Snowden Journalist’s New Venture to Be Bankrolled by eBay Founder: Pierre M. Omidyar
- By NOAM COHEN and QUENTIN HARDY - October 16, 2013 - The New York Times
For years, the tech billionaire Pierre M. Omidyar has been experimenting with ways to promote serious journalism, searching for the proper media platform to support with the fortune he earned as the founder of eBay. He has made grants to independent media outlets in Africa and government watchdog groups in the United States. In a more direct effort, he created a news Web site in Hawaii, his home state.
Then last summer, The Washington Post came calling in its pursuit of a buyer. The Graham family ended up selling The Post to a different tech billionaire, Jeffrey P. Bezos of Amazon. But the experience, Mr. Omidyar wrote on his blog on Wednesday, “got me thinking about what kind of social impact could be created if a similar investment was made in something entirely new, built from the ground up.”
Mr. Omidyar also confirmed that he would be personally financing just such a new “mass media” venture, where he will be joined by the journalist Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, the British daily. Mr. Greenwald gained notoriety this summer when he reported on the revelations about National Security Agency surveillance contained in papers leaked by Edward J. Snowden.
The details of the project are vague. “I don’t yet know how or when it will be rolled out, or what it will look like,” Mr. Omidyar wrote.
What is clear is that Mr. Greenwald will be there, and he is expected to be joined by Laura Poitras, the documentary filmmaker who was the crucial conduit between Mr. Snowden and Mr. Greenwald.
Together, Mr. Greenwald and Ms. Poitras possess a vast trove of documents from Mr. Snowden related to government surveillance and other secret matters. Mr. Greenwald has made it clear that he has much more material from Mr. Snowden to go through and many articles yet to write.
That means that Mr. Omidyar and his media site could well be in the middle of the tussle between the government and news groups over how to balance a free press against concerns about national security, perhaps making him a new adversary for agencies trying to prevent the disclosure of secret information.
Mr. Greenwald stressed in an interview Tuesday night that he would not be the editor or manager of the site, saying, “I will be doing the journalism.”
Mr. Omidyar wrote on Wednesday that the project was something he “would be personally and directly involved in outside of my other efforts as a philanthropist.”
Mr. Omidyar and Mr. Greenwald came together after developing a growing respect that was built around shared causes like protection for journalists and a revulsion at government surveillance tactics.
Mr. Omidyar — who declined an interview request but released a statement and spoke to the New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen — describes a happy coincidence: just as he was looking to start his project, Mr. Greenwald and Ms. Poitras, along with the reporter and author Jeremy Scahill, “were already on a path to create an online space to support independent journalists.”
“We had a lot of overlap in terms of our ideas, and decided to join forces,” he wrote.
Mr. Rosen, on his blog, outlined some of Mr. Omidyar’s thinking: while Mr. Greenwald, Ms. Poitras and Mr. Scahill have focused on national security and United States foreign policy, the new project will be of more general interest. Mr. Rosen, paraphrasing Mr. Omidyar, writes that the project would not be a niche product, and that it would cover sports, business, entertainment and technology.
When asked how large his financial commitment would be, Mr. Rosen writes, Mr. Omidyar referred to the $250 million it would have taken to buy The Post as a starting point.
Mr. Omidyar was born in Paris to Iranians, and was raised mostly around Washington. He created the original software for eBay’s online sales system in 1995. The company became a runaway success that changed Mr. Omidyar’s life beyond the billions he eventually made in eBay stock. Creating a mostly unregulated commerce system where strangers could successfully transact with others taught him that “at the end of the day people are trying to do the right thing,” as he said to a gathering of nonprofit groups in Hawaii in 2011.
Mr. Omidyar, 45, is chairman of eBay, but for more than a decade has not been active in the day-to-day running of the organization.
He decided to devote some of his fortune to philanthropy, but has said he was discouraged by traditional models, which he says can often reward bad outcomes. He named his major philanthropic organization the Omidyar Network to avoid connotations of being a charity, and has made many donations aimed at creating self-sustaining businesses.
He has also sought to have an impact commensurate with what he feels his wealth can accomplish, one that his local news site, Honolulu Civil Beat, couldn’t satisfy. The new venture apparently is the latest manifestation of his ambition to create a big, important media property.
The Twitter streams of Mr. Omidyar and Mr. Greenwald show that they had been moving toward each other over the last year. Mr. Omidyar frequently reposts Twitter messages from Mr. Greenwald about concerns like protecting journalists from government prosecution. One Twitter conversation about the Snowden documents culminated with Mr. Omidyar writing to Mr. Greenwald, “you’ve been the most consistent and knowledgeable reporter on illegal (and now supposed legal) wiretapping since Bush disclosure.”