tell a thousand words, it usually does.
Then there’s the actual content. The quality of writing, if truth be told, is spotty: articles and headlines are rife with bad grammar, typos and the sort of awkward sentence formulations familiar to any Grade 9 English teacher. News, while unfailingly timely, originates from an eclectic mix of sources, including amateur reporters, the New York Times and National Enquirer. Equally eclectic is the type of story that makes it into the news lineup. On one day, the main story will be a heart-wrenching account of the Haitian earthquake disaster. Reading it, you can almost smell the newsroom sweat and coffee breath of the writer who cobbled it together at white-hot speed. Further inside, however, you find a video of television star Jennifer Love Hewitt giggling that she likes to bejewel her “precious lady” parts in a process called “vajazzling.”
Forget notions of newsgathering as Watergate-like meetings in darkened parking garages with sources named Deep Throat. NowPublic, the so-called citizen journalism or crowd-sourced news site co-founded in 2005 by Vancouver entrepreneur Leonard Brody and his old college mate Michael Tippett, is a content operation that provides a never-ending torrent of information, some sublime and some ridiculous. This isn’t your dad’s daily paper, an ink-stained mass to be unfurled in an armchair. It’s the curation of quick and raw reportage from a multiplicity of sources – “contributing reporters in more than 5,500 cities and 160 countries,” by NowPublic’s reckoning – that includes people who just happened to be somewhere when something happened and recorded it.
Strip away NowPublic’s delivery technology and speed and you have an information service that’s not unlike what newswire services did 50 years ago: pumping out information to millions of consumers. In its short life, NowPublic has been nominated for an Emmy award for technology, named as one of the top five most useful new sites on the web by The Guardian newspaper, deemed one of the top 50 websites for 2007 by Time magazine and included as a media innovator at the Newseum, the museum of media in Washington, D.C.
IT IS ALSO VISITED by some five million readers a month, an impressive mass of eyeballs that last year sparked the interest of Denver-based media chain Clarity Media. Clarity, part of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, owns three Examiner newspapers and the Examiner.com group of “hyperlocal” news websites, which is currently rolling out across the U.S. and Canada. Late last August, Clarity acquired NowPublic for a reported $25 million. Brody, who had raised about $12 million in private financing to build the site (half of which he never spent), became president of its new division, Clarity Digital, which will manage and expand the Anschutz conglomerate’s online presence. Tippett, who had handled NowPublic’s marketing and product development, became its CEO.
The sale was just the latest in a peripatetic string of entrepreneurial ventures in which Brody has been involved since moving from Toronto to Vancouver in the late 1990s. He was an early executive of Onvia, the small-business e-marketplace that hatched in Vancouver in 1996, IPO’d on the Nasdaq in 2000 for $240 million and was subsequently clobbered in the stock market when the tech sector crashed a year later. After the crash, Brody engineered the sale of Onvia’s money-making Canadian operation to Bell Canada, then started and sold Ipreo, a company that applied predictive games theory to business processes. He also helped find funding for Maestro, the CMS operation that became the online marketing software provider Marqui Inc. Around the same time, he found time to write two management books – Innovation Nation: Canadian Leadership From Jurassic Park to Java and Everything I Needed to Know About Business . . . I Learned From a Canadian – and hit the lecture circuit, talking about technology and “the future” at universities, conferences and corporate events from Montreal to Mumbai.
BRODY, STEWART BUTTERFIELD (who co-founded Flickr) and Boris Wertz (who ran AbeBooks) are Vancouver’s leading international lights in the digital media realm, but, like the others, Brody still faces some skepticism in his adopted hometown. In the often-cliquish Vancouver entrepreneurial scene no one understandably wants to publicly criticize a rising star. But occasionally you will hear privately that Brody comes across as a kind of walking maelstrom of attention deficit who can’t stick with anything. No doubt some of this antipathy comes from the way entrepreneurial styles have been dividing in modern times. As Jim Collins framed it in his 2001 book Good to Great, entrepreneurs tend either to be “hedgehogs,” people with the ability to focus and drive along a single path to a defined goal; or “foxes,” the fast-moving thinkers who are able to divine and then adjust to changing circumstances. In Vancouver hedgehogs tend to populate more traditional technology areas such as hardware and software, while foxes are more common in sectors such as digital media and Internet business.
Sometimes, hedgehogs see foxes like Brody as nothing more than flighty trend-meisters. “I think he’s more sizzle than steak,” is the cryptic summation from one technology investor I spoke to, on condition of anonymity. Or as another longtime B.C. business observer put it: “I respect his tenacity but dislike his style. I wonder if he is, like so many other entrepreneurs, an abrasive and basically unemployable smart-but-insecure man who keeps throwing business darts as intelligently as possible and hits his mark at times.”
