Scahill, Greenwald, Poitras and Omidyar: the New Media Venture
Jay Rosen got the first interview with Pierre Omidyar after the news of the new venture was ‘leaked’. Yes, funny, eh? They spoke by phone, and after talking about losing out to Jeff Bezos in buying the Washington Post (or at least not buying it), he said that Pierre grew alarmed by the pressures by way of Washington being brought to bear on journalists reporting on leak investigations. So he began to wondering if he should use the same money to start an entire news organization from the ground up. Given his belief that the only way that an organization that produces ‘independent, ferocious, investigative journalism’ can act as a check against power is if it reaches a general audience, as in: a wide number of readers. And that means to him that a digital media news site must cover a whole swathe of subjects: tech, sports, entertainment, and whatever ‘news consumers’ want. Rosen’s take is that the plan is/was to involve star journalists with deep expertise, their own online followers, and certainly the trio fit the bill. He mentions the importance of supporting them and:
‘By “support” Omidyar means many things. The first and most important is really good editors. (Omidyar used the phrase “high standards of editing” several times during our talk.) Also included: strong back end technology. Powerful publishing tools. Research assistance. And of course a strong legal team because the kind of journalism NewCo (note: Rosen’s name for the unnamed venture) intends to practice is the kind that is capable of challenging some of the most powerful people in the world.’ [snip]
He quotes Omidyar:
“I have always been of the opinion that the right kind of journalism is a critical part of our democracy.” He said he had watched closely over the last 15 years as the business model in journalism collapsed but he had not “found a way to engage directly.” But then when the idea of buying the Washington Post came up he started to think about it more seriously. “It brings together some of my interests in civic engagement and building conversations and of course technology, but in a very creative way.’
This link will take you to Omidyar’s statement on the new venture, and he links to other articles about it. Jay Rosen has links to a couple published negative reactions on his post. He (via his foundation) helps fund the Sunlight Foundation; his wife Pamela has her own philanthropic involvements. This is his personal name page in the FEC contributors’ data base (thank you, ChePasa). It’s largely Democrat-heavy, and amusing because he gave the ‘California Victory2000’ pac $25 grand in 1999, plus a couple grand more directly to her campaign, and the link leads to none other than: Diane Feinstein. Ha. Another site said he’d contributed to George Bush in 2010.
Rosen linked to a number of puff pieces on Omidyar’s ventures in the news business, so far limited to Hawaii and a site called Honolulu Civil Beat, founded and funded by Omidyar in 2011. It’s focus is on ‘document-driven’ investigative reporting, according to staff writer Adrienne LaFrance via Reuters, or ‘a new civic square’ to encourage discussion and engagement among Hawaiian citizens. After ooh-la-la-ing about hanging with a multi-billionaire, while pretending not to, LaFrance says:
‘Really, Civil Beat represented a return to fundamentals: shoe-leather reporting, an emphasis on filing Freedom of Information Act requests and examining public records, close coverage of government spending and campaign finance. Greenwald, Poitras, and Scahill are known for such doggedness, so their partnership with Omidyar fits. At one all-hands editorial meeting in Civil Beat’s early days, Omidyar unveiled his new slogan for the publication: “Change begins with a question.”
‘It might sound hokey but it underscores the heart of what Civil Beat is about, and speaks to Omidyar’s values: The idea that the best journalism serves the people, and enables an engaged and informed citizenry to organize around information.’
LaFrance goes on to explain the business model, specifically that Omidyar had explained out of the gate that it would be a business, not a non-profit concern. Subscriptions to the site cost $20 a month, which eventually morphed to $9.99, along with the hard paywall changing to a metered one, permitting X number of free reads before requiring a subscription. And she mentions a ‘revenue-sharing partnership’ with the Huffington Post that enabled that. If you are making ‘Ewwww’ noises over that, so am I. I reckon that’s what ‘consumer-driven news’ means. (I won’t mention seeing an article at HuffPo about ‘fart-blocking underwear’ (srsly) I saw when I clicked Jay’s link, okay?) Consumer-driven news, HuffPo-style…
LaFrance quotes Omdiyar as having said that his new (as yet unnamed) venture will also be for-profit, but that all profits will be re-invested in the organization. He’s pledged ‘at least’ a quarter of a billion’ in funding, the amount he was considering spending to purchase the Washington Post, which of course was bought by another online multi-billionaire, Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos.
Omidyar, in cooperation with the Hawaii Community Foundation, opened the Civil Beat Law Center in August of this year; according to Patti Epler:
‘The law center’s primary mission is to help the media and the public get access to government information. Secondarily, the center will be a resource for nonprofit legal organizations who find situations that are too big for them to address alone, given their limited resources.
