eBay Founder Explains His Venture Into Journalism

Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, is the latest tech giant to make a bold bet on the future of journalism. Renee Montagne talks with the entrepreneur-philanthropist about his $250 million media venture.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's beginning to look like a trend: billionaire tech titans coming to the rescue of traditional journalism.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Last year, Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes bought the New Republic. Just weeks ago, Amazon's Jeff Bezos snapped up the Washington Post for $250 million.

MONTAGNE: Then, days ago, news broke that eBay founder Pierre Omidyar - who also considered buying the Post - was instead putting 250 million into a startup news site. That venture will focus on something quite old-fashioned: investigative, passion-fueled, muckraking journalism. And onboard are a handful of reporters who received and reported on NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden. Chief among them is Glenn Greenwald, who Omidyar says he had been eager to meet.

PIERRE OMIDYAR: We finally were able to connect just a few weeks ago, I mean, at the beginning of the month of October. So it was really almost this sort of magical alignment of stars here that put us together at the right place at the right time.

MONTAGNE: Pierre Omidyar told us that when he spoke with us from his office in Honolulu. Good morning.

OMIDYAR: Good morning. It's a pleasure to be with you.

MONTAGNE: I know your original interest started with quite an old media icon. That's the Washington Post. What was that interest, and how did it spark this interest in a new venture?

OMIDYAR: Well, you know, I have been investing in and making grants to government transparency and accountability organizations for many years. And I believe deeply in the role of journalism in democracy. You know, it is absolutely critical that we have journalists holding government to account, bringing attention to stories that may be overlooked. And so the opportunity to actually engage in the process of the sale of the Washington Post came up, I think, for us in March. We began to take it seriously in May. And then, you know, the events that took place with the Justice Department kind of overreaching, it seems, in its wiretap of AP reporters, the aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers and aggressive leak investigations, all of those things really came together before the summer and over the summer to alert me that there was potentially a real problem with press freedoms here in the United States. So, that really got me to engage much more significantly.

MONTAGNE: Why didn't you buy the Post?

(LAUGHTER)

OMIDYAR: Well, you know, I tell you, it was a really wonderful opportunity to actually be engaged in the conversation, you know, with the Post team to think about how to engage in journalism in a way that can have a real deep impact, you know, on society. And, ultimately, I really gave thought to: What could you do with that same amount of capital if you built something from the ground up? It lets you throw out all the old rules. It lets you build things in a completely different way, lets you bring people together that ordinarily, you know, might not come together. As an entrepreneur, you know, we do tend to like to build things from the ground up and build them, you know, the way we would want to build them, instead of going into an existing institution.

MONTAGNE: Well, what are you imagining it looks like? I mean, I - they have all the big questions: How will this new online newspaper be different? How will it engage people at this level that you're talking about with very serious work, investigative work that is successful in old media? But as we know, old media, it's shrinking.

OMIDYAR: Right, right, right. Audiences today really want to know who is reporting the news to them. You know, trust in institutions is going down, and audiences really, they want to know the people behind the story. They want to know how it's being reported to them. And so there's much more appetite for connecting with people who have expertise, a real passion around the topics they cover, a real voice. They put themselves in the story, because of that expertise. They're not afraid to share their opinion. And audiences actually want to connect to personalities. They want to know: Who are these people? So, that's a central part of, I think, what we're going to be trying to build. And I think that that's going to cover not just the national security reporting that I think is so important, the press freedom issues, but frankly, every topic. So that will be a big piece of it.

MONTAGNE: Though, one concern that people talk about, about going to the Web, has to do with people picking and choosing the information they want to get. Yes, they want a personality. They want somebody with an opinion. But there's even been studies about this, that they want a person with their opinion. How will you get away from that?

OMIDYAR: Right. Well, actually, I think the phenomenon you're referring to - I mean, we often call it the echo chamber. It is one of the dark sides of the Internet, if you will, is that it allows people to so plainly narrow their attention that they're only getting opinions that they agree with, basically. That is absolutely a real concern. Now, what I think is that if we invest more in understanding how to personalize the content experience in the same way that, let's say, Netflix does. OK. Netflix has a great way of understanding, you know, the kinds of media, the kinds of films and TV shows that you may be interested in. If we do a really good job of understanding the things that you might be interested in, I'm hopeful that we can also do a good job of understanding how to introduce other points of view, other types of things that you might not naturally seek out. And how can we then - how can we use that content to get you to take part in those conversations and to become more of an engaged citizen.

MONTAGNE: Well, I imagine you get the irony that you're part of the same tech industry that helped doom traditional newspapers. I mean, eBay did its small part, maybe, to help erode classified ads for print media.

OMIDYAR: Yes.

MONTAGNE: Have you thought about that irony?

OMIDYAR: Well, I'd say, I mean, first thing is, you know, really sorry about that. Didn't mean to destroy your business model. Let me just put that out there. But I think it's the nature of the evolution of technology. You know, I mean, technology evolves, and it always disrupts. And so I think we're today, rather than looking backwards at old business models that we wished still existed, we're looking forward to this incredible opportunity. You know, you have a global communications medium. You have people that are connecting with one another at a personal level through things like Twitter. Around the world, across borders, they're connecting with each other, learning about other cultures. And this is just truly a golden age for journalism. It's a time for independent journalists to make their mark. And, you know, we're going to create an entity that helps drive that forward.

MONTAGNE: Well, I have one last question, and only because I'm curious: Where do you get your news?

OMIDYAR: Oh. Well, you know, I have to say that I probably, like so many people, I start my day on Twitter and I find out, you know, what are people are linking to. I've been really enjoying the Guardian's coverage, of course, ever since the Snowden revelations. And I think their broader coverage in the United States is great. And I scan the websites of the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. So, you know, it's a variety of sources.

MONTAGNE: Pierre Omidyar. Thank you very much for joining us.

OMIDYAR: It's been a pleasure, Renee. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That's Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay. He's investing $250 million into an online news venture offering serious journalism.

INSKEEP: If you're like Pierre Omidyar and you start your day with Twitter, you can find us there, just as you find us on the radio. We're on Twitter @MorningEdition, @NPRMontagne, @NPRInskeep and @NPRGreene.

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