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Why's eBay's Pierre Omidyar Bankrolling A Journalism Startup?

Oct 21, 2013
Originally published on October 24, 2013 7:29 pm

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

For years, predictions about the demise of the news business have been rampant. But lately, digital industry billionaires are entering the fray, bringing hope that those forecasts are wrong. Earlier this year, Amazon's founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post.

And now, as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, the co-founder of eBay announced he intends to build a high-impact news organization from scratch, with investigative journalism at its core.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Pierre Omidyar has actually done a smaller version of this before .

(SOUNDBITE OF A PROMOTIONAL VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: For a democracy to work well, for people to really have an impact and have a government that serves them well, you need informed citizens...

FOLKENFLIK: These idealistic words come from a video to promote a local news outfit in his home State of Hawaii that Omidyar paid for out of his own pocket. It's called Honolulu Civil Beat and it is dedicated to public affairs reporting.

To replicate that on a national scale would be an even greater challenge. After all, reporting the news takes money - a lot of it. And vigorous investigative reporting of the kind that Omidyar wants rarely brings in enough revenues to pay for itself.

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen.

JAY ROSEN: If you want to make a pile of money starting an online news organization, is not necessarily the best way to do that.

FOLKENFLIK: Rosen says Omidyar knows that he has to build a broader news organization covering other topics, to draw in a big audience to sustain that investigative work. Rosen has informally advised Omidyar on his initiatives.

ROSEN: I think he wants to be an influential person. You know, he wants to be someone who has an effect on the life of the country, but feels that one of the ways that he can do it is by starting a new kind of news organization.

FOLKENFLIK: Rosen says Omidyar's ambitions recall an earlier era of muckrakers a century ago: reporters with a public following, an expertise, and a crusading point of view. Omidyar's intentions were revealed by BuzzFeed which reported he had hired away the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, who has reported deeply classified secrets of the NSA, after years of intense advocacy on behalf of civil liberties.

Greenwald spoke to CNN's Anderson Cooper last week.

GLENN GREENWALD: The idea behind it is that there are a lot of things that we think aren't being done the right way, when it comes to aggressive adversarial journalism.

FOLKENFLIK: Greenwald's criticism of the Washington Press Corps sometimes verges on contempt, as he perceives stenographers clamoring for comments at press conferences.

John Temple has also been an occasional sounding board for Omidyar. He's a former top editor at the Rocky Mountain News and The Washington Post, who led Honolulu Civil Beat until last year. He says Omidyar's entrepreneurial roots at eBay are key to understanding his impulses.

JOHN TEMPLE: So much of eBay was about building trust between people, because you have to believe that somebody in Chicago was going to send to someone in San Francisco, you know, a pair of skis or a radio.

FOLKENFLIK: Temple said he was surprised to learn from news reports that Omidyar considered buying his The Washington Post earlier this year but decided against it. Bezos paid $250 million for the Post and Omidyar has said he's willing to invest a similar amount in the digital startup.

Adrienne LaFrance is a former news reporter for the Honolulu Civil Beat.

ANDRIENNE LAFRANCE: If there's an individual who's going to figure out how to save the business model of the industry, I'd love to meet that person. I'm not sure that a single person is going to do it. I think it's going to be an industry-wide effort.

FOLKENFLIK: That said, she's a fan of her former boss, who used to sit at an unfussy desk writing computer code and chipping in on headlines too. She says Omidyar fostered a culture that relied on...

LAFRANCE: Digitally sensibilities and not the kind of print era trappings that sometimes get in the way of news organizations trying to do the work in 2013, but still thinking about things the way they were done in 1970.

FOLKENFLIK: The new news tycoon hadn't intended to talk so early about his new site. But now, flushed into the open, Omidyar plans to sit for an interview with NPR's Renee Montagne. That's scheduled to be broadcast Thursday on MORNING EDITION.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.