It I had a dime for every story that I've read over the last decade about how to save American journalism, I'd probably have as much money as this guy. His name is Pierre Omidyar and like Ernest Hemingway said about rich people in general, he's very different from you and me...he has more money. In fact, he has $8.5 billion, and he made it the old-fashioned way, if by old-fashioned you mean the 1990s way. He started a website -- specifically eBay, thus starting a significant trend in modern American business, the trend of capitalizing the second letter of a company or product name but not the first.
So, yeah, he's a capitalist. He's earned the right to spend the money however he wants.-- a new yacht, a handful of U.S. senators, whatever.
But Pierre Omidyar has a strange obsession: Newsrooms. He reportedly hangs out in them, reportedly likes journalists (that's farther than I'm willing to go on some days). More importantly, he seems to genuinely care about the state of journalism in the 21st Century. He's very concerned about issues like the government's crackdown on whistleblowers and the people who report on whistleblowers, about unwarranted spying on American citizens, and related topics. A few years back, he started a local journalism website in his adopted home of Hawaii, and rather than getting turned off, he was hooked.
Yesterday, Omidyar rocked the journalism world with news that carried as much weight as and possibly more than the late summer announcement that Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos had bought the Washington Post for $250 million. It was revealed that the eBay founder will spend roughly that same amount to build a digital news organization from the ground up, starting with the man who helped break the government spying scandal wide open, Glenn Greenwald, the filmmaker and Greenwald ally Laura Poitras, and "Dirty Wars" creator Jeremy Scahill. It's hard to imagine three more controversial names in modern journalism, but clearly the new enterprise is programmed to question authority, which I think is awesome.
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.
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.
Interestingly, Omidyar was sounded out about buying the Washington Post around the same time as Bezos. That's interesting because there's a longstanding debate about which would make more sense for saving newsrooms in the digital world: Transforming a powerful, established brand (like the Washington Post) or starting from scratch, without being dragged down by the legacy costs of printing and delivering a newspaper to an ever-shrinking pool of readers. The yin and yang of Omidyar and Bezos should answer that question once and for all.
More importantly, I think we're seeing that since actual civic-minded good-for-you news and investigative reporting -- propped up for more than a century by department store ads, classifieds and crossword puzzles -- has zero economic value in the digital free market, there's only one thing that will keep it alive. And it's not really what those hundreds of journalism reform articles I read over all those years were about -- things like reader engagement and crowdsourcing and using social media (although those things matter).
It's really just about very rich people.
And not just any very rich people, but very rich people with an agenda. It might be a fairly progressive agenda like that of Omidyar, or the more classically libertarian views of Bezos, or the right-wing wackiness of the Koch brothers, who passed on the Tribune newspapers but will probably own media properties sooner rather than later,
Is that so terrible? Yes and no. The truth is that there has always been inherent bias in newspapers, based on the source of the money to support them. The first American newspapers were highly partisan propaganda sheets. Printing technology and the surge in U.S. population created a mass market and thus press barons (remember the "Rosebud" guy?) in the early 20th Century -- who then sold out to corporations, This created the supposedly golden age of unbiased journalism, except of course there was bias -- toward corporatism, for one thing, and occasionally on behalf of the advertisers who greased the wheels. Now we've come almost full circle. The not totally disinterested billionaire will save American journalism -- because he wants to, and because there's no other viable way.
This would be much, much more troubling thing 30 years ago -- before the Internet, before regular folks could comment on articles they think are slanted and before it was feasible for feisty and more independent little websites to call out the big ones from time to time. We'll be OK with Jeff Bezos and Pierre Omidyar and their half a million billion bucks -- because the alternative is too awful to contemplate. We just need a few folks to raise a few million more dollars (crowdsourcing, maybe?) -- because we're also going to need some really good watchdogs to watch over the new watchdogs.