Serious money and journalism

It turns out there was another tech billionaire looking at the Washington Post. Pierre Omidyar, co-founder and chairman of eBay, passed on the Post but started thinking about what a similar amount of money (US$250 million) could achieve if devoted to a new venture.

That thinking now looks set to bear fruit. Omidyar is joining forces with Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeromy Scahill, who had been planning to go independent themselves. And they’re thinking big.

Omidyar believes that if independent, ferocious, investigative journalism isn’t brought to the attention of general audiences it can never have the effect that actually creates a check on power. Therefore the new entity — they have a name but they’re not releasing it, so I will just call it NewCo — will have to serve the interest of all kinds of news consumers. It cannot be a niche product. It will have to cover sports, business, entertainment, technology: everything that users demand.

At the core of Newco will be a different plan for how to build a large news organization. It resembles what I called in an earlier post “the personal franchise model” in news. You start with individual journalists who have their own reputations, deep subject matter expertise, clear points of view, an independent and outsider spirit, a dedicated online following, and their own way of working. The idea is to attract these people to NewCo, or find young journalists capable of working in this way, and then support them well.

Omidyar isn’t a naive newbie to this territory. He started and still publishes Civil Beat, a news site in Hawaii. According to John Temple, its initial editor, “He’s got a journalist’s sensibility”, is very much hands-on but also “gives you the space to do your job.”

Openness, privacy and press freedom matter deeply to him and much of the motivation for this venture stems from the spate of recent unhappy developments in these areas. As Jay Rosen suggests, there’s something almost karmic about the whole business:

In a sense, then, Omidyar’s new venture is further blowback from the surveillance state’s overreach, which I have been writing about since June. When you think about how much trouble Greenwald and Poitras have caused for the NSA and its sister agencies, and then contemplate an entire news organization founded to make that kind of reporting more likely — with pro-publish lawyers! — it puts new gloss on the notion of unintended consequences.

May it grow and prosper.

Update (31.10.13):

Bill Keller (from the NY Times) and Glenn Greenwald debate their respective views on journalism.

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