A $250 Million Media Experiment

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 2014

Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire founder of eBay, first pursued an interest in media operations that promote “good government” when he funded a digital “newspaper” devoted to investigative reporting, public policy, and politics in his home state of Hawaii. His appetite whetted, Omidyar considered buying the Washington Post, before fellow tech-tycoon and donor Jeff Bezos did so for $250 million in 2013. Instead, Omidyar decided to devote the same pile of money—$250 million—to create his own muckraking publications from scratch. In 2014 he unveiled his first venture: the Intercept, an online magazine devoted to “adversarial journalism on national security, criminal justice” and related topics. It was formed around a trio of hard-left reporter-commentators: Jeremy Scahill of the Nation, filmmaker Laura Poitras, and Glenn Greenwald, who led publication of the Edward Snowden leaks.

Omidyar’s next publication was to be a scathing forum called Racket that would “attack Wall Street and the corporate world.” Before the venture even published its first story, however, the attacker-in-chief hired by Omidyar to run the publication clashed with his bosses and was accused of sexual harassment by an underling. The venture collapsed and it was announced that the staff hired to run it would be let go.

One year after Omidyar’s announcement that he was going to loose on the world a whole stable of digital news sites “that will cover topics ranging from entertainment and sports to business and the economy,” the only functioning element was the Intercept, and the founding donor was at war with many of the journalistic crusaders he hoped to lead into society-altering news coverage. The effectiveness of this investment is thus yet to be seen. Its sheer size, however, and the interest it has sparked among other donors and a press corps obsessed with new media, guarantee that it will be looked back upon as a milestone in public-policy philanthropy, whether of a positive or negative sort.