For anyone who cares about journalism in the digital age, the last month or so has been like an extended version of Christmas morning, unwrapping one giant present after another — first, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, raising all kinds of exciting possibilities for the revival and digital rebirth of that great institution. Then, on Tuesday, another bombshell: eBay founder Pierre Omidyar is bankrolling a new journalistic venture featuring crusading Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald.
The most interesting thing to me about these two experiments is how radically different they are. Bezos has decided to try and revive or revitalize or reinvent something old, a newspaper that has a long and storied history — something that has clearly created brand value but also has a tendency to weigh a media entity down, making experimentation less attractive.
Omidyar, meanwhile (who told Jay Rosen that he was also approached by the Graham family to buy the Post) has chosen to start something brand new, which will have a less established brand but far more flexibility. Which model will succeed?
Omidyar has a journalism background
Perhaps both will succeed — and I for one hope that they do. But the differences between the two go beyond just the task that each billionaire has chosen, and that could make a difference in the outcome : Bezos, for example, has had virtually nothing to do with the media in a professional sense, and doesn’t even like giving interviews to journalists. One of the tangential impacts he had on journalism before he acquired the Post was actually a negative one, when Amazon removed the WikiLeaks documents from its S3 servers, allegedly under pressure from the U.S. government (something Bezos denies).
Omidyar, however, has not only invested in journalistic endeavours before — including the early hyperlocal effort Backfence, followed by the Honolulu Civil Beat site in Hawaii, where he lives — but has earned the respect of a number of media insiders for his commitment to journalistic principles and a free press. According to former Civil Beat editor John Temple, he has “a journalist’s sensibility,” and is apparently not a bad headline writer as well. Said Rosen:
“NewCo is a 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.”
Is there a risk to relying on benevolent billionaires for your journalistic livelihood? Of course there is, as journalism professor Christian Christensen noted in a post — one of the main ones being that they lose Interest in the project and move on to other concerns. Another risk is that, much as they might profess their commitment to journalism and free speech, their interests could diverge from those of the journalists they rely on to produce their content, and that could cause tension. And yet in many ways, relying on the largesse of wealthy businessmen is how the newspaper industry started.
Is Omidyar’s venture the anti-BuzzFeed?
I also find it fascinating that Omidyar seems to be taking the exact opposite strategy to the one popularized by BuzzFeed, which started with cat GIFs and listicles, and has recently begun adding more serious journalistic efforts like longform pieces and political investigative pursuits (much the same trajectory that The Huffington Post took). Omidyar, however, seems to be starting with the deep content produced by Greenwald and his team, intending to build a full media site with sports, entertainment and other material around that core. They both appear to have the same goal, but are starting from opposite ends. According to Omidyar:
“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.”
Perhaps the biggest factor in Omidyar’s favor — apart from the massive resources he has at his disposal, of course — is that starting something new means anything is possible, and there is no existing readership to worry about offending, and no advertising base to worry about transitioning away from. The eBay founder can say that he is planning to focus on writers with individual brands and voices and hire whomever he wants to hire, without worrying about the impact that will have on his existing staff or business, since he doesn’t have one.
If for no other reason than that, I tend to think Omidyar’s chances of success are slightly better than Bezos’s. But whatever happens, it is going to be fascinating to watch these two very different experiments evolve.