Wednesday, October 16, 2013

USAT | As eBay's founder joins digital news scrum, competition grows for Gannett's national franchise

Three techies: Omidyar, Bezos and Kramer

Pierre Omidyar has suddenly emerged as the latest technology titan bankrolling 21st century journalism, a move that could add to the challenges struggling USA Today already faces in its ongoing turnaround.

The eBay founder has agreed to pour perhaps $250 million into launching a digital-only mass-market news provider whose first star hire is Glenn Greenwald, the American journalist famous for reporting on U.S. electronic surveillance programs for Britian's Guardian newspaper.

An investment that size would be one of the largest for a digital news start-up. The closest parallel I can think of is Rupert Murdoch's The Daily, an iPad-only national publication that lost a reported $30 million annually during the two years it published before Murdoch shut it down last December.

Omidyar, 46, and retired from eBay, was offered a chance to buy The Washington Posta deal that ultimately went to another techie in August: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. That experience, plus his longstanding focus on social entrepreneurship, led Omidyar to Greenwald, who was already planning to set up an independent media outlet.

Omidyar's principal journalism interest is the kind of investigative watchdog journalism Greenwald does. He was among the first to report information provided by one-time U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

But, blogger Jay Rosen writes this morning, "Omidyar believes that if independent, ferocious, investigative journalism isn’t brought to the attention of general audiences, it can never have the effect that actually creates a check on power."

A mass-media site
So, Rosen says, Omidyar's new venture "will have to serve the interest of all kinds of news consumers. It cannot be a niche product. It will have to cover sports, business, entertainment, technology: everything that users demand."

For his part, Omidyar wrote today that it will be "a new mass media organization. I don’t yet know how or when it will be rolled out, or what it will look like. What I can tell you is that the endeavor will be independent of my other organizations, and that it will cover general interest news, with a core mission around supporting and empowering independent journalists across many sectors and beats."

Greenwald says the venture will have branch offices in New York, Washington and San Francisco. Its name has been chosen, but not yet made public, according to Rosen.

Forbes says Omidyar is worth $8.5 billion, ranking him No. 47 on the magazine's list of wealthiest Americans. Bezos, 49, is No. 12, with $27.2 billion.

Omidyar and Bezos are entering the business as USAT attempts a turnaround under another technology entrepreneur: Publisher Larry Kramer. Before coming to the daily in May 2012, Kramer had founded the financial news site MarketWatch.

News Corp. chairman Murdoch isn't the only Old Economy billionaire investing in journalism. Consider another Forbes 400 member: No. 2 Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway. Worth $58.5 billion, Buffett snapped up dozens of print newspapers in recent years, even as he dumped all his Gannett stock.

Related: I interviewed Omidyar for a USAT story in 2005.


  1. Enter Dr. Evil: Two hundred and fifty MILLION dollars.

  2. USA Today is facing serious problems that began with the opening of that palace in one of the most expensive areas in the country, continued through the recession and was made worse by losing a lot of talented journalists along the way.

    The flagship has so many holes in it, so many of them self-inflicted, that it's hard to imagine a successful turnaround without tearing the entire joint down and starting over with a brand new model.

    I for one think that USAT could have weathered the storm far better than it did, but the higher-ups panic. Then they layered on more panic and bad decisions, which eroded the paper's credibility. There wasn't a cohesive, long-term plan. The suits just threw people overboard and kept changing course every six months or so. Didn't inspire much confidence and certainly didn't lead to a better product.

    USAT is the poster child for a good brand going bad because of internal arrogance and some choppy economic waters. It happened in the car industry. It happened with Harley Davidison and other iconic brands. Thinking that consumers wouldn't notice, they cut corners and eventually paid the price. Eventually, through desperate measures, those companies survived. Hard to say because USAT hasn't actually hit bottom yet, but indications are that the news brand may never make a full comeback.

    A sharp competitor is eventually going to come along and drive a dagger into USAT, which is a floundering brand under an immoral corporate parent. Journalism will be better off when USAT is finally put out of its misery.

    1. do you realize what Gannett paid for that property (and what the unused portion was sold for?)....if you did, you wouldn't even comment on the building. Here's a new rule for this site - if you don't have the facts, don't make crap up. Gannett certainly has its issues but so do many other companies - don't like it - simple, stop being lazy and look for another job....

  3. It won't be this endeavor. This one will fail, or at least it will go unnoticed for a long period of time.

  4. What is a "techie"?

    1. A grocery store I stop at on a regular basis has a USA Today box in front that has been empty since the price change. The old $1.00 price is still on it but they quit putting any newspapers inside since the price change. It looks like they just gave up on it.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. He's got $250 million to throw at it, but admits he doesn't have a plan in place yet. Just because it's got a big initial investment doesn't mean it will succeed. Particularly since it's being started by somebody with zero news experience. I hope the business model produces something existing news orgs can copy, because nobody has come up with that golden egg yet.


Jim says: "Proceed with caution; this is a free-for-all comment zone. I try to correct or clarify incorrect information. But I can't catch everything. Please keep your posts focused on Gannett and media-related subjects. Note that I occasionally review comments in advance, to reject inappropriate ones. And I ignore hostile posters, and recommend you do, too."

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.