Former New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Ian Urbina admits that his desire to explore and try things others might not has at times put him in danger, taking him from war zones to the high seas and most recently to a high-stakes publicity dust-up with musicians and a YouTube influencer.
For Urbina, the adventures began early. As a child, he was fascinated by Jane Goodall, the famous primatologist, whose adventures among the apes, who warred with and wooed each other in the treetops, transported him into a new world. Over the years, the adventures kept changing, but Urbina’s thirst for exploration was a constant.
This desire to tackle tough stories and go to difficult places led to some significant journalistic accomplishments at an early age, but it has also come with risks. More recently he faced a backlash from a collection of disgruntled musicians that he had recruited into an unusual collaboration melding art with journalism.
He had scholarly adventures too. He graduated from Georgetown University. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Havana. In between, Urbina studied history and anthropology as a doctoral student at the University of Chicago.
Straight out of graduate school, Urbina scored a job as a New York Times reporter in 2003, initially working on the Metro desk and working his way up to become the Mid-Atlantic Bureau chief. It wasn’t long before his award-winning work caught the eye of Hollywood — Urbina’s 2007 investigative report on troubled teenagers became the road trip drama film “American Honey,” starring actor Shia LeBeouf.
Next, Urbina was part of an investigative team that discovered New York governor Eliot Spitzer was paying prostitutes some $4,000 an hour. Soon the governor resigned and Urbina won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009.
Investigating lawless and outrageous behavior on the world’s oceans was his next adventure. He spent four years interviewing and understanding pirates, smugglers and stowaways. His series of reports for the New York Times soon became a book, “The Outlaw Ocean,” published in 2015. It was an instant bestseller.
Ian Urbina’s reporting on pirates and smugglers developed into a bestselling book and later led him to found the Outlaw Ocean Project. (Photo by Eric T White/Courtesy of Ian Urbina)
“I was enamored with the notion of going to really distant places,” Urbina told Zenger. “The ocean emerged as space travel on earth. You get into this spaceship. It’s called a boat. And travel to this really foreign realm, and there are all of these fascinating people out. They are sort of this diaspora transient tribe of people that you rarely hear from. They have their own code of ethics and language and superstitions and crime.”
Some people would be content with a bestselling book and a pile of praise. Not Urbina. Instead, he quit the Times in 2019 to launch the Outlaw Ocean Project, through which he planned to produce investigative stories in partnership with news outlets around the world. Urbina envisioned bringing in new audiences by incorporating elements of the arts, including music, live performance and visual imagery. “These are things,” said Urbina, “I couldn’t have done at the Times.”
Just last month, Urbina and his non-profit published a story that nearly got him killed as he was taken captive by a militia in Libya. He was severely beaten, his ribs broken, and held in a secret prison for a week during a reporting effort to land an investigation that was published by The New Yorker magazine.
On the Mediterranean, Urbina found that Arab and African migrants were turned back by European coast patrols and locked up in a ramshackle series of buildings on the Libyan coast. That facility was run by a local militia, notorious for its human rights abuses. Urbina’s story on the atrocities earned nationwide acclaim and is being translated into more than 20 languages.
During his five years of reporting, Urbina was constantly recording “rhythmic sounds like machine-gun fire off the coast of Somalia and chanting captive deckhands on the South China Sea.” He began wondering if he could work with musicians to create original music inspired by the sounds of danger on the seas. In time, he recruited almost 500 musicians to compose for his compilation album.
But he was about to learn that musicians can also be creative about complaints.
After Urbina’s many successful peaks are often deep valleys. The latest of these began with the release of a Dec. 2 YouTube video in which musician Benn Jordan accused Urbina of running a “scam” that cheated hundreds of artists who participated in the nonprofit’s companion effort, The Outlaw Ocean Music Project. Jordan was one of many musicians approached by Urbina since 2019 to contribute material to the project.
Jordan’s YouTube accusations ranged widely: Urbina courted individual musicians without making it clear that the project was meant to expand and include hundreds of artists; that he used his New York Times email address after he left the news organization; and that the musicians did not end up making as much money as they should because Urbina allegedly took a portion of the royalties under his Synesthesia Media label.
At the end of his video, Jordan seeks an apology from Urbina and for musicians to be released from their contracts. Urbina has now done both of these things. Still, Jordan is not placated.
