The Omidyar way

October 17, 2013

People talk about billionaires the way bird-watchers point out rare sightings — wide-eyed and in hushed, anxious tones.

Speculation in media circles has been similarly breathless since the news broke Tuesday that billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omidyar is launching a major news organization with Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill, some of the world’s leading investigative journalists responsible for exposing the reach of the U.S.’s military and surveillance complex.

According to Jay Rosen, who says Omidyar consulted with him last month, Omidyar is prepared to back the new venture with at least $250 million. Omidyar posted a statement about his plans Wednesday, saying the plan for the digital news organization came together after he considered buying the Washington Post, which Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought in a move that shocked the news industry. That deal, set to close this month, is also worth $250 million.

This isn’t Omidyar’s first foray into online journalism, and a look at his original news venture — where I worked for two years — offers clues about the one to come.

In 2010, Omidyar launched Honolulu Civil Beat, where I took a job as city hall reporter shortly after it launched in March 2010. (Later, I opened the organization’s Washington bureau. I still report semi-regularly for the site.) Media-types routinely ask me what founder Pierre Omidyar is like. Have you actually met him? Does he talk to any of the reporters? Has he even set foot in the newsroom?

To those who have worked at Civil Beat, these are hilarious questions. Of course we know Pierre. He sits in the open newsroom with everybody else, just a couple of feet away from my old desk. When I worked in Honolulu, he was there most days helping the site’s developers write code — Python and Erlang, for those who are keeping track — occasionally chuckling at our newsroom banter, and always eating healthier than anyone else in the room. In Civil Beat’s early days, he participated in a team-building scavenger hunt.

In early public forums, Civil Beat billed itself as “Wikipedia with a news edge,” a description that did little to illuminate what Omidyar had called the “new civic square.” But the idea was to encourage respectful discussion with an engaged community of readers around document-driven investigative reporting. Civil Beat was promoted as a new and different type of journalism serving Hawaii, where Omidyar lives.

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.

A noble goal, but one that doesn’t automatically translate into financial success. While there was obviously a need for this kind of reporting in Hawaii, it wasn’t clear that there was a robust market for it.

The original business model was novel, especially for a local digital-only publication at the time: subscriptions cost $20 per month, as much as the New York Times and during an economic recession. The site also launched with a hard paywall, meaning you had to subscribe in order to read anything. (Civil Beat has declined to share subscription numbers or otherwise characterize its growth, which has “increased a lot,” Editor Patti Epler told me in August.)

Some readers complained about the cost. Omidyar was quick to iterate, switching the paywall to a metered model that allowed people to read a set number of articles per month before requiring them to buy a subscription. The rate to subscribe has since dropped to $9.99 per month, in part due to a revenue-sharing partnership with the Huffington Post, an arrangement Omidyar forged with Arianna Huffington earlier this year. Civil Beat also found early partners in local media, expanding brand awareness through deals with the NPR affiliate in the islands and the local ABC news affiliate.

Omidyar has made it clear that the organization isn’t a philanthropic hobby. He’s always said that Civil Beat is a for-profit venture, and that a sustainable business model is a must. (Omidyar is reportedly running the new publication as a business, not a charity, but will reinvest all revenue into the publication.) Epler hinted to me over the summer that taking down the paywall wasn’t out of the question — but also emphasized there were no plans to do so. The site has remained ad-free, a quality readers cite as a draw to Civil Beat, though it has dabbled in sponsorship deals — like the one it has with Hawaiian Airlines, for example.

While other publishers I’ve worked for have had specific and sometimes disruptive editorial agendas, Omidyar’s goal for us was simple and neutral: Ask tough questions on behalf of the public to make this community a better place. He has a seat on Civil Beat’s editorial board, and he has participated in planning discussions about special packages — a series detailing government salaries, for example — but only occasionally did he weigh in on day-to-day stories. When he did, it was to contribute questions or move the conversation forward, not to suggest how something ought to be covered. Otherwise, he isn’t one for memos. Rarely did he email the entire staff. When he did, his preferred emoticon was a classic “:-)”

Earlier this year, Omidyar opened the Civil Beat Law Center, an organization that helps people better access government information. The center is available to anyone, including individuals and reporters from other news organizations, in the hopes that it will lead to more open government.

That decision offers as much of a window as to his venture with Greenwald, Poitras, and Scahill as his three-and-a-half years at the helm of Civil Beat does. Omidyar identified a problem — that agencies routinely reject requests for reports, documents and other information that should be readily available — and created something of his own to find a solution.

Based on what I’ve seen from Omidyar, he believes journalism is a vehicle toward a better functioning democracy. Though Civil Beat will remain separate from his new venture, it’s fair to see this next step as an extension of what he has learned in Honolulu. The lesson so far seems to be that journalism’s loftiest values are still worth backing, and the most fearless reporters are the ones who can best uphold them.

PHOTO: EBay founder and chairman Pierre Omidyar enters the courthouse to testify in the eBay versus Craigslist trial at the Chancery Court in Georgetown, Delaware December 7, 2009. REUTERS/Tim Shaffer

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