NEW YORK -– During the summer, billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omidyar considered buying The Washington Post, a journalistic prize that went to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for $250 million. The idea of transforming the Post for the digital age, he said, was “absolutely intriguing.”
It would also be challenging. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Omidyar said overhauling an established media outlet like the Post would lead to "massive cultural change" in the newsroom. Instead, Omidyar decided he could use “an equivalent amount of capital” and build from the ground up.
“News organizations that have been around a while have a lot of traditions and ways of doing things that may have served them for many years but perhaps make them less flexible in the digital era,” Omidyar said. “As an entrepreneur, it just makes more sense to start something new.”
Omidyar has some experience in the news media, having launched public affairs site Honolulu Civil Beat in 2010. And as a philanthropist, he's given to causes promoting transparency and government accountability through his Omidyar Network.
A few weeks ago, Omidyar reached out to Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald to gauge his interest. Omidyar had closely followed Greenwald’s reporting on the extent of the National Security Agency's surveillance, which the philanthropist has publicly expressed concerns about.
It’s then that Omidyar learned Greenwald was already planning a new media venture of his own with journalists Jeremy Scahill and Laura Poitras, each of whom cover national security and surveillance issues. Following their discussions, Omidyar said the two groups decided to “join forces and try to build this together.”
What exactly they’re building is unclear -– even to those directly involved.
“At this point, we don’t know yet how it’s going to be organized,” Omidyar said. “It’s just too early, so we’re going to figure that stuff out as we get to know each other better… It’s been like 10 or 11 days. So normally we wouldn’t be talking about this venture so early.”
They’re only talking about it now because word leaked out. BuzzFeed broke the news Tuesday that Greenwald was leaving The Guardian, with Reuters reporting that Omidyar, who is worth $8.5 billion, was funding the venture. On Wednesday morning, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour tweeted that Omidyar confirmed his involvement to her and the eBay chairman spoke about the venture with Jay Rosen, an NYU journalism professor he had consulted in September.
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."