Pando

Pierre Omidyar's news is old news

By Hamish McKenzie , written on October 21, 2013

From The News Desk

We’re starting to get some details about the new media venture into which eBay founder Pierre Omidyar is plowing $250 million and retaining the services of Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill. The New York Times’ David Carr has followed up Jay Rosen’s interview with the media’s new favorite billionaire with a Q&A and a column that notes the wave of tech rich guys who have a sudden interest in owning news organizations.

The most salient point to emerge from all the discussion so far is that we still don’t really know much.

Omidyar told Carr, in fact, that the news slipped out prematurely and that he and Greenwald have been talking about the project for just over two weeks. He doesn’t know exactly what the general-interest news organization is going to look like, or how, or if, it will one day pay for itself. So our knowledge of the situation is restricted to bare facts: $250 million, three journalist names, Omidyar’s tech background, and that he has bankrolled another noble media venture, Hawaii’s Civil Beat, which, someone ought to say, could win a prize for worst news site design on the Internet.

We are left, then, to pore over reports of Omidyar’s character (stand-up guy), his philanthropic ventures (very active), and his vaguely articulated notions about what this “mass media” venture could be. On the business side of things – the “Does Omidyar know how to save journalism?” front – we should all just stop getting excited. He clearly does not know how to make news a profitable enterprise, nor does he profess to. He confessed to Carr that serious journalism probably can’t pay the bills.

“Certainly the learning from our site in Hawaii shows how difficult it is,” he said. “Advertisers don’t want to put their ads next to the investigative story; it’s extremely difficult to do that. And very few people today actually read those serious news stories on the Web now. The audience for the most important stories can be depressingly small.”

He deserves credit for his candor, and no-one should blame him for not knowing how to make a serious news organization financially viable. That he’s willing to invest so much money in such a venture while knowing how nigh-on-impossible it is to monetize this important but unmarketable work is something people ought to praise. And in any case, $250 million is more than enough to get a publication off the ground, and to fund it while he experiments with business models for at least a few years.

What is perhaps most telling about Omidyar’s statements so far, though, is that while he sees himself as a technologist willing to experiment with technological solutions to old-media problems, he wants to use an old-media solution to guard against a new-media seepage. He told Carr that one thing he has learned from Civil Beat, which specializes in investigative reporting, is that “a large part of driving the conversation forward is having voices based in expertise as well as passion for the topic.”

That’s why he has enlisted the services of Greenwald, Poitras, and Scahill, and it is a refreshing step in the opposite direction of the prevailing currents of online media, which favor the promotion of Miley Cyrus twerking videos over, say, counter-programming about NSA surveillance.

Given the reign of the CPM-driven model, which encourages clickbait headlines (BuzzFeed, Business Insider), manipulation of social-virality mechanisms (BuzzFeed, Upworthy), and massive pageview whoring (BuzzFeed, Gawker Media) all in the name of serving more ads (native or exotic), the public would be forgiven for thinking that the impact of technology on media has so far been limited to the cheapening of the news product.

Tech’s effect on media, still, has been most effective in terms of improved reporting and publishing tools (smartphones with cameras and digital recorders, content management systems, Google, Wikipedia) and the advent of new distribution networks that can faciliate tremendous scale (Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Digg, email). So it’s important that Omidyar recognizes, and is seeking to promote, the very old-media values of deep expertise and deep dives. You might not agree with everything – or anything – Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras say, but they report from informed positions and argue their points. They’re never just going to do a quick rehash of the day’s big news and slap a few gifs on it. They represent the antithesis of the listicle.

As Omidyar puts it: “They are people who are willing to put themselves out there and be transparent about it, not just spouting opinions without any kind of basis. They say, “Look, I know about this stuff. This is how I know about it; here’s what I’ve learned and I’m going to tell you what I think about this.””

That is not a description of the kinds of reporters you employ in a low-overhead, pageview-milking new media venture. It is not a scalable model. It requires investment in humans, and in old media values that dictate that someone know, intimately, what they’re writing about. It is a model that can’t be CPM’d.

It’s a model that only a billionaire can afford to try.

[Image Credit: Joi on Flickr]