When was the last time you visited MediaTakeOut? Last week? Yesterday? This morning? Hell, the site is probably open in one your browser tabs right now. We know this because since it launched in 2006, MediaTakeOut.com (MTO) has carved out a comfortable niche for itself as one of—if not the—premier urban celebrity news website. We would tell you to think of it like a mix between TMZ and The Drudge Report, but we’re sure you already know that seeing as how there’s a good chance you’re one of the 14 million people who make their way to the site to find out which celeb is cheating on their spouse, peep the latest nude picture leak, or to just see where your favorite celeb is currently eating and with whom. @mediatakeouttv.
However, unlike other extremely popular websites, the guy behind MTO is relatively unknown. Founder and CEO, Fred Mwangaguhunga, doesn't have his identity tied up in the identity of the site. He stays in the background, making sure people get their daily fix of whatever it is they came to the site to see. In his mind, MTO simply generates content its viewers want, nothing more. Think there's been a lot of Kim Kardashian coverage lately? Well, that's because lately a lot of visitors have been clicking on Kim Kardashian stories. It may sound like a simple, even tired, formula, but it works. It works so well, its enabled Mr. Mwangaguhunga to branch out into the world of online video. Yesterday, MTO aired the first episode of its dating show, First Date (peep the trailer below), and plans to launch more shows in the future. We met up with Fred a few months ago at the Mandarin Oriental in Columbus Circle to talk about how the site came to be, how the operation runs, and why MediaTakeOut is not bad for black people.
Before we get to MediaTakeOut, let’s talk about your childhood.
I grew up in New York. I was a typical teen growing up in the late 80s, early 90s. I listened to hip-hop. Growing up in Queens, Run DMC was always there as well as a ton of other rappers, so urban culture has always been big, but I had this other side of me where I went to school I studied pre-law, then went to law school and business school. You kind have this one side of you that has traditional school telling you to go through the mainstream business and Wall Street, then you have the stuff that you’re really into—the music you listen to, the clubs you go to. On a personal standpoint the world of entertainment was a lot more interesting to me than the world of Wall Street. But if you do well enough in school and you try to do well in life, you always find your way to Wall Street. I ended up on Wall Street and did well. It was hard to turn down.
Why was it so hard to turn down?
When I graduated from Columbia, there I was on Wall Street at 25 yrs old making $150,000. It’s hard at that age—here I am ballin’ hard—you almost feel like an NFL or NBA player. All my boys and me would go to the club and we’d have bottle service. I did that for a while and actually got pretty good at it. I feel like if you’re in entrepreneurship you’re thrust into it.
What exactly were you doing on Wall Street?
I was a corporate tax return lawyer. The business I was working for was particularly good at doing financial products, so we advised companies, especially banks, and educated them on financial products, it wasn’t really exciting or mentally challenging—there were very few people that understood what I did so I was in unity with 10,000 people in the world and no one else knew. I was good at it so I was plugged away, getting better at it, learning a lot and the people at the firm actually liked me. The firm had a good amount of black people, but I was the only black person in the section I was in. As far as colleague went at that level, I don’t think there were any black people in New York. Maybe there was one or two. That’s how it was back then. So it was tough to come to this decision to give up all this money and this job that I don’t love but am still pretty good at. I decided that I had to get out on my own and start my own business ‘cause that’s what I wanted to do. I made the jump and initially started a laundry service.
You left Wall Street to start a laundry service?
Yeah, it was similar to Fresh Direct. People would log on and schedule a pickup and delivery time then we’d come by with our van, pick it up and take it back to our factory in Long Island City and do the laundry and return it to them. We did that for two years. It was tough; the Laundry business and restaurant business are probably the two toughest businesses to get into and I probably underestimated how difficult it was. That being said we did a lot of good planning and what made it different was that we had a lot of room for error and we didn’t suck at it.
What happened to it?
