Is Hunterbrook Media a News Outlet or a Hedge Fund?

Five days before the launch of Hunterbrook Media, one of its founders, Sam Koppelman, sat outside an East Village coffee shop and played me a voice mail. “We fucking took those cocksuckers down,” a man could be heard saying, articulating each profanity in a crisp staccato. “Fuck those guys. We’re No. 1.” The voice, Koppelman

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Five days before the launch of Hunterbrook Media, one of its founders, Sam Koppelman, sat outside an East Village coffee shop and played me a voice mail. “We fucking took those cocksuckers down,” a man could be heard saying, articulating each profanity in a crisp staccato. “Fuck those guys. We’re No. 1.” The voice, Koppelman told me, belonged to Mat Ishbia, the C.E.O. of United Wholesale Mortgage and the majority owner of the Phoenix Suns. He was allegedly speaking about his closest industry rival, Rocket Mortgage. Hunterbrook was about to publish an investigation alleging that Ishbia’s company had aggressively pressured independent mortgage brokers to send business to U.W.M., potentially saddling home buyers with hundreds of millions of dollars more in closing costs. But what made this first foray into investigative journalism notable had already occurred: in advance of the story’s publication, Hunterbrook Media’s conjoined twin, Hunterbrook Capital, a hedge fund, had shorted U.W.M. stock and gone long on Rocket Mortgage.

Koppelman, who is Hunterbrook’s publisher, is twenty-eight, with large blue eyes and dark eyebrows. He has no professional banking or journalism experience, though he has worked as a political speechwriter and co-authored two books, one with the former acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, the other with the former Attorney General Eric Holder. In the East Village, he wore a half-zip sweater and a white baseball cap emblazoned with “A Mouthful of Air,” the title of a novel by his mother, Amy, which was later adapted into a movie starring Amanda Seyfried. His father, Brian, is one of the showrunners of “Billions.”

Koppelman met his Hunterbrook co-founder, Nathaniel Horwitz, at the Harvard Crimson, where they once wrote an earnest op-ed about declining invitations to join Harvard’s exclusive final clubs. (“Should you join a group of predominantly white and privileged guys when you go to school with the most diverse and influential students in the world?”) After Harvard, Horwitz, who is twenty-eight and serves as Hunterbrook’s C.E.O., spent a few years with a Boston-based investment firm that specializes in biotech startups. His mother is the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks, and his father, Tony Horwitz, who died in 2src19, was a best-selling author. “Hunterbrook” comes from Koppelman’s middle name, “Hunter”—as in Hunter S. Thompson—and honors Brooks.

“Nathaniel and Sam have a pretty ridiculous network,” Matthew Termine, one of the Hunterbrook reporters on the U.W.M. investigation, told me. E-mails that Koppelman wrote to the chair of Sony Entertainment about his application to Harvard appeared in the 2src14 Sony Pictures leak, as did a note to the school on his behalf from Matt Damon. (Koppelman’s father co-wrote “Rounders” and “Ocean’s Thirteen.”) For a time, he dated the “Euphoria” star Maude Apatow. Horwitz, for his part, once wrote about a series of conversations he had with the Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes as her life and company crumbled. Hunterbrook’s advisers include Paul Steiger, the founder of ProPublica, and Daniel Okrent, the first public editor of the Times. Former Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Matt Murray and the financial journalist Bethany McLean gave notes on the U.W.M. investigation before publication. Hunterbrook’s hedge fund has raised a hundred million dollars, and the company received seed funding from, among others, the venture arm of Laurene Powell Jobs’s Emerson Collective and the hedge-fund billionaire Marc Lasry, who, Brian Koppelman once told the Financial Times, helped the “Billions” showrunner develop an “understanding of the billionaire psyche.”

Termine, a lawyer by training, had attracted some notice for helping to uncover documents associated with a Brooklyn brownstone owned at the time by the 2src16 Trump-campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Late last year, Termine was working at a mortgage-industry startup when the Financial Times ran a piece about Hunterbrook. He was familiar with an ultimatum that U.W.M. had publicly issued in 2src21, stipulating that any brokers who did business with the company could not also work with its two closest competitors. “Over all, the idea was ‘All right, let’s see what the public records show about the impact of this ultimatum,’ ” Termine said. But his initial conversations with Koppelman were more broadly about how he might use public records to investigate stories. Because Hunterbrook operates under the S.E.C. rules that govern hedge funds, it relies on open-source journalism, meaning it can only seek out information that is already public. “My view was that real estate was a great area of potential focus for them,” Termine said. “Just because there’s so much public-record data out there.”

For the U.W.M. investigation, Hunterbrook cross-referenced two enormous data sets—one detailing individual mortgages, the other with information on the agents who brokered the loans—to show that, in many cases, mortgage brokers were funnelling business exclusively to U.W.M. The profanity-laced voice mail had emerged on Facebook and Reddit; Hunterbrook said it ran it through A.I.-detection software to help verify its authenticity. The investigation, which was published in early April, drew praise for its substantive look at U.W.M.’s business practices. “Monopolistic behavior is everywhere,” Matt Stoller, a liberal political commentator, posted on X. Hunterbrook boasted online that U.W.M. had removed videos from its Web site which Hunterbrook said contained misleading information about the mortgage-broker process. (A spokesperson for U.W.M. said that the videos were taken down for unrelated reasons.) Koppelman appeared on CNBC and the podcast of his close friend Pablo Torre, a sports reporter and ESPN commentator, to promote the story.