The center will advise the press — print, TV, radio, online, bloggers — and the public on government access at no cost. And that’s a big step forward for people who have felt alone and powerless when dealing with government officials.’
Ryan Chittum at the Columbia Journalism Review lauds the venture as an extraordinary combination of muckraking and dissidence funded by a gargantuan internet fortune, says:
‘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.’
Heh. One commenter on Rosen’s piece said that perhaps Ralph Nader was right when he wrote: ‘only the rich can save us now’.
In ‘Is Glenn Greenwald the Future of News?’ by former editor Bill Keller at the New York Times published yesterday, publishing email exchanges between himself and Glenn Greenwald and the new project. They exchange opinions and barbs about journalism: it’s purpose, ‘crusading journalism v. ‘just the facts’ reporting, jeopardizing national security, both good and hideous NYT reporting, failure to report, and more. It’s long, fairly interesting, but it does not address what I’d hoped, given that Keller opens with:
‘Much of the speculation about the future of news focuses on the business model: How will we generate the revenues to pay the people who gather and disseminate the news?’
I wanted to hear more about that. Keller got off some shots about Julian Assange, and a major zinger, reporting that re: endangering unredacted informants names published:
“WikiLeaks’ attitude on that issue was callous indifference. According to David Leigh, The Guardian’s lead investigator on that story, Julian Assange said, “If they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them.”
Greenwald provided a document on his Twitter page that was written by attendee John Goetz, who was at the self-same dinner with Assange that Leigh had apparently referenced, denying it.
He also made two points to Keller that I found interesting: he was asked if the new media group would be a monoculture, or would it include ‘right-wing Greenwalds’? Glenn answered:
‘We welcome and want anyone devoted to true adversarial journalism regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, and have already been speaking with conservatives journalists like that: real conservatives, not the East Coast rendition of “conservatives” such as David Brooks.’
And this is great:
‘As for taking into account dangers posed to innocent life before publishing: nobody disputes that journalists should do this. But I don’t give added weight to the lives of innocent Americans as compared to the lives of innocent non-Americans, nor would I feel any special fealty to the U.S. government as opposed to other governments when deciding what to publish. When Goldsmith praised the “patriotism” of the American media, he meant that U.S. media outlets give special allegiance to the views and interests of the U.S. government.’
But his comments on page 5 of the piece, concerning the differences between Wikileaks and the Times are caustic, scathing and absolutely true (imo, of course). Zzzziiiing!
Here’s Glenn with Amy Goodman yesterday; I was very glad that she asked about Omidyar, PayPal, and accepting contributions for Wikileaks. (Note: Yves Smith was on the program, too, discussing JP Morgan’s moving-target DOJ ‘settlement’ for fraud, etc.)
Zo. Boy, howdy, do I want to be giddy as a schoolgirl about this project. And I am, with a few caveats. One is the multi-billionaire factor, of course (Forbes says he’s worth $8.3 billion), and what effect his uber-Elite status may play on the negative end of the venture, all testimonials to the contrary aside.
Two is whether or not the new place will be behind a paywall, or even the X free reads a month before…a subscription is needed. I believe that I may have read every comment under every piece I linked to, and so many commenters outright volunteered that they’d pay up the wazoo for a subscription. For chrissake, how many times does a quarter of a million divide into eight point three billion? If there’s a paywall, phooey on the site. Even designing it as a ‘for profit’ venture is a bit chilling for me, but then: he is not only a capitalist, but a mega-capitalist, and hopefully his dedication to holding The Powerful accountable and transparent is as fierce a dedication as his supporters claim. I will abjure saying ‘Let us pray’.
In addition, my fervent hope would be that all their work product would be licensed as some form of Creative Commons or Public Domain, even though that makes me a socialist purist, I reckon. Imagine the extra influence that their work would have if we were free to spread it about online ubiquitously, rather than being limited to a few paltry paragraphs, and having to paraphrase the rest?
Now, I’d like this to be an open thread; please say what you see, revel in, are cautious about, and so forth. I know I’m bound to have missed a lot in my musings, and seriously: I’m very hopeful that this might change the face of journalism, which is more crucial now than ever with Obomba’s war on journalists, and indeed, a global war on journalists, as Jeremy Scahill notes. And by the way, his participation is one of the cleanest bills of anticipatory health I can imagine: he seems unplagued by ego issues, and his integrity is of the highest order, although I’m not dismissing the other partners; I just haven’t followed Glenn as closely nor for as long, and Poitras was unknown to me; plus, Scahill’s put his life on the line many times bringing us his reports from around the world. That counts for a lot with me.
(cross-posted at Cafe-Babylon.net)