The laundry spot grew a lot faster than we expected, it started off slow but it grew quickly in the second year of operations and we were posed with this dilemma of we didn’t have the facilities to actually continue the way that we were and we could either go out and raise a good amount of money and then build it in the way it should’ve been built all along. The alternative was to sell it off to one of our competitors. We decided to sell for a number of reasons. Sometimes I look back at it and I still believe in the idea and think it would’ve been really great, but that’s not what happened, so we got out of the business, we didn’t make a ton of money we didn’t lose any money.
Is this when you decided to start MediaTakeOut?
Yes. After that, I could’ve went back to practice law but I wasn’t interested in that so I said, let me see if there’s another business I was interested in, but there weren’t a lot of business opportunities out there. With the laundry service, we didn’t spend a lot of money on ads, when we did it was on ads on small websites that were popping up called blogs. At the time no one really knew about ‘em they were really, really niche but they worked really well for the market demographic we were targeting: female, 25-44 years old, professional. That was exactly who were reading the blogs all the time so we advertised to a ton of them.
It’s easy to take for granted what a blog is now but then it was so new. I could see that there was real growth in that area and it wasn’t just me seeing it. A couple months later we could no longer afford ads on Gothamist. I remember when we just started it was about $150 for the month and you’d be the only person advertising and you’d have 100% coverage but by the time we sold the [laundry] business the best ad you could get for a month was $45,000. The explosive growth was obvious. So when I decided to sell the laundry spot I was like, Why not go into this blog thing there weren’t yet a ton of them out there. I didn’t necessarily think about urban blogging at first. I knew that there were maybe two or three at the time so I was like let me at least tap into that urban market by putting something out there. But I wasn’t necessarily sold initially on just being the urban blog, I was more so interested in putting out stuff that I thought people would be interested in.
So how did MTO change into an urban site?
I was able to see what was going on in the back end and then based on what people were clicking on, I would give them more of that. Why it was the black stories that were getting clicked the most? I don’t know. Maybe it was because they under represented in the blogosphere at the time. Maybe it was cause I emailed all my friends who happened to be black and that’s what they were interested in so that’s why they were clicking. However it happened the urban stories were getting by far the most views.
Why the name MediaTakeOut?
It goes back to the initial idea. It was never intended to be an urban blog, the idea was a takeout menu, so you saw a little bit of urban, a little bit of sports, and you would click on it like you’re picking in a takeout menu. The initial logo was a takeout box.
Can you talk about the layout of the site? It’s a very simple design that gives readers basically everything in one go.
Initially the design was heavily influenced by The Drudge Report. The site was incredibly popular and put as much info in front of your eyes as possible. You have to understand the psychology of your audience. Your audience is at work, looking at 50 different websites, ESPN on one tab YouTube on another tab. Maybe they have 10 minutes to look, or their boss is going to be there soon so they gotta click off and what they really want to do is get as much as they possibly can on one page. This was even bigger when we first started because a lot of times people had slow Internet connections, people still had dial-up we started. The idea was always to give people as much content as we can in that small surface area. If there is a major difference between us and most of the other websites it’s that our number one focus is giving our readers exactly what they want. That’s what MediaTakeOut is about. That’s why it was structured that way. You ask why is something is the top story, It’s because that’s what they want,
Advertisers must not like that approach.
Advertisers do not like MediaTakeOut. Advertisers say what you have to do is change up your ads every six months because then as you change it and move your ads around, miraculously people click on the ads more than they did before. I’m not sure if that’s true. Last month, an advertiser offered us a lot of money if we would put one of those stupid ads you have before the site for a one-week campaign. The answer was no. I don’t want to piss off the millions of people that follow MediaTakeOut. They don’t want to see that garbage. I’m not going to make everyone take an extra step to click
How big is your staff?
Four people. When I see people with 10 or 20 bloggers, I’m thinking, What the hell are those guys doing? Everyone does everything including me. I’m out there doing research, making phone calls, talking to people coming up with deadlines, looking at photos every morning.
Take me through a day at MediaTakeOut.
