The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pierre Omidyar a ‘very clever headline writer,’ among other things

When Honolulu Civil Beat launched in the spring of 2010, Pierre Omidyar was in the newsroom “working past midnight,” recalls the site’s founding editor, John Temple. Once things got going, says Temple, Omidyar “helped conceptualize and research the work we were doing.” Adrienne LaFrance, who covered city hall in Civil Beat’s early days, recalls that Omidyar “sat right there in the newsroom with everyone else” and worked on various projects, such as coding the site.

Omidyar’s approach to online journalism is suddenly a newsworthy matter, following yesterday’s news that he’ll be funding a new general-interest news operation in which Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, author of numerous scoops on the National Security Agency (NSA), is playing a founding role. Omidyar founded eBay and now serves as its chairman, though he doesn’t run its day-to-day affairs. That leaves him some time to get into journalism.

Temple worked at Civil Beat for two and a half years, starting with the hiring of the staff and concluding in spring 2012, when he left to serve as managing editor of the Washington Post. He emerged from the experience with a very positive opinion of Omidyar and his motivations for funding journalism projects. The problem that Omidyar was seeking to address with Civil Beat, says Temple, was the decline of local journalism and the resulting informational vacuum. “Pierre is obviously somebody who’s passionate and has been passionate about open government and transparency,” says Temple, now a senior fellow with the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Program at Stanford University. “The NSA story, as you can see from his tweets, has raised another kind of concern at a higher level, and Pierre is a person who pursues things that he cares about.”

A couple of those tweets:

As Jay Rosen writes in an insightful piece based on an interview with Omidyar, the 46-year-old eBay founder was among the folks approached by the Washington Post Co. regarding the sale of its flagship property. “[A]s a result of exploring that transaction, Omidyar started thinking seriously about investing in a news property,” writes Rosen. He eventually met with Greenwald, who was thinking of building his own organization, too. So they teamed up. Journalists Jeremy Scahill and Laura Poitras are reportedly part of the group, too.

Here’s the journalistic mindset that Omidyar is seeking to plant in this new place, as described by Rosen: “You start with individual journalists who have their own reputations, deep subject matter expertise, clear points of view, an independent and outsider spirit, a dedicated online following, and their own way of working. The idea is to attract these people to NewCo, or find young journalists capable of working in this way, and then support them well.”

In Rosen’s write-up, Omidyar stresses his belief in the potential of great news outlets: “I have always been of the opinion that the right kind of journalism is a critical part of our democracy,” Omidyar tells Rosen.

The guy’s a true believer, in other words. “He made it clear that he really cared about public affairs-driven investigative reporting — the kind of reporting that makes a community a better place,” says LaFrance.

Ideal traits for someone controlling the finances of a new, general-interest media outlet. Another key trait, of course, is the willingness to subsidize, since online media outlets have a depressing tendency to launch with high expectations and fizzle in low revenues. On this front, Temple says, “We made every effort to be profitable but we also learned from experience and would adjust along the way.” LaFrance: “It seemed clear that making it a sustainable business was one of the key goals,” though “first and foremost were the journalistic goals — what kinds of stories are we covering? What kind of questions are we asking?” Omidyar has a net worth of $8.5 billion, according to Forbes.

Now for the really serious stuff: “He’s a very clever headline writer,” says Temple.