Brody’s fast-moving, itinerant lifestyle probably lends credence to this perception. He is physically, intellectually and creatively a nomad, or as his friend and co-author David Raffa describes him, “a child of the world.” At 38, he is unmarried, maintains a small functional apartment in Coal Harbour, owns very little beyond a car and his ever-present communications devices, dresses casually and holds an almost atavistic disdain for “stuff,” which to him restricts his highly valued freedom. As he likes to put it, he lives “in the cloud.” That desire for freedom means Brody is always on the move, making him a difficult man to nail down for a profile. Sometimes I would catch a few moments with him in Vancouver – once at NowPublic’s spartan downtown headquarters – but more often between meetings at a nearby coffee shop or at his favourite table at the Yew Restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel. Several interviews were conducted by cellphone, email or Skype as Brody travelled in London, France and New York. On one occasion, as I tried to set up a long-distance chat, I asked him where he would be on that date. His response: “I haven’t a clue.”
My experience with Brody is echoed by his many friends and acquaintances in Vancouver. “Leonard always has many balls in the air, which can cause some people to be scattered, but he can handle it,” laughs Tippett. “Once, I told him he might be doing too many things. His response was not to drop something; instead he said, ‘I need more help.’ I liked that about him.”
Adds Raffa, a lawyer turned venture capitalist, “Leonard is an iconoclast. He’s absolutely in the forefront of what’s going on with technology, where it’s going to lead us and how business and technology work together. That’s very rare in Vancouver.”
BRODY PROFESSES NOT TO BE particularly focused on the media industry but has, interestingly, always been involved with it on the periphery. He is also in many ways to the media manor born. He was born in Calgary in 1971, the offshoot of a branch of Winnipeg’s fabled Asper family, which controlled, until its recent financial problems, the CanWest Global empire of newspaper, television and online properties. Although Brody says he came from the “poor side” of the family, he is related to Canwest founder Izzy Asper – his mother, Esther, was Izzy’s cousin – and Brody still treasures the mentoring about success he received while in high school from the man he respectfully called “Uncle Izzy.” In more recent years, Brody advised Asper’s son, Leonard (who stepped down as CanWest’s CEO in March), on the evolution of the Internet.
Esther, who divorced Brody’s father, Irv, when he was two years old, was a legal assistant and bakery owner who eventually became a cookbook writer, producing 10 volumes so far. A cousin on his father’s side was a songwriter who worked with singers such as Bryan Adams. “A lot of my family was in media or entertainment,” Brody notes, “and that may be why I am like I am. Entertainment is a project-based business, and so I think of life as a series of projects. Some people see life as linear, such as in a job, but I don’t.”
This milieu probably explains why Brody’s youth was filled with projects, as he tried to integrate the various cultures in which he existed. To bring in some income to help his single mother, he held a series of usual teenage jobs, although his first one, at 10 years old, involved selling Little Devil Donuts door to door. “I’m pretty sure I had to wear a devil costume,” he remembers. “How could anyone resist?” Hungry for knowledge, he headed to the library at every chance to read. He was one of the few Jewish students active in sports (hockey, football and soccer) while in high school and remains a closet jock to this day.
At Queen’s University, where he studied political science and economics and met Michael Tippett (his neighbour), Brody supported himself by working in marketing for MCA Records. Following graduation in 1993, he took a label management job with Attics Records but soon was off to Toronto’s Osgoode Hall law school with the notion that he would be an entertainment industry lawyer. Not particularly relishing the practice of law, however, he formed his own music and sports agency in Toronto, Prodigy, and ran it for a couple of years before selling it and moving to Vancouver to join Onvia. “The entertainment industry taught me how to think like an investor,” he says now. “It’s a hit-based business, just like venture capital, in which you can sometimes lose. I learned that you can take all the necessary steps to do something, but its chance of becoming a hit is really out of your control.”
NowPublic would seem like a perfect blend of Brody’s skills and interests: it is a relatively short-term project, it combines his investor’s desire to build a business for sale with his habit of entertaining while also informing and it is on the leading (some would say bleeding) edge of technology. Yet this futuristic media venture cannot truly be called a passion for him. In fact, his apparent only real passion is his interest in Judaism and Jewish culture. He continues to maintain a deep belief in his Jewish faith, chanting his prayers nightly and attending synagogues when he is able. “I’m not that religious, but I’m very God-fearing. I’m a big theist,” he insists. “Judaism is very much a thinker’s religion, based more on common law than dogma. It’s a good way to work on the moral mind.” He also holds a fascination with Jewish culture as it has evolved around the world and photographs synagogues wherever he is. “Look at this,” he says during one of our face-to-face meetings, this one at a Kitsilano coffee shop. Thumbing his iPhone, he reveals a series of pictures of a magnificently wrought synagogue. “I visited this one in Bucharest. Before the war, it had a very large Jewish community.”
This captivation with Jewish culture extends to the state of Israel, which has held an allure for him throughout his life. “Some of my family were original Jewish Palestinians back in the 1920s, so I’ve always been interested in Israel. I like the fact that this is a state that was built out of nothing over only 60 years, and it excels constantly under duress.”