The entire process begins on Monday at about 2 AM. That’s with me getting up and taking a look at all of this stuff that came via email or from whenever I went to bed. you’d be surprised how much information actually comes at night. It takes about a half hour or so to get through all of that. Then you go to the photo agencies. We have agreements with just about every photo agency out there and they all begin to send new photos between the night before or late in the day. The one thing that’s difficult is lets say you got a photo of Ciara, Jennifer Hudson, and Ashanti. No Beyonce, no Rihanna. That’s when the team comes in around 4 AM and usually I have an idea of how many photos I can use and how many stories we’ll need to fill. That’s when we are really are lucky to have this team because they go out and they find stuff on Twitter or something someone emailed us two weeks ago that we didn’t use because we already had someone looking crazy for the day.
You have to figure out stuff that’s gonna work and on a day-to-day basis and people would be surprised how incredibly difficult it is to do but I have really, really great people and they can do it. So betweem 4 and 4:45 we try to find what we’re gonna do. We haven’t talked about layout yet or the jokes we’re gonna use, the headlines, so we do that and we separate it, divvy up all the assignments. Usually, the top two stories are done already the day before so we don’t have to worry about those. My time is then spent looking at headlines making sure everything’s working and then there is a good amount of convo happening among people. Sometimes you get a last minute confirmation about something. It’s really a busy time for everyone to get everything together but like magic lo and behold by about 8:30 AM the entire site comes together and then it’s a matter of making sure we like everything have everything in the right areas.
So you update once a day?
Yes. Well technically, there are some breaking stories that will come in, but for the most part it’s all up there.
What percentage of the stories on your site do you actually vet through actual reporting, fact-checking, being on the phone, etc.
I would say that, because neither I nor any of my staff have ever been professional reporters, I'm not sure what that means. But I can tell you that we look into everything before we publish it. And 99 percent of the time that you read something on MTO, we actually held back a little bit of the story. At the end of the day, we aren't looking to ruin people. Our audience doesn't want that. Our audience doesn't want to be going to a place that is trying to bring down black people. All we are going to do is tell you our business, and keep it moving. If you deny it? We aren't going to fight you on it. If you tell us, Oh, that wasn't you in the club, with that girl, we're not going to deny it, we aren't going to fight you on it. Keep it moving, you save face, do whatever you need to do, and that's that.
I remember you once saying you have a lie detector on call. Is that true?
Yeah, we've used a lie detector. We've got this one guy, he's done a lot of work with the National Inquirer and a bunch of other places, he actually worked for the FBI and the CIA for a while, and we've sent people over to him. The best thing we call him for is if there is something particularly scandalous, we are taking you right to the lie detector.
Can you give me an example of a story that needed to be vetted through a lie detector?
There are a bunch, but probably the biggest one, we had a report that, I'd been working on for a week. It was a young man who was claiming that he was molested by a very very prominent gospel singer. And he had everything, he had all these ducks in a row, he knew the guys wife's name, knew what his house looked like, what the inside looked like, he literally had everything. At the time, the gospel singer and his wife were going through some stuff, and I actually had a decent relationship with the gospel singer. So I called his wife, and I was like “we are doing a story about your estranged husband, this is what this kid said.” And I asked her point blank like, “do you know anything about this?” and she was like “I don't know anything about that.” And then I said “You know the man, do you think he's capable of anything like this?” And she said, “He could do this.” And she said it with a straight face. And so at that point I'm like, everything that the kid said checked out, the wife is like “maybe he did do it.” We probably could've gone with it. But just to be 100 percent, we told the guy why don't you go down and take the lie detector test. He took the lie detector and he fails. He clearly was lying about the whole thing. Then it comes out that the guy had a vendetta against (the gospel singer). So, we've done it, and we do it all the time.
So what about the posts that deal with speculation? The ones that concern a celebrities dating life, for example. Are these just placed for filler?