“The one thing that rings out to me more than anything is that he reached out to me and told me he was a big longtime fan of my music, and I would hedge my bets that he had never listened to it before. And he did that to thousands of artists,” Jordan told Zenger. “How could he possibly say, ‘I never intended to be misleading’ when he had done that? What you have at the end of the day is a con and, as many different ways as I try to look at it, I just can’t be convinced otherwise.”
Other musicians felt misled in other ways.
When Brian Trifon signed his band “Trifonic” to Urbina’s label in 2019, he was intrigued at the idea of possible exposure and recognition that could come from an “Outlaw Ocean” soundtrack album.
But Trifonic’s enthusiasm soon cooled.
“I don’t know that Ian set out to scam musicians — I think he was naive and careless, but in the end what he did very much had the appearance of a scam even if unintentional,” Trifon told Zenger.
On social media, the music community has been divided, with many saying that Urbina was up front in the way he did business and a smaller set accusing him of misleading them or attempting to profit from their work. Some journalists have leaped to Urbina’s defense, condemning Jordan and “YouTube journalism” for mistakes and omissions.
Among the mistakes, they allege, was claiming that Urbina’s nonprofit did not exist. The OO Project, Inc. is officially registered and produces reporting for major outlets, including the New Yorker magazine.
The video also alleges that Urbina hid the fact that he created the label behind the music project, and that the music project had not been clear about its ambitions to recruit many musicians. But on the music project’s website and in various public interviews Urbina has said openly that Synesthesia is a label he created to run the music project.
Urbina issued an apology on Dec. 7 on The Outlaw Ocean Music Project website and acknowledged that mistakes were made in communication. He has restructured Synesthesia to allow all artists to receive 100 percent of any future earnings from their music and to allow them to leave the project with their music if they choose.
“You convince artists to invest their time, brand, effort, audience, trust and creativity into your project, it’s important to communicate with them fully, ensure they get royalty statements and paid on time, answer their questions quickly. I failed to do these things. The label I created to run the project and the subcontractor I hired to do these things surely could have done much better. I apologize unequivocally,” Urbina posted on his website.
“We have tried to be straight in handling this and not accusatory or defensive,” Urbina told Zenger. “You learn through this process. You try to be straight and open and learn where you made your mistakes and defend yourself when you don’t think you did.”
As part of that process, Urbina also shifted all revenue splits so that from now on any money earned by the music goes only to the musicians, and he allowed any musicians that want to republish their music elsewhere to do so.
Reactions have been divided in news outlets and on social media, where musicians and journalists have vented their anger at Urbina over his perceived slights of their work. Many musicians have also pointed at Jordan for what some say is an unfounded takedown of a journalist who, even Jordan acknowledges, is doing important work.
Jon Kennedy, who contributed a 4-track EP “Hell or High Water” to the project, said his belief in the work did not change after watching the video. In fact, he signed on to a second Urbina-led project featuring recordings of linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky.
“There was nothing in Benn’s video that wasn’t in plain sight in the contract, and the contract represents nothing unusual in the music business,” Kennedy told Zenger. “I am still baffled as to why this has all made such conversation! Benn’s argument falls on deaf ears to someone like me who has been in the industry long enough to know this is a completely normal way of musicians being treated and handled.”
Jordan remains skeptical about the project. “If anybody who watched my video and followed the situation took away that they should value themselves and their intellectual property more, that they should ask for upfront money and be paid not with promotion but with money crossing their palm, if anybody had that takeaway, then I’m happy,” Jordan said.
Urbina said that while 60 artists have left the project since the release of the YouTube video, about 440 have stayed, many of whom have cited their belief in the mission. As for the accusation that he is profiting from the musicians, bank statements supplied by Urbina and reviewed by Zenger show that $130,000 has gone into the project compared to $49,000 earned.
“If it was a financial scam, it’s the worst one ever planned,” Urbina said. “I think we were very open with people about the mission and its size and our intention to get as big as possible.
“Maybe we should have been clearer, but I was sort of shocked that people were as frustrated as they were,” he said.
Now Urbina is on an adventure of self-criticism. “I should have communicated better and more clearly with artists, ensured that subcontractors were getting royalties and statements to musicians faster and more fully, and if at the outset I sensed that musicians were hesitant about signing on to the project, I likely should have discouraged them more firmly,” Urbina said.
The goal was and remains to try new, more collaborative and creative ways to get a younger and more global audience to consume journalism that we think is urgent and worthy, Urbina added.
“My hope is that only those who still believe in the mission of the reporting and try to amplify it will stay involved.”
Edited by Kristen Butler and Judith Isacoff
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