Spooked by NSA, eBay founder plans hard-hitting news site

Billionaire Pierre Omidyar is worried that the free press won't be so free after mass surveillance and aggressive policies toward whistle-blowers get through with it. He's decided to take action.

Edward Moyer
Edward Moyer Senior Editor
Edward Moyer is a senior editor at CNET and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. ¶ For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
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4 min read
Pierre Omidyar, left, with Virgin founder Richard Branson. Pierre Omidyar/Wikimedia Commons

Alarmed at the potential threat to a free press posed by aggressive attitudes toward leakers and by the National Security Agency's seemingly boundless spying powers, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar is set to pour at least $250 million into a new kind of journalism outfit.

"I have always been of the opinion that the right kind of journalism is a critical part of our democracy," Omidyar is quoted as saying in a PressThink blog item posted Wednesday by media critic and former NYU journalism chair Jay Rosen.

The eBay founder, who with projects like community news site Civil Beat has previously moved into journalistic territory, has tapped Glenn Greenwald to help build a team of "independent journalists with expertise, and a voice, and a following" who can practice the art of deep-dive investigative reporting.

Greenwald, along with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, is one of the keepers of the keys to the cache of documents purloined by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Greenwald's reports based on those files touched off the current debate about the NSA's massive surveillance apparatus and seemingly unrestricted spying practices.

Greenwald called the new venture a "once-in-a-career journalistic opportunity" yesterday, after news of his departure from the UK's Guardian newspaper had leaked, and before Omidyar's involvement had been revealed.

Rosen, who says Omidyar consulted with him about the yet-to-be-named project, reports that it will resemble what he's previously called "the personal franchise model" in news. "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," Rosen writes. "The idea is to attract these people...or find young journalists capable of working in this way, and then support them well."

Omidyar told Rosen that the idea for the venture gathered steam after he spoke with Greenwald and learned that he and Poitras, along with The Nation's Jeremy Scahill, had themselves been thinking of launching some sort of independent journalism enterprise.

A recent profile of Poitras in The New York Times Magazine captures the independent spirit embodied by her and Greenwald:

Poitras and Greenwald are an especially dramatic example of what outsider reporting looks like in 2013. They do not work in a newsroom, and they personally want to be in control of what gets published and when. When The Guardian didn't move as quickly as they wanted with the first article on Verizon [and the NSA's collection of Americans' phone-call data], Greenwald discussed taking it elsewhere, sending an encrypted draft to a colleague at another publication. He also considered creating a Web site on which they would publish everything, which he planned to call NSADisclosures. In the end, The Guardian moved ahead with their articles. But Poitras and Greenwald have created their own publishing network as well, placing articles with other outlets in Germany and Brazil and planning more for the future. They have not shared the full set of documents with anyone...

Unlike many reporters at major news outlets, they do not attempt to maintain a facade of political indifference. Greenwald has been outspoken for years; on Twitter, he recently replied to one critic by writing: "You are a complete idiot. You know that, right?"

Omidyar, whose net worth has been estimated at $8.5 billion, told Rosen that his time with eBay and in the tech world would be put into play with the new venture: "Companies in Silicon Valley invest a lot in understanding their users and what drives user engagement," Omidyar said, mentioning Netflix and adding that the project will serve users in a personalized way. It'll also be a for-profit company, not a charity, though Rosen didn't speak of a money-making strategy.

"It brings together some of my interests in civic engagement and building conversations and of course technology, but in a very creative way," Omidyar told Rosen.

Omidyar isn't the only tech heavyweight set to make a mark on the world of news. The $250 million that he's ready to put toward his new venture is the money he'd earmarked to purchase The Washington Post -- which, of course, was bought instead by Amazon's Jeff Bezos.

Omidyar told Rosen that he wants the new venture to bring hard-hitting journalism to a general readership. Toward that end it will also feature sports, entertainment, and tech reporting, and it will find, as Rosen puts it, "the proper midpoint between voicey blogging and traditional journalism, in which the best of both are combined."

But the driving force is what Omidyar called his "rising concern about press freedoms in the United States and around the world," a concern fueled by the recent news swirling around Snowden and the NSA.

A recent study by a former executive editor at the Post, which examined the Obama administration's aggressive policies toward leakers such as Snowden, as well as the administration's dealings with the press, found that sources for stories involving national security are far less likely to talk to reporters now that mass spying by the NSA has come to light.

And reporters too are feeling the heat. Indeed, as outlined in the Times profile, Poitras herself, who'll be working on video for the Omidyar venture, has been burdened by airport questionings and the like many times. And Greenwald recently saw his partner, David Miranda, detained at a UK airport for nine hours.

Omidyar, with his new venture's support of independently minded journalists, hopes to provide a counterbalance. And he's apparently aware of what that might entail. As Rosen writes:

"By 'support' Omidyar means many things. The first and most important is really good editors...Also included: strong back-end technology. Powerful publishing tools. Research assistance. And of course a strong legal team, because the kind of journalism [the new venture] intends to practice is the kind that is capable of challenging some of the most powerful people in the world."