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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.

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Amy Gahran

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