The recent death of 26 year-old entrepreneur Jake Millar prompted an angry backlash against the media over coverage of his failed venture Unfiltered. Some in business cited tall poppy syndrome and claimed the media scrutiny of risk-takers and innovators must change. But what sort of coverage should they expect?
Unfiltered was unusual - an online service offering paying subscribers long video interviews, mostly conducted by Millar himself, with other businesspeople and innovators and investors.
Some of the subjects even invested in Unfiltered later, alongside millions of dollars of venture capital.
A Crown agency - NZ Venture Investment Fund - took a stake too and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise and the University of Auckland’s Business School also backed it.
Jake Millar’s own backstory was also compelling for investors and the media alike. He’d been in business since he was a schoolboy and his father died in an air accident.
He co-founded the company with Yuuki Ogino but it was the snappily-dressed charismatic Millar who was the face, voice and image of Unfiltered.
When Forbes picked him as one of 30 upcoming entrepreneurs under the age of 30 in 2019, he told RNZ's Morning Report it was “surreal” to be included in a list he had used to source subjects for interviews to monetise.
But to business journalists, the likely value seemed way out of kilter with the investment in it - and the claims of backers.
“I commend your business acumen but I am curious to know what you offer that is different from multitudinous TED Talks and other similar things. The market you're moving into is pretty crowded,” NBR journalist Dita Di Boni told Jake Millar in an interview in 2019.
NBR also reported that the interviews weren't ‘unfiltered’. Some subjects had creative control over the final edit and some of it was effectively content marketing, which is really a form of advertising.
Some investors lost faith in both the business and Millar last year - and they were prepared to tell the media why.
In February NBR reported some high-net-worth Kiwis were “out of pocket and angry” when Jake Millar suddenly sold Unfiltered to Crimson Education - a company founded by his friend and fellow young entrepreneur Jamie Beaton - for a sum reported to be just $US60,000 and some shares.
All that made for quite a story for the media.
Crimson called the acquisition “a partnership,” but New Zealand Herald investigations reporter Matt Nippert labelled it “a garage sale” under the headline: From hype to gripe: Unfiltered collapse sparks shareholder anger
The NBR pointed out that both Crimson and Unfiltered had claimed wage subsidies in 2020, despite backing from American billionaire Julian Robertson and to venture capital funds and Sir John Key.
The fact that Jake Millar went to Kenya and then went incommunicado heightened the media's interest in what had gone wrong.
But the next time Millar made the news was when he died late last month.
Pointing the finger
Friends, acquaintances and fellow entrepreneurs were quick to sheet the blame home - at least in part - to the media.
On the online business network LinkedIn, Jamie Beaton claimed journalists had targeted Millar, especially the NBR whose owner Todd Scott had aggressively pursued Millar to go on the record about the unraveling of Unfiltered.
Some on LinkedIn even urged NBR customers to cancel their subscriptions.
Jenene Crossan, the founder of online businesses NZ Girl and Powered by Flossie, claimed she pleaded with reporters to back off Jake Millar earlier this year.
Instead, she said, they reported on “an otherwise pretty ordinary and quite vanilla-flavoured business failure” with “spectacular delight”.
The medical equipment innovator Sir Ray Avery - who has had his own run-ins with the media - condemned what he called “clickbait assassination journalism”. He claimed Jake Millar himself had told him that “a tsunami” of media attention here had driven him away.
This prompted pushback from others on the same forum.
“Fair and balanced reporting should not be stifled, nor should honorable and genuine reporters be tried like this,” said former TVNZ journalist Lisa Glass, now a PR professional.
“Even if you genuinely believed this young man was driven out by the media, labeling individuals as the cause of complex personal tragedies, is both unhelpful and cruel,” she said.
Former journalist-turned tech sector PR man Paul Brislen said that people in business need to understand the role of media.
“It's not about cheerleading, it's not about advertising. It's not about promoting you or your products. It's about holding power to account,” he wrote.
“Blaming journalists really misses the point of what journalists do, and why it's important,” he said.
Dialing it down
Two days after lashing the media for their reporting of Jake Millar last week, Jamie Beaton reconsidered.
“The reporters and commentators are people doing their jobs. And as an entrepreneur, if we seek coverage for our wins, then we have to front up to our losses. I know this better than most and understand the trade we make,” he told his followers on LinkedIn.
But plenty of the people who put their names to some fierce criticism of the media on LinkedIn clearly didn't.
In a story this week about the special strains faced by founders of fast-growing start-ups, some entrepreneurs spoke of “toxic criticism” to the Herald’s Andrea Fox.
Dr Amanda Williamson, lecturer in innovation and strategy at Waikato University, told the Herald a problem of "surface acting" by entrepreneurs needs to be addressed.
"'Fake it until you make it' is a big saying. You've got to act confident to get the money. People don't want to let down the mask, they're very afraid of sharing the harsh realities of what they're going through," she said.
“If our attitude in New Zealand business and media culture is that failure is unacceptable and will be mocked and punished brutally, we will make Kiwi entrepreneurship extinct, and fast,“ Andrew Barnes - the founder of Perpetual Guardian wrote in the Herald back in March.
On BusinessDesk under the headline Lessons from the death of a start-up founder, technology journalist Peter Griffin said the entrepreneurs do suffer “silent despair” and some fear exposure of their shortcomings or failures.
Did the media deserve the criticism after Jake Millar died?
But the media’s job is to tell it like it is - even if it amplifies anxiety for the subject of a story.
