UA alumnus Michael Bloom (Communication, ’90) has had an impressive array of jobs in technology and media, including building internet start-up companies and holding senior roles at AOL, MTV, and The Guardian. In 2015, Bloom was tapped by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar to be president of Omidyar’s start-up media company, First Look Media.
SBS Developments spoke with Bloom about reconnecting with the UA, following your passion, and winning best picture for “Spotlight” at the Oscars.
Why did you attend the UA and how did it impact your life?
I took the proverbial college trip with my dad my junior year of high school. I was an East Coast kid and wanted to go west, so we went to a bunch of West Coast schools. The UA wasn’t on our schedule. At the last minute, someone in my family said, ‘Hey, if you’re out there, you should check out the UA, because it’s really cool.’ When I walked on campus, it was unlike anything I had ever seen. I just fell in love with the place instantly. I knew no one [at the UA]. I just got on a plane with a backpack and a guitar and started my new life. It was probably the best four years of my life.
Why did you major in communication and how did you parlay your degree into such a successful career?
I didn’t know quite what I wanted to be, so I picked a major that I thought would give me a broad-based foundation regardless of what I wanted to do. I thought communication would give me a good overview of the things that were interesting to me. When I got out of school, I knew I wanted to get into media. I had a lot of hustle and went after it.
How have you stayed involved with the UA?
For the first few years out [of school], my friends and I would go back to the UA for reunions. And then as we moved on, got married, moved to different parts of the world, it happened less and less. I really lost touch with the UA and had no connectivity to it for a number of years. Only recently, Deborah Kessler [from the UA Foundation] reached out to me. I ignored her first two emails because I thought they were SPAM. I eventually met with her and she was delightful and sort of rekindled my relationship with the University.
I’m just thrilled to be reconnected to the University, because it was a really important time in my life which I hold very near and dear. I’m really committed to finding ways to help and give back.
What specifically have you been doing with the UA?
I sat in on one of the honors journalism classes with [Journalism Professor] Nancy Sharkey and talked with some of the kids. It was exhilarating. I came back from my initial interaction with the school with tons of ideas of ways I thought I could be helpful. I thought I could help students coming out of the UA find their way into media and entertainment. We want to bring kids through here for internships at First Look Media and also to help potentially place them in other companies. When Nancy brought the J-school kids to New York City, we hosted them here for a day, gave them a tour, and introduced them to Betsy Reed, editor-in-chief of The Intercept, along with a couple of other young journalists.
For the Privacy event [that the College of SBS held last spring] with Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden, and Noam Chomsky, I put together a program where we livestreamed the event on The Intercept [a First Look Media brand], made it available On Demand, and promoted it on social media. The event has been watched by about 300,000 people. When you think of a deep, multi-hour conversation with these guys, that’s actually a pretty significant number of people. It’s not like watching a cat video for 30 seconds.
During your career, you’ve had a variety of positions and employers as well as created your own companies. What advice do you have for students and alumni who wonder when it’s time to move on to the next challenge?
I don’t know if my career is necessarily a model for anyone else’s. In my life, all of my decisions have largely been instinctual. I tend to make decisions based on my gut. To me, it’s all about following your passion and doing what you love, because the career and the money will follow. The best thing I find is to really be honest with yourself about what you like, what you care about, what you enjoy spending time doing. Pursue the hell out of that. Find great people to do it with, because at the end of the day that’s all that matters. And then give it a shot. Take a bet on yourself.
As far as when it’s time to leave, you know when it’s time to go. That either presents itself in the form of another fantastic opportunity that just feels right or because the current situation is no longer challenging and you are no longer growing. That whole thing is a lot more art than science.
A story in Wired said you were considering starting your own media company before being recruited by Pierre Omidyar to run First Look Media. Why did you take the job?
I got really excited about this opportunity for a number of reasons. Foremost, I had never met Pierre [Omidyar], but when I spent time with him, I was incredibly impressed with his mission and his motivation for doing the company. He started First Look Media because he cares deeply about the First Amendment and believes an independent media is critical for democracy and society—as a way to hold the powerful accountable. I was at the point in my career where I had the luxury of choice and, for me, being in a purpose-driven company was the most important thing. I have my own kids now, and as I start thinking about my own legacy and what I want to do for the rest of my time on this planet, I want to work on things that are really going to have a positive impact on the world.
Following that was the opportunity to create the media company of the future. Not to hype it too much, but we think we have a take on what a new-model media company can be. I’ve been a musician my whole life, and I’ve always had a real soft spot for artists of all types. I wanted to create a company that could be a real haven for creatives and for makers. The whole ethos of the company is to work with really interesting creators to tell important stories across a variety of mediums, whether it’s film, TV, digital, or podcasts.
The business you are in is so fast moving. When you got your degree in communication, so much of the current technology wasn’t even around. How do you stay innovative? How do you become a life-long learner?
I believe that always staying curious is the most important attribute one can have. And being a willing and voracious learner. And to have no ego about that. When you stop learning, you stop growing. I was a young executive in the Bay Area when the internet started. Mistakes and failure were not only expected but encouraged, because you learn from them. The mantra is “fail fast”—fail fast, learn, and iterate. Whereas the world of big media has traditionally been the other side of the coin, which is that people fear failure and [have] long product cycles and a hits-driven business where if you have a failure, it can mean the death of a company or a career. In this new world, we have this nice hybrid model—we are fusing the best of technology with the best of media.
How cool was it to go to the Oscars and to have “Spotlight”—which was co-produced by First Look Media—win best picture?
It was very cool. It was a blast. Winning the Oscar was surreal because we didn’t expect to. It seemed to most people that “The Revenant” was going to win. It turned into an incredible 48 hours. The after party in particular! I think it turned into one of the cooler parties in town because a lot of people were excited that the underdog won.
Away from the glitz and glamour of the Oscars, the two most important things about the “Spotlight” experience are, one, that it woke people up that investigative journalism is really important for a vibrant and properly functioning democracy. I heard journalism schools saying ‘Our journalism students have a spring in their step because all of the sudden it’s cool to be journalists again.’ And second, [the movie] was a platform for the survivors to come forward and speak.
This Q&A was featured in our 2016-2017 issue of SBS Developments.