No, I mean usually there is something to it. A lot of times it's not just that two people are in a photograph. Sometimes the paparazzi are saying these guys were together and we snapped a picture of them. The photo might not be able to tell you that, but the person who took the photo is saying it. And that's something that the reader might not get themselves. A big reason is that we've been trained to say, if they are in a photo, then it ain't happen. I see them together, but I don't see them fucking on a couch. But if a man and women are together and the person that took the photo is saying, “Yo, look! These two are together! But this is all I have, I don't have them kissing, I don't have them making out.” And we put that photo up and say, “Look! People say these two are together, that's all we can say. We can't say, Oh they are together or they're not, we can say this is what the word is and this is what the photo is. The other side of it is to understand sort of what MTO is. When you look at MTO and you read it, we are very much the US Weekly for black people. And if you pick up US Weekly and you open it up, you will see the same thing, right? You will see Sean Penn is sitting next to Scarlett Johanssen. Are they together? Well nobody knows but you can see them walking in together. So we are just doing what the readers are interested in and what this genre is interested in.
MTO is known for is being the first with a lot of leaked celebrity pictures. You guys were one of the first with the Rihanna leaks that came out. What’s the process that goes into getting these images?
It really is all over the place, how we get photos. Some of them, someone just says, “Hey, I took this with my cell phone camera, here it is.” Other times someone will say hey, I've been holding this for a while, I want to give it to you. Sometimes you can say, I took this and I want to put it out there. We tend to stay away from buying pictures. And the reason why is because once you create a financial incentive, the lies are a lot more difficult to catch. People, if they know they can make $10,000 by lying to MTO, they will come up with a really good lie and it will be really, really hard for us to tell. So as a general practice we try to stay away from that. A lot of times the snitches will be celebrities. When you talk about somebody who did something in the VIP, who’s in the VIP? So they will tell us what’s going on, and they will be like “If I tell you this, I’m coming out with my album and I’m doing this” the answer is “OK.” We will hook this up. So there are all kinds of other barters and arrangements that we can come up with to get something, to get information, photos.
Is there every a time you won’t post pictures someone sends you?
Yeah. I mean, usually the biggest line is you have to have some sort of legal basis for actually having the photograph. You can’t be like “Listen, I found Jay-Z’s laptop, I broke into his crib and I’ve got naked pictures of Beyonce.” I can’t do anything with this. You can’t take some stolen shit and run with it. Maybe it will get up on the Internet somewhere. You’d be surprised how much stolen shit—naked pictures there are that just never make it to the Internet. It always happens. I’ve seen some really crazy...
Of big celebrities?
Yeah! Like pictures of Usher and Tameka Foster. I’ve seen them. They were real, him banging someone’s wife. And it’s not on the Internet, and it’s not going to be on the internet. You know why? Because the person, who has those photographs, really thinks that they have a million dollar photograph. The problem is, anyone with a million dollars is not going to buy that photograph because they know they are not buying anything because they can’t post it. The only person that will buy it is the person with $100 who will throw it up on their blog. So the dude is thinking, I’m not selling this thing for $100, so it just keeps getting deeper forever. And this happens for all kinds of photographs that are out there. And the person that has them is thinking, “I’ve got this million dollar photograph, why isn’t anyone paying me a million dollars.” Because TMZ looks at it and says, that’s a stolen photograph, I can’t pay you for that. I can’t pay 25 cents for that. I’ll look at it and say “that’s a stolen photograph, I can’t pay 25 cents for that.” So the market value is at nothing.
One thing I find interesting is the censorship that happens on MTO. When the Amber Rose photos leaked, a lot of people were saying Wow I can’t believe these leaked. The second conversation was: why is MTO blurring the photos?
