Pierre Omidyar and the bottomless optimism of billionaire publishers

October 17, 2013

Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar — reckoned to be worth $8.5 billion — inspired tens of thousands of journalists to freshen their resumes this week when word of his plan to start his own mass media organization leaked out. With Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, and Laura Poitras announced as its first hires, the outlet will emphasize investigative journalism, but as Omidyar explained in a post, the site will serve all news.

Rattling his dumpster of cash, Omidyar will soon join other billionaires who made their money elsewhere and now peddle product at the newsstand, including Michael Bloomberg of Bloomberg News, Jeff Bezos of the Washington Post, Herb Sandler of ProPublica, Philip Anschutz of the Weekly Standard and the Washington Examiner, Mortimer Zuckerman of the Daily News and U.S. News and World Report, Richard Mellon Scaife of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, John Henry of the Boston Globe, the late Sidney Harman of Newsweek, and the late convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Washington Times. A whole junior varsity of sub-billionaire moneybags, including Wendy P. McCaw of the Santa Barbara News-Press, Jared Kushner of the New York Observer, Doug Manchester of U-T San Diego and Chris Hughes of the New Republic, have similarly bought their way into the news business to spread their influence or enrich democracy, depending on who is doing the telling.

Plutocrats the world over delight in owning media properties, and for good reason: Money can buy a lot, but unless you own a publication you’re just one of the world’s 1,426 billionaires — human cargo on a private jet, a delegator, an employer of lobbyists, another yakker in the opinion chorus. Moving to the head of the line requires the media club upgrade, which makes you and your publication a compulsory venue for campaigning candidates. Media properties are like musical instruments: when played just so, they compel your enemies to dance, as William Randolph Hearst of the San Francisco Examiner and New York Journal first demonstrated with his family’s money in the 1890s, and the super billionaire Koch brothers would have discovered had they purchased the Los Angeles Times.

A week ago, few outside the tech and business worlds knew who Omidyar was, and even inside some newsrooms his name would have likely drawn a blank. Today he’s a celebrity whose every utterance will be recorded, cataloged, analyzed, assessed, and yes, valued! Last week, he was just another billionaire who supported non-profit journalism (Center for Public Integrity, Columbia Journalism Review, and Honolulu Civil Beat, which he founded) and civil liberty organizations (Sunlight Foundation). Today, he’s a budding philosopher king.

A decade ago, I charted the life cycle of the “vanity press mogul,” the tycoons who dabble in the press with their excess millions: In the opening phases, the mogul opens the money throttle wide, hiring the best journalists and designers, and even voices the view that he’ll make money where his predecessors made none to little. Then comes the morning after and with it sobriety. Too much red ink is flowing, too many projects over-budget and late, too many gifted wunderkinds spending wildly. Not even billionaires enjoy losing money forever. Then comes the reality adjustment, the downsizing, the prospecting for partners or “synergies,” and often an exit from the media business, which attracts a fresh vanity mogul and restarts the cycle.

Because the past is not destiny, Omidyar need not ride the traditional wheel. Thanks to the Web and breakneck technological advances, the media business has acquired a volatility that favors new entrants over incumbents as never before, as the lightning successes of such well-funded, rapidly-expanding sites as Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Business Insider, Bleacher Report, The Verge, Quartz, Gawker Media, and others have demonstrated. Incumbency may actually be an impediment to success, barnacling owners to ancient methods and technologies in a way that clean-break media organizations are not.

Bezos’s purchase of the Washington Post and Omidyar’s as-yet-unnamed site offer a dandy laboratory setting for the testing of this thesis, as Bezos’s renovation of an existing franchise will surely be judged in terms of Omidyar’s startup. (Omidyar, by the way, window-shopped the Post when it was for sale.) The difference, of course, is that the Post is just one of the dozen vacation homes that Bezos owns or is in the process of expanding, whereas Omidyar appears to be building a single dream-home from the basement up. The Bezos purchase, however fanciful, is a practical move into the for-profit sector. Omidyar’s venture, on the other hand, harkens back to the techno-idealism of the 1980s and 1990s, when the first impulse of computer scientists, programmers, and other techies was to change the world, not make more money. According to USA Today, he and his wife have committed more than $1 billion to hundreds of philanthropic causes.

Omidyar’s first-round hiring of Greenwald, Scahill, and Poitras — who hail from the rich tradition of partisan American journalism — speaks to his idealism. Where Bezos is banking on an institution and its brand value, Omidyar is making his first-round investment in individual journalists whose work he admires. Like Hearst, who preached in favor of the “journalism of action” that battled corruption and incompetence, and got things done, I assume Omidyar has world-changing on his mind. Given the backgrounds of his first hires, it should come as no surprise that privacy, surveillance, and the NSA dominate Omidyar’s recent Twitter feed. Still, he seems to have modulated his image to appear politically opaque. The Federal Election Commission donation database reveals a steady stream of donations to Democratic candidates, but hey, in 1999 he gave $1,000 to George W. Bush! It’s not enough political baggage to fill a fanny pack, especially compared to that other ambitious startup, the emir of Qatar-owned Al Jazeera America. He comes close to being a clean slate.

Omidyar’s new venture — which will be all-digital, according to his interview with Jay Rosen, and in which he will invest at least the $250 million Bezos spent on the Post — won’t fill a vacuum in national security reporting because there is no vacuum. Thanks to the good work the Guardian (the venue Greenwald just departed), the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press, ABC News, NBC News, and many others have done and continue to do, we’re experiencing a national security reporting renaissance. Depending on how the youthful Omidyar (just 46) sets up his operation — as a trust (like the one that the Guardian is eating up), or as an endowment, or as a multi-year fully budgeted project — we have reason to hope that no matter how market forces savage conventional for-profit journalism, at least one outlet funded by a devoted magnate will remain in the mix. Those of us who subscribe to religion should pray he lives a long and lucid life.

