How Pierre Omidyar plans to ‘free’ independent journalism

Founder of eBay was planning to buy Washington Post before deciding to team up with Greenwald

Column LAST UPDATED AT 08:41 ON Thu 17 Oct 2013
Charles Laurence

WHY is the billionaire founder of eBay ready to pour $250 million into a brand new online news platform which he will run with Glenn Greenwald, whose decision to leave The Guardian was revealed this week? 

Pierre Omidyar, a 46-year-old Paris-born Iranian American who is worth $8.5 billion, did not miss a beat in answering that question last night: “I have always been of the opinion that the right kind of journalism is a critical part of our democracy.”

He is worried by “the erosion of press freedoms” and, to him, Greenwald’s role in getting the secrets of internet snooping spilled by leaker Edward Snowden published in The Guardian is the right kind of journalism.

Omidyar told Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor who runs pressthink.org, that the idea of a start-up had taken root as he considered buying the troubled Washington Post, which this summer went to Jeff Bezos of Amazon.

“As he was contemplating the Post purchase,” blogged Rosen, “he began to get more alarmed about the pressures coming down on journalists with the various leak investigations in Washington. Then the surveillance stories started appearing and the full scope of the threat to independent journalism became clear.

“His [Omidyar’s] interest in launching a new kind of news organisation, capable of sustaining investigative work and having an effect with it, intensified throughout the summer as news from the Snowden files continued to pour forth.”

The spooks at NSA and their confreres at Britain’s GCHQ might call this “blow back”. If Omidyar and Greenwald have their way, they will be doing their snooping under the scrutiny of a news organisation devised and funded to have all the clout of the Washington Post or Fleet Street in their heyday.

For the record, eBay executives have flatly denied giving the spooks access to their own data files, and Snowden’s leaks have yet to mention eBay.

News of Greenwald’s departure from The Guardian was itself a leak on Buzzfeed, and Omidyar says that it is too soon to offer full details of his plans. He has a title, but the blogosphere has yet to crack that secret.

He had been trying to contact Greenwald for several weeks. It was only when they finally got in touch early this month that the joint project was born.

Rosen writes that “Omidyar learned that Greenwald, his collaborator Laura Poitras, and The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill had been planning to form their own journalism venture. Their ideas and Omidyar’s ideas tracked so well with each other that on October 5 they decided to ‘join forces’. ”

Omidyar told Rosen that the idea is so new that he has not yet worked out what role Greenwald, who was a lawyer/activist rather than a journalist before he began blogging from Brazil, will play. Would he be “closer to lead writer than executive editor?”

On his own website, Omidyar has posted My Next Adventure in Journalism: “Right now, I’m in the very early stages of creating a new mass media organisation. I don’t yet know how or when it will be rolled out, or what it will look like.

“What I can tell you is that the endeavor will be independent of my other organisations, and that it will cover general interest news, with a core mission around supporting and empowering independent journalists across many sectors and beats. The team will build a media platform that elevates and supports these journalists and allows them to pursue the truth in their fields. This doesn’t just mean investigative reporting, but all news.”

Omidyar, whose parents left the Iran of the Shah and moved to Washington DC from Paris when he was six, and who lives in Henderson, Nevada, has already started the Honolulu Civil Beat, a news website in Hawaii supporting investigative journalism, and the Democracy Fund, promoting transparency in government.

According to Rosen, Omidyar is already at the front of the pack looking for ways to revive the Fourth Estate and its role in democracy following the collapse of the “business model” of the old newspapers.

His plan is to combine the “personal franchise model” of the new media – he will know whether you are a fan of football or tennis – with the broad reach and the general coverage of the old media. He wants news, sports, fashion and gossip along with the heavy stuff. That might be the way the reach the broadest audience and avoid the preaching-to-the-converted problem of online niche journalism.

His own business model? The site will be a new, independent company, with profits being ploughed back into the company. Omidyar said he does not yet have figures, but is ready to invest at least the $250 million he would have paid for the Washington Post. To put that in perspective, the Huffington Post had $37 million in capital when it was bought by AOL, and Buzzfeed has $46 million, with 300 employees.

Greenwald yesterday described it as a “once-in-a-career dream journalistic opportunity”. Like Bezos, Omidyar has proved his mastery of the internet and new media. Spooks and the keepers of secrets will as interested as journalists in whether the latest media dream comes true. · 

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