Make no mistake, news that Glenn Greenwald is leaving The Guardian to start a new publication funded by eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar is giant news—a bigger deal, in my book, than Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post.
(UPDATE: I should disclose that the Omidyar Network helps fund CJR, something I didn’t know until shortly after I published this post.)
This isn’t just another startup.
What makes this extraordinary is the combination of muckraking—and, dare I say, dissident—journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill with the gargantuan fortune of one of the first internet billionaires.
The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo. Billionaires tend to have a finger in every pie: powerful friends they don’t want annoyed and business interests they don’t want looked at. The Way Things Are may not work for most of us, but it ain’t bad if you’re an American billionaire.
By hiring Greenwald & Co., Omidyar is making a clear statement that he’s the billionaire exception. A little more than a year ago, Greenwald was writing for Salon.com, which (somehow) has a market cap of $3.5 million. Six years ago he was still typing away on his own blog. It’s like Izzy Stone running into a civic-minded plastics billionaire determined to take I.F. Stone’s Weekly large back in the day.
NYU’s Jay Rosen interviewed Omidyar and breaks the news that he was one of the few people approached about purchasing the Washington Post. That process led Omidyar to “ask himself what could be done with the same investment if you decided to build something from the ground up,” Rosen writes.
Wait… did he say “same investment”? As in $250 million-ish? Yes he did:
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.
That is an astonishing amount of money. Think about how much incredible journalism the nonprofit ProPublica has put out in the last five-plus years. It has spent just $43 million in that time to do so—total. Virtually all of that has been funded by foundation grants and reader contributions.
It will be fascinating to see how Omidyar and Greenwald set up the business model for their new venture, being truly unencumbered by legacy constraints. Omidyar tells Rosen that the site will be a company rather than a nonprofit, but that “all proceeds… will be reinvested in the journalism.” If that’s the case, it will be a sort of quasi-nonprofit: able to sell ads and otherwise act like a publishing company but paying little to no taxes.
If it takes ads. Omidyar already has a track record of supporting journalism startups, launching the well-regarded Honolulu Civil Beat in 2010. That site had a $20 a month hard paywall that has now morphed into a metered paywall that charges $10 a month. The Civil Beat calls itself “subscriber-supported journalism” and doesn’t take advertising.
The new company will surely have a different, more ambitious model. Rosen:
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.