Journalism has traditionally been rejuvenated by the invasion of the orthodoxy by outsiders. William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, and Adolph Ochs stirred the pot in 1890s New York and the muckrakers played hell at the turn of the century. Radio made news immediate, the transistor made it mobile, and television made it visual. San Francisco leftists revived investigative reporting at Ramparts in the 1960s and the Web, well, y’all know how that outsider technology upended the established order.

As welcome as Omidyar’s money is, his commitment to the investigative form and an open society is what I’m grateful for this afternoon. You can never uphold the correct verdict too often.


The always enlightening Ronald R. Rodgers blog offers this link to an 1893 article in The Dial urging the philanthropically-minded wealthy to endow a newspaper instead of a hospital or university. Send your billions to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. No bills smaller than $1,000,000 accepted. My revolutionary Twitter feed is completely non-profit. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

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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Bloomberg is not parallel with the rest of your names of “billionaires who made their money elsewhere.” He made is money in the media, founding and growing Bloomberg media over 30 years. I know you know that.

I guess I should not be surprised that when conservative wealthy media outsiders–such as the Koch brothers– are connected to actual or possible media acquisitions the mainstream media sound the alarm that they have malevolent aims. But when Omidyar weighs in with clearly a point of view as signaled with his initial hire, he is celebrated. Either ideology-motivated owners are desired–or they are not. This reminds me of the old line about point of view that I think came from George Carlin: Karl Marx had a beard (said with a menacing tone), while Gabby Hayes (a side kick to 1950s cowboy star Roy Rogers) had whiskers (said with a soothing tone).

Posted by BenMC | Report as abusive

Jack Shafer cannot hide his envy (dumpsters of cash, vanity press etc) of those billionaires who are using their money for a good cause. For him only the main street disinfomration press has a right to express itself on behalf of the little people. What do billionaires know about the plight of little people, right Jack?

Posted by dangood | Report as abusive

Despite all the journalists and the vastness of the world I still struggle to find things insightful and interesting to read. Too many opinion pieces reek of payola or partisan politics.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

“Omidyar’s new venture … won’t fill a vacuum in national security reporting because there is no vacuum.”

If there wasn’t a vacuum in national security reporting why did it take an Edward Snowdon to alert the world that the NSA was completely out of control? Investigative journalism is virtually dead in this country because corporate media is unwilling to pay for it. The more journalists you get rid of the fatter your bottom line is. Plus, we can’t have investigative journalists exposing corporate and political corruption and sleaze.

Posted by Des3Maisons | Report as abusive

Add former Freeman edtor Sheldon Richman, Reason’s Jacob Sullum, and Cnet’s Declan Mccullagh and this venture would be off to bang-up start. Jack Shafer wouldn’t be a bad add, either.

Posted by smartnic | Report as abusive

Any new outlet that manages to adopt and follow some very basic editorial guidelines can take the world by the storm.

Posted by satori23 | Report as abusive

An enjoyable piece of writing.
Add to the list of plutocratic publishers — the late Dorothy Schiff of the New York Post and Marshall Field III of PM.

Posted by MossyMorse1118 | Report as abusive

Just a fantastic post. Jack you are so awesome!

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive

This is another glimpse into the real world of the Plutocrats. We saw some of that with Mittzi Romney:
● “I like firing people? Don’t you?”
● “Solving the student loan crisis is easy. They should just borrow from their parents.”
● “Corporations are people too…”
● “I hate Obamacare (Americare) even if it is entirely based on Romneycare.”
● “I can’t give you an accounting of the more than $200 million I have more than $200 million in ‘carried interest’ assets in tax-free foreign bank accounts. It’s all legal [to us Plutocrats]”
● 47% of the people in this country are takers, slackers and losers who are bribed by the Obama Administration, but actually mostly Republicans! So much for the “safety net” that he couldn’t care less about.
● “I know a lot about football. Several of my friends are team owners.” (Bushlike)
● “I support GM. My wife owns two Caddies.”

Joe the Plumber eats this up, commiserating on the proposal to increase the top income tax bracket (that most Plutocrats avoid paying by expensing their lifestyles in personal corporations) by 3.%, a 0.1% total impact and never made more than $50K/year in his lifetime and owed a couple of years in back taxes. These Pee-Ons really can be utterly stupid as well as incredibly gullible.

Senilator John McCain says that the threshhold for the middle class is five million – no distinction on whether this is annual income or net worth.


Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

You besmirch George Carlin’s good name by employing him against a cause he would certainly support. To be Clear, Carlin would hate the money grubbing owners of society like bloomberg and the koch brothers, and would applaud Snowden/Greenwald/Scahill/Poitras.

That much is clear. And yes, there is a difference between a billionaire who wants to buy or run media in ordere to lobby for tehir financial interests, and a guy like omidyar who has demonstrated a commitment to transparency organizations and investigative journalism. Your bias is showing

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

[…] Shafer, “Pierre Omidyar and the bottomless optimism of billionaire publishers,” Reuters.com, Oct. 17, 2013.  The columnist reports the plans of Ebay’s founder to “join […]

Posted by Journalism » *On the Web* Archive 2013-14 | Report as abusive