More Details On The New Greenwald-Omidyar Media Venture

Print Friendly
Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill

Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill

More information is gradually coming out about the new media venture being created by Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay and journalist Glenn Greenwald.  Journalists Jeremy Scahill and Laura Poitras will be working with Greenwald on this project, indeed their conversations were ongoing when Omidyar got involved. Omidyar has been thinking about getting more involved with media for awhile and was in the bidding for the Washington Post. He seems prepared to fund the new project at the $250 million level he planned to use to purchase the Post; and more after that.  Below is an article from Jay Rosen’s Press Think which goes into much more detail about the project.

Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post reported:

Omidyar doesn’t yet know how the site will be structured or whether there will be a single editor-in-chief overseeing all the sections. There’s clearly a lot to discuss, and Omidyar and Greenwald still haven’t met in person.

But Omidyar said his and Greenwald’s visions intersected over the idea of creating a site that promotes independent journalists who are experts in their subject areas, have strong followings and are “not afraid to share their opinions.”

Omidyar said that Greenwald, Poitras and Scahill will help determine what support they need in order “to do their kind of journalism,” including research assistance, technology and legal support. He stressed that the site will also employ “top editors.”

At this point in the process, Omidyar doesn’t have a target number of staffers or launch date. While national security seems pretty well covered off the bat, the site still hasn’t yet hired journalists for other sections, from entertainment to politics to sports.

While there may seem like a glut of general interest news sites already out there, Omidyar suggested technology will play a role in this one finding new ways to “tell stories that engage people.” Omidyar said he hopes to bring “more of a Silicon Valley heritage of technology rather than typical digital media publishing technology.”

In a statement on his site, Omidyar noted that the new “endeavor will be independent of my other organizations.” Omidyar’s Civil Beat, it should be noted, recently partnered with The Huffington Post on the launch of HuffPost Hawaii.

This new venture is not intended to make a profit for Omidyar, who told HuffPost that all revenue will stay within the site. Omidyar described the site as merging his philanthropic interests and desire that there’s a strong, free press to hold those in power accountable.

“The role of the press, in particular, the role of the press in a democracy is extremely important, extremely critical, and it’s something that I think we often take for granted in the U.S,” Omidyar said. “But we’ve seen attacks on press freedoms and the fundamentals of newsgathering operations when you have these leak investigations that really put a chill on reporting, as well as, surveillance now also a puts a significant chill on reporting.”

“Even in a country that has such strong laws, the First Amendment, we see some weakening, some attacks on press freedoms,” he continued. “So this an opportunity for me to engage in something I care deeply about and do it operationally — not simply as a philanthropist.”

More coverage:
Pierre Omidyar Ready To Spend $250 Million On Glenn Greenwald’s News Startup, Forbes
Glenn Greenwald to join media venture backed by eBay founder Omidyar, CNN
Greenwald’s backer: eBay founder Omidyar, Politico
Omidyar confirms he’s funding Glenn Greenwald’s new venture, Poynter

Why Pierre Omidyar decided to join forces with Glenn Greenwald for a new venture in news

Yesterday word leaked out that Glenn Greenwald would be leaving The Guardian to help create some new thing backed by Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay. I just got off the phone with Omidyar. So I can report more details about what the new thing is and how it came to be.

Pierre Omidyar

Pierre Omidyar

Here’s the story he told me:

In the spring of this year, Omidyar was one of the people approached by the Washington Post Company about buying the Post. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, wound up with the prize. But as a result of exploring that transaction, Omidyar started thinking seriously about investing in a news property. He began to ask himself what could be done with the same investment if you decided to build something from the ground up.

As he was contemplating the Post purchase, 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 interest in launching a new kind of news organization, 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.

Attempts to meet with Greenwald to discuss these plans and to find out more about how he operates were unsuccessful until this month. When they finally were able to talk, 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” (his term.) This is the news that leakedyesterday. But there is more.

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.

By “support” Omidyar means many things. The first and most important is really good editors. (Omidyar used the phrase “high standards of editing” several times during our talk.) Also included: strong back end technology. Powerful publishing tools. Research assistance. And of course a strong legal team because the kind of journalism NewCo intends to practice is the kind that is capable of challenging some of the most powerful people in the world. Omidyar said NewCo will look for “independent journalists with expertise, and a voice and a following.” He suggested that putting together a team of such people means understanding how each of them does his or her work, and supporting that, rather than forcing everyone into the same structure.

Part of the reason he thinks he can succeed with a general news product, where there is a lot of competition, is by finding the proper midpoint between voicey blogging and traditional journalism, in which the best of both are combined. The trick will then be to combine that with the things technology companies are good at.

“Companies in Silicon Valley invest a lot in understanding their users and what drives user engagement,” he said, mentioning Netflix as a clear example. NewCo will have to serve users of news in the same personalized way, he said. He didn’t want to reveal too much at this stage, but as the founder of eBay he clearly has ideas about how a next generation news company can be built from the ground up.

NewCo is new venture— a company not a charity. It is not a project of Omidyar Network. It is separate from his philanthropy, he said. He said he will be putting a good deal of his time, as well as his capital, into it. I asked how large a commitment he was prepared to make in dollars. For starters: the $250 million it would have taken to buy the Washington Post.

I asked him if Greenwald was closer to a lead writer or an executive editor. He said the agreement to join forces was so new that they had not discussed roles and responsibilities. All they know is that they want to work together to create NewCo. Poitras will bring expertise in video and documentary. Scahill is a somewhat similar figure to Greenwald: an independent national security journalist with editorial obsessions in which he has become expert.

Why is Omidyar doing this? He said that his involvement in Civil Beat (a news site he started in Hawaii) stoked his appetite to do something larger in news. “I have always been of the opinion that the right kind of journalism is a critical part of our democracy.” He said he had watched closely over the last 15 years as the business model in journalism collapsed but had not “found a way to engage directly.” But then when the idea of buying the Washington Post came up he started to think about it more seriously. “It brings together some of my interests in civic engagement and building conversations and of course technology, but in a very creative way.”

A final factor. His “rising concern about press freedoms in the United States and around the world.” The U.S. has the First Amendment. When the freedom to practice hard-hitting investigative journalism comes under threat here, he said, that’s not only a problem for our democracy but for the chances that democracy can work anywhere. NewCo will designed to withstand that threat.

Now for the disclosure: As Omidyar was making the rounds to talk to people about his plans I was one of those he consulted with. That happened in September. So he knew I was familiar with his thinking and that’s probably why he chose to talk to me. That’s my initial report. I may have more to say as I sift through my notes and think about what he told me.

UPDATING, 1:00 PM Oct 16: An additional detail that I should have mentioned: the business model isn’t fully worked out yet, but this much is known: all proceeds from NewCo will be reinvested in the journalism. Also: there is no print product planned. This is all-digital.

From Omidyar’s own statement at his foundation’s site, My Next Adventure in Journalism.

I explored purchasing The Washington Post over the summer. [Through that] I developed an interest in supporting independent journalists in a way that leverages their work to the greatest extent possible, all in support of the public interest. And, I want to find ways to convert mainstream readers into engaged citizens. I think there’s more that can be done in this space, and I’m eager to explore the possibilities.

Right now, I’m in the very early stages of creating a new mass media organization. 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 organizations, 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.

At Poynter, John Temple, who was editor of Omidyar’s Civil Beat when it launched, says: “He’s got a journalist’s sensibility. He enjoyed the hunt for a story, and he’s very open to experimenting with how to tell the story and using contemporary approaches.” That said, Omidyar “gives you the space to do your job.”