Not a member? Sign up

Pierre Omidyar's investigative journalism project: Lessons for community news

by: Amy Gahran |

A few weeks ago, eBay founder and media philanthropist Pierre Omidyar pledged $250 million to fund an investigative reporting venture. Also, Glenn Greenwald (the journalist who broke the Edward Snowden story) is leaving The Guardian to help Omidyar with the launch. And this week, NYU journalism professor and community media expert Jay Rosen announced he'll be joining the team as well.

Omidyar has a track record in regional/community news. In 2012 he founded Honolulu Civil Beat, which this year won an Online Journalism Award. What might community and nonprofit news projects learn from his latest media venture? (Which, according to Rosen, with the working title "NewCo.") Recently media analyst Frédéric Filloux raised some key points to consider.

How big is this project? In his Monday note media blog, on Nov. 4 Filloux observed that Omidyar's funding could support a serious play. $250 million vastly outpaces, by comparison, the $10 million that ProPublica raised from from philanthropic organizations in 2012, to support a staff of 30. In fact, it's even more than the $200 million the New York Times spends annually to support a newsroom of 1300.

"Great journalism can be done at a relatively minimal cost, especially when focused on a narrow segment of the news spectrum. On the other hand, as the NYT finances show, the scope and size of its output directly correlates to the money invested in its production -- causing spending to skyrocket as a result."

What does this mean for staffing up? "Multi-layer hierarchy is the plague of legacy media. The org chart should be minimalist. A management team of five dedicated, experienced editors is sufficient to lead a 24/365 news structure. Add another layer for production tasks and that’s pretty much it. As for the headcount, it depends on the scope of the news coverage: My guess is a newsroom of 100-150, including a production staff can do a terrific job."

It will be interesting to see the organizational structure that emerges for Omidyar's venture. Most community and nonprofit news projects are fairly small organizations, and there are pros and cons to both small and large staffs. If Omidyar's venture devises an innovative management structure and work process, smaller outlets might benefit from the example of what can happen when you can really afford to experiment.

Modern journalism is about technology as well as talent. Among his recommendations for Omidyar's venture, Filloux suggest that the Omidyar venture create an internal technology directorate. "A modern news organization should get inspiration from the intelligence community, with a small staff of top level engineers, hackers, cryptographers, data miners, semantic specialists. Together, they will collect data, protect communications for the staff and their sources, provide secured workstations, laptops and servers, build a mirroring infrastructure as a precaution against governmental intrusion."

He also suggests that Omidyar's team build a "secure, super-fast and easy-to-use content management system" and also use predictive analysis tools and automated signal-to-noise detection to spot emerging stories." Again, it's possible that such tools and strategies might be publicized and even adapted for wider use, similar to the ripple effects from NPR Digital Services and the Public Insight Network (such as Groundsource).

On Nov. 8, Filloux recommended that this new venture be for-profit, rather than nonprofit. "There no such thing as a free and independent media press without a strong business side: financial vulnerability is journalism's worst enemy, while profit breeds scalability."

But rather than relying on ad revenues or premium products, Filloux suggests that Omidyar could create an endowment model: "Most U.S. universities are doing fine with that model: a large sum of money, the endowment, is invested and produces enough interest to run operations. One sure thing: If he really wants to go against big corporations and finance, to shield it from pressure, Omidyar should keep its business model disconnected from its editorial operation."

This is intriguing, since endowments can fund small organizations as well as large ones. This may be an option worth exploring for community news and information organizations or projects -- especially those with ties to foundations and philanthropists.

Subscribe to the Newsletter

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
Read More

Events
Submit an event

Leading Change Summit

September 3, 2014 - September 6, 2014

Engage with diverse voices to ignite new ideas. Activate your strategies with expert advice and planning tools. Change the way you create impact. All at NTEN's inaugural Leading Change Summit.

ASNE-APME 2014: Fast Forward

September 15, 2014 - September 17, 2014

The first joint conference of the American Society of News Editors and Associated Press Media Editors.

Collab/Space Chicago, September 24

September 24, 2014 - September 24, 2014

An all-day, hands-on workshop focused on media innovation and spotlighting cutting-edge media startups –  in the Chicago area and beyond. 

Online News Association 2014 Conference

September 25, 2014 - September 27, 2014

A rare opportunity to network face-to-face, and share best practices with peers from all over the map at the ONA annual conference in Chicago.

New Avenues in Journalism

October 10, 2014

To help independent writers negotiate the changing terrain of journaism, ASJA is bringing thought leaders and innovators to San Francisco for a two-day conference

LION Summit: Innovation for Local Digital Media Entrepreneurs

October 16, 2014

Local indie publishers and industry experts will convene in Chicago for the second LION Publishers Summit.

American Library Association Midwinter Meeting

January 30, 2015 - February 3, 2015

Registration is now open for the ALA meeting, which will be held in Chicago.

Nonprofit Technology Conference

March 4, 2015 - March 6, 2015

The NTC is the nonprofit industry's signature technology event, bringing together more than 2,000 nonprofit staff, vendors, and consultants. 

Sunshine Week: Your Right to Know

March 15, 2015 - March 21, 2015

Launched in 2005, Sunshine Week has grown into an enduring annual initiative to promote open government and push back against excessive official secrecy.  

Submit an event

Localizing the police militarization story

By Melissa Kaplan
8/19/2014 | 11:07 pm GMT

How many assault rifles does your local police force have? What about night vision equipment? One interactive graphic from the...

How Storyful connects social media users to news orgs

By Melissa Kaplan
7/9/2014 | 12:06 am GMT

A big hurdle facing news organizations that want to source content from social media users is the ability to verify...