That’s the number one question I get: Why are you blurring the images? [laughs]. If we get some good naked celebrity pictures, we’re putting it out. If we have license and have good belief behind it, we’re putting it out. But if you start getting three naked pictures in a week and you put them up, people start saying, “What type of site is this? You guys are turning into porn.” But it’s not like we’re doing this on purpose. When you get something like that you have to go. There have been plenty of times when we held a story and lost it. So you can’t hold a story for very long. There was a time when we got three of them in one week. People were writing letters to us like, “Yo, I’m at work, I can’t keep looking at titties and all that.” So we decided to ramp it down and blurr some of this stuff out, and you get the gist of this. And a lot of people, especially the women, aren’t interested in seeing all the nooks and crannies of what’s going on. They just want to see what she’s wearing, if her room’s clean, if she’s wearing draws. But guys want to see everything. So a lot of the dudes will say, just open it up, we want to see what you got. So a lot of the most recent ones we blurred them.
How do you feel when people compare your site with WorldStarHipHop?
Q’s a really smart business guy. Out of all the people you have out there, me and him are probably, out of all the people that you have out there are probably the true visionaries of this industry. So I get what he’s doing, he gets what I’m doing. I think he’s running a very popular site. If someone puts us in that light, I don’t see that as negative.
How do you see MTO in comparison to other celebrity news sites?
I think we’re different than every other blog in two senses. One is: When you think about what MediaTakeOut is, it really is about our audience in a way that dictates what we do. If the audience tomorrow said we are interested in President Obama and what’s going on in the 2012 election, and that was what was getting the most hits on there, that’s what MediaTakeout will run. Public interest changes—I’ve been in this business for five years now and I’ve seen dramatic changes in who’s interesting and who’s not. The people who were big when we first started are not even around anymore. So when you think about it like that, you don’t think of it like, Oh this is a gossip site, this is about women. When you start to say, No, this is about black folks. And what black folks are doing, thinking, and interested in right now. What we are, I think, is an accurate reflection of black culture as it is right now. If you want to know what urban culture is right now look at MediaTakeOut. You want to see who’s hot? Check out Media Takeout.
I remember when Rihanna first came out, the three biggest black female celebrities were Beyonce, Ashanti, and Ciara. The question was always, Who’s the best of those three? And we started saying, It’s really not about those three, it’s really about who’s the best: Beyonce or Rihanna? The average person was saying what the hell are you talking about? Who’s Rihanna. This is before she had “Umbrella”. By the time she even launched “Umbrella” we had her on our site. She was getting 200, 300,000 hits and at the time that was huge. It’s same idea with Amber Rose. Before she started seeing Kanye, her or her manager would always send us images. We looked at her and said, you know, she is sort of interesting, she has that blonde hair, but she looks like the same old magazine model. But then she started dating Kanye, and even though I said she looked like a regular video chick, I noticed the spike. It was really high. People were compelled; they were in love with this chick. Everyone wanted to know what this girl was doing. At one point we were doing six Amber Rose posts a week. She was right behind Beyonce and ahead of Rihanna. That’s the way we operate.
You may say you give the people want they want, but there are a lot of people who feel like MTO is horrible for black people. What do you say to them?
The first thing I’d say is: It’s not all negative. Sometimes we’re just talking about people’s relationships. The second thing I’d say is: There has been an incredible change in the way black celebrities are being treated and that’s directly attributed to the success of MediaTakeOut. Let me give you an example. When we started MediaTakeOut, we would talk to celebrities all the time and they would be angry. Not the A-List guys, but the B- and C- List people like the Tyler Perry actors. When they would go to a red carpet the paparazzi wouldn’t even take their pictures. You would look at US Weekly, they wouldn’t show any black people. The Best Dressed Lists wouldn’t even have a black person in it. If they did, it was Halle Berry. Now if you open up a magazine, you see black people. You don’t just see Halle Berry or Beyonce. You’ll look and you’ll be like, Oh, Is that Tichina Arnold in there? Or Nia Long. You talk to the people at US Weekly, they could not name two Nia Long movies. They’ll be like, Oh, wasn’t she Will Smith’s girlfriend in Fresh Prince? But she’s in there Why? Because people from US Weekly look at a site like the MediaTakeOut and ask why is she on there all the time? So what Media Takeout has done is become a beacon. It’s told all these other places like TMZ and US Weekly that this black celebrity stuff is real.