eBay Inc founder Pierre Omidyar has become the latest self-made tech baron to plunge into the struggling news industry – hot on the heels of Amazon.com Inc founder Jeff Bezos, who just paid $250 million for the Washington Post.
But unlike Bezos, the French-born Iranian American says he aims to build a new “mass media organization” from the ground up, and his first recruits are the journalists who exposed the U.S. government’s surveillance programs, using documents leaked by former spy agency contractor Edward Snowden.
The new venture puts Omidyar, 46, in the public eye after many years of relatively low-profile philanthropic and investment activities. While he has long supported efforts to promote transparency and accountability in government, including a local news website in his home state of Hawaii, Omidyar suggested that he is prepared to spend as much as Bezos did in buying the Post to take those efforts to a new level.
“I want to find ways to convert mainstream readers into engaged citizens,” Omidyar wrote in a blog post on Wednesday.
Omidyar’s new endeavor, as yet unnamed, will face myriad challenges. Established news organizations are struggling to find a viable financial model as print advertising and circulation plummet while online advertising dollars migrate to Google Inc and to automated ad exchanges that drive prices down. He has yet to offer any clues about his business strategy.
Media investments generally do not make good investments, said David Cowan, a partner at Bessemer Ventures. “I’m pretty sure Pierre doesn’t think that a news startup is the best way to get richer,” he said.
Born in France to Iranian parents, Omidyar grew up largely in the Washington, D.C. area, with a stint in Hawaii. He graduated from Tufts University near Boston in 1988 with a degree in computer science, and moved to Silicon Valley.
While working as a software engineer at then-hot personal-communications company General Magic, Omidyar came up with the idea for eBay in 1995 and worked on it as a hobby until it became big enough for him to quit his day job.
When eBay went public three years later, the then 31-year-old Omidyar’s stake was valued at $611 million by the end of the trading day. He still owns almost 9 per cent of the $70 billion company today, making him eBay’s top shareholder. Forbes pegs his wealth at $8.5 billion.
Omidyar serves as eBay’s chairman, but has not been involved in its day-to-day operations for years.
During the summer, Omidyar considered purchasing the Washington Post, he wrote in his blog. While the Post eventually sold to Bezos in August, the process “got me thinking about what kind of social impact could be created if a similar investment was made in something entirely new, built from the ground up,” he wrote.
Those musings led to his latest project, which he is billing as “My Next Adventure in Journalism.”
‘Passionate about journalism’
Omidyar Network, the investment firm founded by Omidyar and his wife, Pam, in 2004, has backed some 25 organizations dealing with news and government transparency, including News Trust, a news-discovery site run by the nonprofit journalism center the Poynter Institute; the Sunlight Foundation, a government-transparency nonprofit; and Transparency & Accountability Initiative, a London based organization.
“Pierre gets journalism,” said John Temple, founding editor of Honolulu Civil Beat, the news site launched by Omidyar in 2010. “He’s passionate about it and knows how to create an environment and culture where journalists feel energized and empowered.”
Omidyar’s comments on Twitter in recent months show an increasing discomfort with the workings of the U.S. government.
“There goes freedom of association,” he tweeted earlier this week, linking to an article in the Washington Post about the National Security Agency collecting email address books.
But in his Wednesday blog post, Omidyar emphasized his new endeavor would go beyond investigative reporting, and would “cover general interest news, with a core mission around supporting and empowering independent journalists across many sectors and beats.”
That broad approach makes sense, said Arianna Huffington, creator of the Huffington Post, which started an edition in Hawaii earlier this year through a partnership with Omidyar’s Civil Beat.
“He wants this to be a business, and that’s not possible without having a site that’s about general news and everything that people are interested in,” Huffington said in an interview.
“And for the conclusions of investigative journalism to have impact – and he wants to have impact – you have to capture the public imagination. If you have people coming to the site for other reasons they are more likely to engage.”
To some extent, Omidyar seems to be shifting what he has been trying with Honolulu Civil Beat to a broader stage.
Civil Beat aimed to create a new online journalism model with paid subscriptions and respectful comment threads. Patti Epler, current editor of Civil Beat, said a policy of requiring people to log in via Facebook before they post a comment has encouraged a less strident tone than at many news organizations. She declined to comment on the site’s finances.
Her boss has championed projects that might lead to more government transparency, Epler said. When her reporters ran up against a law exempting police from releasing internal disciplinary records, Omidyar created the Civil Beat Law Center, which is working to secure the release of those records.
Another impetus for starting the center was the demise of Hawaii’s shield law, which protects journalists from having to reveal anonymous sources, Epler said. It expired earlier this year.
Omidyar frequently drops by the newsroom, where he edits the occasional article, plays foosball, and chats with staff.
“He loves to talk stories,” Epler said. “And journalistic principles and ethics.”