The news caused a stir among media watchers and accountability organizations, not only because of Omidyar’s deep pockets but also because of his chief partner in the as-yet unnamed operation. He is Glenn Greenwald, the lawyer-journalist whose revelations about the National Security Agency’s massive electronic surveillance program have shaken governments around the world since Britain’s Guardian newspaper began publishing them in May.
Since Omidyar, 46, left daily management of eBay in 1998 (he remains its chairman), he has supported a string of organizations that seek to make government records accessible and monitor the influence of money in politics. Among them are two Washington-based nonprofit groups: the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan investigative journalism outfit, and the Sunlight Foundation, a seven-year-old organization that seeks “real-time, online transparency for all government information.” A third D.C.-based nonprofit organization, the Democracy Fund, channels Omidyar’s money to a variety of like-minded groups.
He has also backed independent, for-profit journalism companies before, including Backfence, a defunct start-up that covered communities in the Washington area, and Honolulu Civil Beat, a three-year-old site that focuses on government in Hawaii, where Omidyar and his wife, Pamela, live.
In funding the news start-up, Omidyar, who spent some of his formative years in the Washington area, became the latest billionaire to pour money into the financially troubled media business.
Boston hedge-fund tycoon John Henry bought the Boston Globe in August for $70 million, followed three days later by Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos’s purchase of The Washington Post for $250 million. Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest men, bought 63 daily and weekly newspapers from Media General of Richmond last year.
Billionaire bankers Herb and Marion Sandler, meanwhile, committed to spend up to $10 million a year in 2007, 2008 and 2009 into sustaining the nonprofit investigative-news consortium ProPublica.
With Greenwald, Omidyar (pronounced oh-MID-ee-ar) appears to be merging both his philanthropic instincts and a business interest in journalism into a highly ambitious operation.
Omidyar said he is prepared to invest as much as $250 million in the venture — the amount he considered spending to buy The Post when he was offered the paper this year, according to the PressThink blog, which snagged the only interview Omidyar gave Wednesday.