Brody has attempted to emulate this drive to excel and persist for most of his life. He’s never had a drink, but at one time a bad pizza habit formed in law school made him balloon to 245 pounds, a considerable weight for someone who stands only five foot six. Seven years ago, he took a look at himself in the mirror, began “watching what I put in my body” and dropped 90 of those 240 pounds (he still maintains that weight). These displays of discipline indicate a strong will that belies the image of a flighty fox – a reputation he both counters and defends: “I know people sometimes think of me as kind of frenetic, but actually I can focus and follow a path as much as the next person; I never would have finished law school if I couldn’t. But generally, I find that constraining. I believe freedom is not having to do something you don’t want to do, and I don’t want to concentrate on the details. I like to see the big picture. That’s why I read 12 newspapers a day” – on his iPhone, in bits and bytes.
THIS WILLPOWER WAS of good use when Brody, Tippett and New York’s Michael Meyers (the chief NowPublic technologist) launched NowPublic four years ago, at a time when new online formats like self-published blogs were overturning traditional media and forcing them to grapple with the implications of new technology. As the trio envisioned it, NowPublic was a technology platform that would marshal the eyes and ears of ordinary people around the world and distribute their reportage in a different way, as an online news service – “a Reuters 2.0.” In essence, the three were among the first to revolutionize the supply chain of the traditional media business with a social media process that is being copied by many media outlets today (particularly CNN), a process that enables information to be directly delivered from sources to receivers without the filter of traditional media structures. “When I was working with CanWest as an adviser, I saw there was going to be a need for a next-generation news service for eyewitness news that required new tools,” Brody says. “It’s come a long way since then, and Clarity understands that.”
While he won’t comment on his cousins’ troubles at CanWest (at press time, the Asper family looked to have lost control of CanWest, with its broadcast assets tentatively sold to Shaw Communications in mid-February and a separate auction for the company’s newspapers expected by April), Brody acknowledges that traditional media throughout North America have struggled recently with their online strategies and suffered near disaster when “the advertising market tanked.” Then, to illustrate the trend line for online, Brody grabs the writer’s notebook and rapidly sketches an upside down pyramid. “Here’s the way the media structure is evolving,” he enthuses. “At the top, and the largest part, is Internet information streaming or linking, like NowPublic. Below that is user-generated content like blogs. Next is moderated user-generated content, like Wikipedia, and then paid online journalism, like Examiner.com. The point at the bottom is the valuable information produced by professional journalists at traditional media operations.”
A media model like this with a mix of players might well emerge, agrees Kirk LaPointe, executive in residence at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism and managing editor of the Vancouver Sun, which is currently testing a NowPublic technology module. LaPointe believes that the crowd-sourced news movement has supplemented traditional newsgathering and may eventually become a standard. “These days everybody has a printing press of sorts in their smartphones and computers,” he says. “But people are still going to have to edit information. So down the road, we may see a ‘pro-am’ model where professionals work with amateur journalists.”
SFU communications professor Richard Smith, who concentrates on online communities and technology, suggests that media outlets that are prepared to adjust to change will likely partner in the future with citizen journalism sites and other online content delivery systems. “We have to find a way forward that includes sensible reporting, research and thoughtful material that can help people understand their world and make the big decisions, like voting,” he insists. “Citizen journalism can be a part of that, but it is unlikely to be the whole answer. And citizen journalists, like the old interns at a newspaper, can certainly graduate to become more significant contributors.”
But before any of these scenarios play out, all media have to determine a business model that works, say most observers. Traditional media’s business problems have been playing out in public for months, and, while they have been more quiet, online journalism business models are also suffering. NowPublic, for example, has struck a few deals with news organizations such as Associated Press to provide them with content but features very little in the way of advertising, which generally supports news operations. Brody won’t disclose whether NowPublic is or has ever been profitable, but in the technology sphere it is not unusual for a company to forgo profitability while it perfects its technology. Any time a company takes venture capital money, it is essentially signaling that it will be for sale in the future and that profits will be achieved when the business is sold to a larger player that needs the technology. Accordingly, Brody has always insisted that NowPublic’s dominant business was not journalism but technology, and those five million eyeballs are a significant business asset that will be valuable as the online news business picks up. NowPublic’s buyer, Examiner.com, which uses an advertising-based business model to generate revenue, expects this to occur soon.
Brody’s immediate plans are to help Clarity Digital to expand Clarity Media’s online presence. Clarity is already expanding the Examiner.com network of sites into five cities in Canada and is aiming to move into Asia and Europe after that. NowPublic will likely continue to evolve into more of a content “curation” site, he believes. “The trouble today isn’t getting information but managing it. Content curation puts all that information into an understandable format.” He is also charged with helping to form online strategies for other parts of the Anschutz empire such as its sports teams and stadiums.
But knowing Brody, he’ll probably move on again. “I’m not the type to look back and feel pride in what I’ve done; I prefer to always look forward,” he declares. “I am an opportunist and Examiner.com is a billion-dollar opportunity. But I think it’s the last big opportunity I will work on.” He talks about how, in the future, Internet media will trend toward smaller subscription-based websites on specific subjects and muses about getting involved in something “much smaller – more of a lifestyle business.” He won’t, however, get into specifics. On the subject of his own future, the fox proves uncharacteristically coy.