eBay Co-Founder's Media Company Launches Digital Magazine

In the coming weeks, we'll be offering a periodic look at media organizations which are trying to figure out how to report and present the news while paying for that amid major changes in the industry. In our first story, we hear about a new news organization funded by Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire co-founder of eBay who wants to sustain aggressive investigative reporting. It's called First Look Media.

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In the coming weeks, NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik will tell us about media outlets grappling with how to report and present the news, and how to pay for that reporting amid major changes in the industry. In this, his first story, David reports on a new news organization called First Look Media, which made its debut yesterday.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: As with any big startup these days, it's best to start with the visionary at the top. In this case, a soft spoken man in a Honolulu named Pierre Omidyar.

PIERRE OMIDYAR: When I thought about creating a media company for the digital age, I really wanted to bring focus on bringing that ethos of the First Amendment to the digital age.

FOLKENFLIK: Omidyar is the 46-year-old billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist who co-founded eBay. Now he's the founder and CEO of First Look Media which promises to be a much bigger endeavor. First Look will ultimately develop a flagship one-size-fit-all news aggregation site, but it will be built around a family of separate digital magazines. Yesterday marked the debut of the first, devoted to investigative reporting, especially on state secrets and civil liberties.

It's called the Intercept and its led by the columnist and activist Glenn Greenwald, who broke stories that made headlines around the world based on documents obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Omidyar says the company's other sites will be led by equally distinctive voices.

OMIDYAR: You know, in the 21st century now our audiences and our lives are extremely fragmented, people connect to others who share their interests. They don't really consume mass media as intently as they consume the more fragmented media. And so I think it's time for journalism to evolve, to be able to tell those transformative stories, but tell them in a way that is really tuned to a particular audience.

FOLKENFLIK: Omidyar says the site's journalism will be paid for by revenues from online advertising and the profits from a sister company that will license new technology - as yet unidentified developed - to other digital publishers.

Omidyar's record at eBay confers credibility, and yet his approach has its skeptics, Jessica Lessin among them. Lessin was a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal for eight years, but left last year to create her own tech news site, The Information. Its finances are based on subscription revenues. Lessin says she's excited by Omidyar's venture. But she argues that online advertising creates a need for high volume of readership, and that that can lead even good reporters into temptation.

JESSICA LESSIN: If your sustainability is dependent on traffic, you write different stories. And I don't think this is just valley wags and the gossip blogs. I think any, you know, mainstream publication with fabulous journalists is going to have that pull if that's ultimately where their bottom line is.

FOLKENFLIK: Digital publishers have to decide, Lessin says, whether they are primarily tech companies or journalism companies.

LESSIN: I certainly think there will be demand for great technology and that you will be able to license it. I think it'll be a hard business to build a huge revenue stream off of that. But I do think that over time, you know, the next The Wall Street Journals, the next The New York Timeses, the next Bloombergs - they're going to win based on their reporting because everyone's going to have great technology.

FOLKENFLIK: There is of course a third path to solvency: philanthropy. Forbes estimated Omidyar's worth at $8.5 billion last year. He passed on buying The Washington Post when the Graham family quietly put it on the market. But after Amazon founder Jeff Bezos spent a quarter of a billion dollars of his own money to buy the paper, Omidyar decided to dedicate the same amount to developing First Look

As of the moment, says First Look's top news executive, Eric Bates, First Look doesn't know its future headcount or revenue projections. They're still drafting pretty much everything.

ERIC BATES: For a moment here, we have a little bit of breathing room to go down some rabbit holes and explore some dead ends and double back and try again.

FOLKENFLIK: Bates identifies one key question: How to fulfill Omidyar's vision of delivering journalism in a way that doesn't alienate its readers.

BATES: The traditional sense of journalism that we learn in journalism schools and that journalism has always professed, which is that you write the story, the citizens then have the information, and then they go and vote. And you go onto the next story. But the system doesn't actually work that way.

FOLKENFLIK: Bates argues his team's stories needs to break through the noise. And he says that may prove to be a question of resources as much as technology. Omidyar acknowledges First Look may take longer than five years to become solvent. And he tells NPR that he may have to invest more than that promised $250 million. He says that's OK, he's in it for the long haul.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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