Glenn Greenwald, the author and blogger behind the publication of the NSA documents obtained by former contractor Edward Snowden, announced Oct. 16, 2013, that he is leaving British newspaper The Guardian to join what he described as a "once-in-a-career dream journalistic opportunity," a new media organization designed to promote in-depth reporting.
According to news reports, a minimum of $250 million will be invested in the all-digital, no-print project. The yet-unnamed media project will be bankrolled by Pierre Omidyar, the 46-year-old billionaire founder of eBay. Omidyar, who was considering buying The Washington Post this year, decided that for the same price - $250 million - he could build his own investigative journalism outfit.
In an interview with NYU journalism professor James Rosen, Omidyar said the project "brings together some of my interests in civic engagement and building conversations and of course technology, but in a very creative way." Omidyar said, "I have always been of the opinion that the right kind of journalism is a critical part of our democracy." But until the uproar over the Snowden revelations, he hadn't yet "found a way to engage directly."
Omidyar, chairman of the board at eBay, has a net worth estimated at $8.5 billion. For the past three years, he has been publisher, CEO and founder of Honolulu-based news site the Civil Beat. While Civil Beat has been run via his nonprofit Omidyar Network, the new venture will be managed separately, with revenue plowed back into journalism. Given Omidyar's initial quarter-billion-dollar financial commitment and tech credentials as eBay founder, the project is likely to reshape popular concepts of what's possible in modern journalism.
Initial hires reportedly include Greenwald, his co-reporter and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill of The Nation. The project is likely to focus on privacy, surveillance and what Scahill dubbed America's "Dirty Wars" executed in secrecy by the Tampa, Florida-based Special Operations Command. But Omidyar has stressed that he wants the new organization to cover entertainment and sports news, as well.
Omidyar's commitment to the venture will include a bevy of top lawyers and editors. While many details remain under wraps, Rosen said Omidyar will focus on "The Personal Franchise Model," in which he invests in journalists with a personal brand, e.g. media superstars with huge online following and a solid track record of investigative reporting or specific expertise on a subject.
In a statement posted on a company website, Omidyar wrote: "I don't yet know how or when it will be rolled out, or what it will look like. What I can tell you is that the endeavor will be independent of my other organizations, and that it will cover general interest news, with a core mission around supporting and empowering independent journalists across many sectors and beats. The team will build a media platform that elevates and supports these journalists and allows them to pursue the truth in their fields. This doesn't just mean investigative reporting, but all news."
Given the massive cutbacks and dissolution of news bureaus by US-based media companies, the advent of a huge cash investment plus a tech pioneer looking to reward pre-eminent reporters and editors is a huge shot in the arm for those who believe in a free press. Furthermore, it is an example for every tech company that goes public in a multibillion-dollar IPO (think Facebook and likely Twitter next year). With each new IPO, a crop of tech-savvy young billionaires is born. These power brokers now have the ability to upend the definition of what is possible - not just in journalism but in the field of their choice.
Given the stark revelations from the Snowden documents and the dearth of resources to fund long-term reporting projects, the announcement by Omidyar is likely to resonate for years. As for the final form of his company and the journalism to be pursued, a good bet is to look at Omidyar's brief forays into journalism at that Honolulu news site, Civil Beat. In a searing defense of Julian Assange in 2010, an editorial from Civil Beat speaks to the inherent rights of a citizenry to be informed of its government's actions. Referring to US government pressure to strangle WikiLeaks by threatening online payment services, the Civil Beat editorial board wrote "by taking the steps they have to shut down WikiLeaks, governments create a chilling effect on other publishers, making it less likely that information that sheds light on government policy and actions that citizens should know about becomes public."
It's not often those powerful statements are backed up by quarter-billion-dollar commitments. This story, I would wager, has just begun.
You can follow Jonathan Franklin on twitter @FranklinBlog.