EBay founder Pierre Omidyar has become the latest self-made tech baron to plunge into the struggling news industry - hot on the heels of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, who just paid $250 million for the Washington Post.
But unlike Bezos, the French-born Iranian American
says he aims to build a new "mass media organization" from the ground up, and
his first recruits are the journalists who exposed the US government's
surveillance programs, using documents leaked by former spy agency contractor
The new venture puts Omidyar, 46, in the public eye after
many years of relatively low-profile philanthropic and investment activities.
While he has long supported efforts to promote transparency and accountability
in government, including a local news website in his home state of Hawaii,
Omidyar suggested that he is prepared to spend as much as Bezos did in buying
the Post to take those efforts to a new level.
"I want to find ways to
convert mainstream readers into engaged citizens," Omidyar wrote in a blog post
Omidyar's new endeavor, as yet unnamed, will face myriad
challenges. Established news organizations are struggling to find a viable
financial model as print advertising and circulation plummet while online
advertising dollars migrate to Google Inc and to automated ad exchanges that
drive prices down. He has yet to offer any clues about his business
Media investments generally do not make good investments, said
David Cowan, a partner at Bessemer Ventures. "I'm pretty sure Pierre doesn't
think that a news startup is the best way to get richer," he said.
in France to Iranian parents, Omidyar grew up largely in the Washington, D.C.
area, with a stint in Hawaii. He graduated from Tufts University near Boston in
1988 with a degree in computer science, and moved to Silicon
While working as a software engineer at then-hot
personal-communications company General Magic, Omidyar came up with the idea for
eBay in 1995 and worked on it as a hobby until it became big enough for him to
quit his day job.
When eBay went public three years later, the then
31-year-old Omidyar's stake was valued at $611 million by the end of the trading
day. He still owns almost 9 percent of the $70 billion company today, making him
eBay's top shareholder. Forbes pegs his wealth at $8.5 billion.
serves as eBay's chairman, but has not been involved in its day-to-day
operations for years.
During the summer, Omidyar considered purchasing
the Washington Post, he wrote in his blog. While the Post eventually sold to
Bezos in August, the process "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," he wrote.
Those musings led to his latest
project, which he is billing as "My Next Adventure in
'PASSIONATE' ABOUT JOURNALISM
Omidyar Network, the
investment firm founded by Omidyar and his wife, Pam, in 2004, has backed some
25 organizations dealing with news and government transparency, including News
Trust, a news-discovery site run by the nonprofit journalism center the Poynter
Institute; the Sunlight Foundation, a government-transparency nonprofit; and
Transparency & Accountability Initiative, a London based
"Pierre gets journalism," said John Temple, founding editor
of Honolulu Civil Beat, the news site launched by Omidyar in 2010. "He's
passionate about it and knows how to create an environment and culture where
journalists feel energized and empowered."
Omidyar's comments on Twitter
in recent months show an increasing discomfort with the workings of the US
"There goes freedom of association," he tweeted earlier this
week, linking to an article in the Washington Post about the National Security
Agency collecting email address books.
But in his Wednesday blog post,
Omidyar emphasized his new endeavor would go beyond investigative reporting, and
would "cover general interest news, with a core mission around supporting and
empowering independent journalists across many sectors and beats."
broad approach makes sense, said Arianna Huffington, creator of the Huffington
Post, which started an edition in Hawaii earlier this year through a partnership
with Omidyar's Civil Beat.
"He wants this to be a business, and that's
not possible without having a site that's about general news and everything that
people are interested in," Huffington said in an interview.
"And for the
conclusions of investigative journalism to have impact - and he wants to have
impact - you have to capture the public imagination. If you have people coming
to the site for other reasons they are more likely to engage."
extent, Omidyar seems to be shifting what he has been trying with Honolulu Civil
Beat to a broader stage.
Civil Beat aimed to create a new online
journalism model with paid subscriptions and respectful comment threads. Patti
Epler, current editor of Civil Beat, said a policy of requiring people to log in
via Facebook before they post a comment has encouraged a less strident tone than
at many news organizations. She declined to comment on the site's
Her boss has championed projects that might lead to more
government transparency, Epler said. When her reporters ran up against a law
exempting police from releasing internal disciplinary records, Omidyar created
the Civil Beat Law Center, which is working to secure the release of those
Another impetus for starting the center was the demise of
Hawaii's shield law, which protects journalists from having to reveal anonymous
sources, Epler said. It expired earlier this year.
drops by the newsroom, where he edits the occasional article, plays foosball,
and chats with staff.
"He loves to talk stories," Epler said. "And
journalistic principles and ethics."