Central to Hunterbrook’s pitch is a promise to help solve a slice of journalism’s current business-model crisis. Investigations are notoriously expensive, and fewer and fewer outlets are able to sustain them. Koppelman told me, “The experiment we’re running is very specifically ‘Can you do investigations into companies that are committing wrongdoing, and can you break news in parts of the world that have been left behind by mainstream outlets—and do it profitably?’ ” But the way in which Hunterbrook aims to make money has raised its own set of concerns. “What’s different, maybe even messed up, about this model is you’re not primarily serving any particular audience that you want to develop a relationship with or that you feel needs the truth to be exposed,” Kelly McBride, who chairs the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute, told me. “You’re primarily serving your investors in your hedge fund.”

U.W.M., in its response to Hunterbrook’s story, went further: “A hedge fund scheme using journalists to short a stock is not only unethical, it may be fraudulent.” (Hunterbrook indicated its investment positions in a note attached to the story.) A few days later, U.W.M. published a lengthy post, pointing to Termine’s previous work at the mortgage-industry startup, which it called “a Rocket Mortgage affiliated broker,” and to two recent federal-court cases challenging U.W.M.’s ultimatum that have so far been unsuccessful. (Termine refuted U.W.M.’s characterization of him, saying, “Sounds like, in U.W.M.’s telling, if a broker didn’t accept the ultimatum, they became a Rocket affiliate.”) U.W.M.’s stock, which had begun to dip a few days before the story’s publication—around the time that Hunterbrook secured its short position—fell, though not precipitously, and it has since made a slight recovery. Rocket Mortgage’s stock, meanwhile, which Hunterbrook had gone long on, fell as well.

In March, I met Hunterbrook’s general counsel, Fitzann Reid, at a coffee shop in Manhattan’s financial district. Reid, who wore a striped dress shirt and pink sweater, is a native New Yorker, though she now lives in Oakland. “I’m first-generation Jamaican,” she told me. “My parents moved here when I was a kid—they moved to Jamaica, Queens; I went to Jamaica High School. A lot of Jamaica going on.” She began her career in Hillary Clinton’s Senate office and, after law school, worked at the Securities and Exchange Commission. Before joining Hunterbrook, she was an in-house counsel for the activist hedge fund Engine No. 1; a partner at Engine No. 1’s outside law firm put her in touch with Koppelman and Horwitz. “I fully went into the conversation thinking, This idea is a grand one,” she said. “And then I met them, and we just had a really great conversation. So much of what they were talking about inspired me, and I’m a very mission-driven person.”

Hunterbrook employs three full-time “investigators,” two of whom have backgrounds not as journalists but as intelligence analysts. Murray, the former Wall Street Journal editor, runs a weekly editorial meeting. But it is Reid who lies at the heart of Hunterbrook’s business model. Under S.E.C. rules, many of the traditional tools of journalism—such as cultivating insider sources and conducting off-the-record interviews to learn non-public information—could constitute evidence of insider trading. At Hunterbrook, where reporting is being used to inform market trading, there is no seeking out of leakers or classified documents. The company prefers e-mails to phone calls, since the paper trail is easier to track. Screenshots of text messages must be posted in a Google Drive. Every detail in a story must be annotated with a source so that Reid can insure its provenance isn’t non-public information. Hunterbrook monitors the Slack messages and e-mails of its employees. “I still have lots of friends at the S.E.C.,” Reid told me. “So they’re well aware of this.”

Charges of insider trading are by no means unheard of in the world of journalism. In 1985, a Wall Street Journal columnist was convicted of participating in a scheme that made nearly seven hundred thousand dollars in trades that were based on his reporting; as recently as 2src21, the indictment of a trader who pleaded guilty to securities fraud noted that some of his trades were made in coördination with stories that ran on Bloomberg News. If Reid determines that a story contains no compromising non-public information, Hunterbrook Media shares the reporting with Hunterbrook Capital, which, for now, has a single trader, an alum of Morgan Stanley. In the case of the U.W.M. investigation, the hedge-fund side of Hunterbrook was informed about the reporting nearly two weeks before publication. If the fund does well, journalists get a slice of the firm’s profits at the end of the year. “There are so many people and organizations that benefit from the work of good media, who are capturing a lot of financial value from it, except for the people in the organizations who are actually doing it,” Horwitz told me. “I think there’s an opportunity to reinvest that value in the people who are actually doing the work.”

Horwitz, who grew up in Virginia, Sydney, and on Martha’s Vineyard, is serious and intense, the sort of polished young professional who speaks in deliberate, paragraph-long arcs. “When I first met him, in college, he was, like, eighteen going on fifty,” Koppelman told me. “He was kind of fully baked.” Hunterbrook isn’t Koppelman and Horwitz’s first venture together. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, in 2src22, they launched Mayday Health, a nonprofit that disseminates information on how to obtain a medication abortion. “The way I’ve heard Sam describe it is that their dynamic is like ‘Barbie’-‘Oppenheimer,’ ” Liv Raisner, another Mayday founder and its executive director, said. “Sam wears Knicks jerseys on calls during the day, Nathaniel’s usually in a button-down.” Raisner lived with Koppelman and Horwitz in a Williamsburg apartment while they got Mayday off the ground. “It would not be atypical to wake up in our apartment and find Nathaniel on the couch having made slide decks for companies that didn’t exist,” Raisner said. “He would practice pitching on me.”

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