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.