Is Pierre Omidyar Really Just Handing Glenn Greenwald The Keys To His Own Investigative Journalism Site?


Pierre Omidyar, chairman of eBay, is betting that NSA-leaker journalist Glenn Greenwald has a whole lot more investigative journalism up his sleeve. According to BuzzFeed, Omidyar has hired Greenwald away from the Guardian to participate in a secret new-media project. Greenwald has defined the project as a “once-in-a-career dream journalistic opportunity.”

Omidyar tells NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen that he began thinking about a new media venture after The Washington Post Co. presented him the opportunity of purchasing the struggling Post. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos landed that whale, of course, but Omidyar actually may be the rare Baron of the Press who has genuinely dirtied his hands with investigative journalism before putting well-known reporters in his pocket. He is the founder of Peer News, whose range of journalistic projects include Honolulu-based investigative site Civil Beat.

Journalism junkies have been quick to jump on Greenwald’s defection as a sign of crass, new-media institutional disobedience; it’s certainly hard to imagine Woodward and Bernstein launching their own publication after earning their stripes with Watergate. As the facts are, Greenwald would’ve been moving on regardless of a billionaire benefactor: he had been in discussion with filmmaker/collaborator Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill of The Nation to form their own journalism outlet; both Poitras and Scahill will also be joining Omidyar’s venture.

Central to Omidyar’s plans are a strong editing team, according to his talks with Prof. Rosen; this flies in the face of quite a bit of online media wisdom, as Gawker founder Nick Denton has told Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab that editors obstruct a writer’s “blogging” voice. Where Omidyar and Greenwald apparently bond is their mutual desire for hardcore, investigative journalism.

Investigative journalism, as has been proven ad nauseam, is the least ROI-friendly product to produce in media. Most investigative pieces do not generate the impact of an Edward Snowden-leak; more often, publishers can expect to send their journalists on months of research assignments, incur extensive travel costs, and be left with a final story that will easily sink to the bottom of a news cycle without aggressive editorial oversight.

At the same time, Greenwald’s announcement fulfills the prophecy of numerous new-media acolytes: personal brand trumps historical hierarchies. ESPN columnist/commentator Bill Simmons has proven to be one of the best examples of this phenomenon. Because of his established multi-platform popularity (re: the dude’s good at video and writing), Simmons has been able to front ESPN the bill for hiring blogging superstars like Katie Baker and Rembert Browne, and allows his staff free reign on the wide world of pop culture and sports. The result — as many Grantland fans will attest — is an endlessly entertaining trove of essays, podcasts, and investigative features (see Alex Pappademas’ profile of underground-rap superstar Action Bronson and this YouTube video of Arnold Schwarzenegger talking ‘Pumping Iron’ with Bill Simmons for a taste of Grantland’s content).

Omidyar, for his part, tells Prof. Rosen that there has been no distinction yet as to whether Greenwald will serve as “editor-in-chief,” “lead investigator” or just plain “blogger.” In a post on CivilBeat, Omidyar writes that the new venture will be completely independent from the Omidyar Network, Democracy Fund and eBay, and that he hopes to bring on scores more independent journalists, covering “general interest news…across many interests and beats.” I would auger that the more responsibility Greenwald takes on, the more conflict will arise; fiery voices of independence rarely function well with managerial positions, and Greenwald has given us no reason to believe he can lead a team or delegate work to other journalists.

At this early stage, I would say Omidyar’s best chance of success will first lie in giving Greenwald a long leash — and keeping him far away from all areas of advertising, editing and general bureaucracy. Greenwald will certainly take a large role in shaping the editorial sensibility of the site — as he should — but considering Greenwald’s history of bristling under authority, Omidyar may be forgiven for not making the site entirely based around any personal brand. Omidyar is trying to build a long-lasting media property, and while Glenn has proven he can bring sizzle with the steak, he is essentially a one-hit wonder at this point. He’s bringing the buzz, but the entire premise of investigative journalism is anti-buzz — let’s hope Greenwald remembers that before expecting a blank check from Omidyar.