“There was one instance of media behaviour which involved a message the publisher of the NBR sent to Jake, though it wasn't published in any newspaper or anything like that. This crossed the line into bullying ... and I think the publisher accepts that now that that was a really poor thing to do,” Peter Griffin told Mediawatch.
“That aside, the stories about the collapse of Unfiltered were fair,” he said.
“What surprises many people is the amount of coverage. This was a relatively small start-up with a few million dollars involved. But a lot of big names were interviewed as part of Unfiltered,” he said.
“What journalists latched onto was the contrast between a guy who had an incredible network of successful people, yet something went wrong in the culture of this business that led to its own failure,” he said.
“And if you court the media and the hype that goes with it on the way up - you are going to face a lot more scrutiny when things fail,” he said.
Are any business journalists really out to ‘get’ tall poppies, as the critics claimed after the death of Millar?
“Look, I just don't see it,” Griffin told Mediawatch.
“This year we’ve had Rocket Lab list on the NASDAQ, Allbirds list on the NASDAQ. We've had Vend, Ninja Kiwi and Timely. This is all being celebrated in the media. But along the way, there are legitimate questions that need to be answered,” he said.
“Rocket Lab had a lot of questions about the military contracts that it's engaged in and how much money the government has pumped into the space industry that benefits Rocket Lab,” he said.
“There's been questions raised about the work culture at Rocket Lab too - and Peter Beck and the people there have responded,” he said.
“I think it's just really different cultures. A lot of the start-up people that I interview from time to time are head-down in their businesses. They don't have a heck of a lot of time to really engage with the media, other than in a transactional way when they need to sell their product, or raise money,” he said,
“There's an immaturity around the approach to media that that really needs to be addressed,” said Peter Griffin, who introduced media training for media-phobic scientists and experts when he ran the Science Media Centre.
“A lot of (entrepreneurs) will hire public relations companies with that specific aim. They get this sort of view in their mind that the media is a tool to exploit. Rather than being something for me to genuinely engage with, build relationships with journalists, and be prepared for scrutiny.
“A few years back, Newsroom really called (Sir Ray Avery) out on some of his business activities and some of the claims he was making. There were genuine questions there ... after years of very positive media coverage,” Griffin said.
“The stories withstood Media Council complaints and legal challenges,” he said.
"The Media Council accepts that journalists must be able to carry out robust investigative journalism, even if that involves implicit or direct criticism of institutions or individuals in the public eye," the council noted in its ruling.
Avery even tried, unsuccessfully, to use the so-called ‘cyberbullying law’ - the Harmful Digital Communications Act - to address grievances about Newsroom’s reporting.
Shifting the focus from the founders
The Spinoff also tracked the rise and fall of Unfiltered - and the claims and conduct of Jake Millar as it unraveled.
In another article reflecting on Millar’s death, managing editor Duncan Greive - a start-up founder himself - set out some of Jake Millar’s sensitivities and pushback over what was published.
“If there is a lesson to be drawn from it, critiquing the media seems a shallow one,” he said.
He also concluded the intense focus on the founders of these start-ups - whether successful or not - is unhealthy for everyone.
“Get rid of the mythos and allow for the complexity of reality, and we might allow them to recover from the consequences of both success and failure with their lives intact,” he wrote.
“As reporting on Millar has been subjected to intense critiques, it seems strange that his investors have escaped a similar trial,” Greive wrote.
“But when it fell apart, he and most of his fellow investors failed to respond to requests for comment,” he noted.
“For practical considerations, the media are guilty of focusing on one personality - the CEO, the founder,” Peter Griffin told Mediawatch.
“At Unfiltered [it] was a co founder. Jake had someone else with with them who really never got any media exposure. Having some of them stepping up and taking some of the burden off Jake I think would have been really useful,” he said.
All of this was discussed by some people in the tech and business world last weekend, including Callaghan Innovation CEO Vic Crone and Jenene Crossan.
They don't want this to happen again.
But business journalists are not psychologists - and certainly not counselors. How are they supposed to work out if something they publish might put the subject of the story at risk?
“If you have direct knowledge that there is potential harm in publishing something, that would give me pause to think,” Griffin said.
“Should this be delayed? Or could we defer this or phrase it in a different way or have someone else from the organisation front the story - maybe one of those investors or someone like that,” he said.
“With sportspeople and with celebrities the media (sometimes) make those allowances, but ultimately that cannot stop the hard questions that need to be asked at some point,” he said.
“We do have ethical standards in the media. People ... have recourse to the Media Council and the Broadcasting Standards Authority - and there are ethical standards and charters that we must adhere to,” he said.
“It's just these two cultures that don't quite understand each other.”
LinkedIn going feral
The most stinging criticism of the media in the wake of Jake Millar’s death was to be found on the Microsoft-owned online business network LinkedIn.
“There definitely is something going on with LinkedIn,” Peter Griffin told Mediawatch.
“Most (people) use it as their default resume and that's what its primary purpose was. But it’s become in the last few years much more of a social network. A lot of business people are quite libertarian in their outlook ... and some of the businesses have been devastated by by Covid restrictions,” he said.
“My network is mainly tech and science people, but I'm starting to see people like a plumber from Tauranga appearing in my news feed with 3000 comments on his post railing against Covid passports,” he said.
“The algorithms that underpin this network, like any other social network, are elevating that stuff because the technology is saying, this is where the conversation is happening - but I don't want to see this stuff,” he said.
“People need to realise how damaging that can be for your reputation. This is your background, your history, your reputation on the line. If you really start getting intemperate and inappropriate on LinkedIn, everyone is going to see that and that could have serious consequences for your reputation,” Griffin told Mediawatch.