Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, has become the latest billionaire to get into the news business. But while parallels will inevitably be drawn with other recently minted media barons like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (the Washington Post), Chris Hughes (the New Republic), John Henry (the Boston Globe), and Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev (Britain’s Independent and Evening Standard), those could be misleading. Omidyar is not buying a venerable institution with a legacy, audience and print edition to protect, but starting up a new venture—and if done right, it has the potential to challenge the UK’s Guardian for a left-leaning global audience.
The motives of rich men (so far, of late, no women) who buy established media outlets are often questioned. It can’t possibly be profit, goes the thinking, so is it ego, or political power? Bezos has told his new vassals that “[t]he values of The Post do not need changing,” but some suspect him of buying it to either push a libertarian agenda or give Amazon political backing. Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes wrote that the New Republic will champion serious reporting and “ask pressing questions of our leaders,” but Hughes has taken heat for seemingly letting his coziness with president Barack Obama (whose first election campaign he helped run) influence editorial decisions. The Lebedevs faced similar questions, and have clashed this year with their journalists over proposed cuts.
One might, it is true, suspect Omidyar—as some suspect Bezos—of wanting to promote the pro-technology, low-regulation culture in which companies like eBay thrive. But if so, that’s probably only a small part of his agenda. The as-yet-unnamed venture’s editorial brains will be three Americans known for their leftist leanings and fierce criticism of the establishment: the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, the Nation’s Jeremy Scahill and documentary film-maker Laura Poitras. Omidyar has been a public admirer of the work of Greenwald in particular, whose publication of documents leaked by the US whistleblower Edward Snowden have rocked intelligence services and set off a bitter debate about the role of journalists.
Moreover, this isn’t Omidyar’s first dabble in civic activism. He founded Honolulu Civil Beat, a investigative-journalism outlet for Hawaii, where he lives, and has two philanthropic investment funds. NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, whom Omidyar consulted about it, writes that he wants to create a home for “independent, ferocious, investigative journalism” that “creates a check on power.”
But this won’t be a philanthropically-funded shop like ProPublica or Inside Climate News, both of which have carved out Pulitzer-winning paths by focusing narrowly on investigative reporting. It will be “a company not a charity,” Rosen writes, and “will cover general interest news, with a core mission around supporting and empowering independent journalists across many sectors and beats,” writes Omidyar.
That, along with the pedigrees of its editorial chiefs, suggests that we could (eventually, of course, not at once) see something more like the UK’s Guardian—but unencumbered by a declining print newspaper, and with deeper pockets. Omidyar, according to Forbes, is worth a mere $8.5 billion to Bezos’ $27.2 billion, but that’s still enough to start up a very nice little news business.