The latest hot trend among wealthy technology entrepreneurs is investing in news organizations. From Facebook's Chris Hughes buying the New Republic and Amazon's Jeff Bezos buying this very paper, to eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar investing in a start-up news organization with Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, it seems like everywhere you look there's another tech billionaire deciding to move into the news business. But I'm not going to try to parse the motivations that drove these men into the journalism realm. Instead, I want to talk about brands.
Hughes got me thinking about this in his commentary on Bezos's purchase of The Washington Post:
While no one has found the formula that will bring old media into a profitable future, I’m guessing that Bezos understands an old truism: brands matter. The wonder and magic of institutions like the Post or The New Republic is their history — their stories track the American story. In many cases, they have made that very history through their reporting. No owner can brush aside these powerful legacies, regardless of his or her start-up bona fides. In fact, brands matter more now than when Don Graham’s grandfather bought the Post nearly a hundred years ago, particularly when they have established themselves so securely as the Post has.
So, to Hughes, the name recognition of the news outlets he and Bezos purchased was a key factor in deciding if those organizations were worthwhile investments. And I think there's a lot of merit to that argument. I left a lesser known outlet to work for The Post for a number of reasons, but among them was being able to say, "I'm a reporter for The Washington Post" at parties.
But Omidyar's investment in Greenwald and company suggests that there is a tipping point where a big enough personal brand can bring a similar level of credibility to an upstart organization. Sure, Omidyar is investing in a commercial brand, but it will be built on the personal brands of Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill. And that's not a bad investment: Greenwald already had a substantial following online from years of blogging even before he broke the news on the NSA documents revealed by Edward Snowden -- which Greenwald reportedly has not shared in full with the Guardian. No doubt, those readers will follow him to his new home.
While Omidyar's reported $250 million investment certainly ups the ante, the move is the continuation of a trend that social media and the Internet have enabled for quite some time. Bloggers are able to build up substantial reputations and audiences based on the quality of their work and then be picked up by larger legacy organizations and move up the ranks. Think Nate Silver and the New York Times. Or Andrew Sullivan, who had a substantial presence from years of journalism with the New Republic and the New York Times Magazine, but arguably became better known as an individual figure through years of intrepid blogging and moved his personal blog through many outlets including The Atlantic and The Daily Beast. And Greenwald's moving up the ranks from a personal blog to Salon and the Guardian.
But now, we're seeing many of those writers decide their personal brands are strong enough to stand on their own or to translate to their personal interests. That's what you see with Nate Silver jumping to ESPN and Andrew Sullivan launching his own subscription model site. And now, that's what you see with Greenwald's new venture. Yes, as Hughes argued, brands still matter. But in the Internet age those brands can be, and often are, personal brands.