There is something puzzling about the internet billionaires’ love for journalism. Newsweek, The Washington Post, and some smaller print enterprises, bought out by such moneybags are examples.
Now e-Bay’s billionaire owner Pierre Omidyar is funding a media start-up by The Guardian’s investigative reporter Glenn Greenwald who broke the NSA global spying story which rattled the Obama presidency.
Greenwald quit The Guardian on October 29, saying that he has got the opportunity of his life but did not detail what it was. The start-up will most probably be online. The funding: 250 million dollars. The same amount with which Omidyar could have bought The Washington Post which was offered to him earlier this year on a platter. The Washington Post was bought for the same amount by Jeff Bezos, the billionaire owner of Amazon, in his personal capacity.
Internet journalism websites are having a good run. The leading ones being Huffington Post which was initially bought by AOL for $315 million. The Daily Beast which bought Newsweek and then shut down the print version, Daily Mail, and Buzzfeed are the big internet journalism sites, though there are many more niche sites with a huge following. Incidentally, The New York Times newsroom has an annual budget of 200 million dollars.
Saving print journalism is now seen as philanthropy though many would argue that it is a case of sending good money after bad business. The basic perception here is that some of the online genius can be brought into journalism. Most of the internet biggies have an extremely liberal view on democracy and journalism. They are all, in a way, followers of Julian Assange who believes that there should be no State secrets, nor any monitoring of human life. It is a utopian, stateless world of total freedom that is the dream of all these men. It is no wonder then that Omidyar network has also invested in the Transparency and Accountability Initiative.
Journalism is clearly transiting through a tumult. The Assange/WikiLeaks model of subverting all devious government plans, followed up by Edward Snowden and Greenwald, seem to be the lodestone of future journalism. Here total freedom from Statist intervention is the catchword.
There is bitter irony in Russia harbouring Snowden as if to thumb their nose at USA for sheltering Alexander Solzehnitsyn from Communist Russia. The Gulags have changed places.
The irony is also in US billionaires funding such ventures when the US itself is the target and the repository of the big secrets that the Assange school wants to expose.
Regular reportage is not enough to quench the insatiable desire to unearth the hidden. Now technology allows many of us to dream that way. To change content, and to transform individual journalists into brands (like Assange) is the name of the game. News website content has changed drastically, going tabloidish, picture and video oriented, having pet hates (Daily Mail’s hate of immigrants, for instance) and pet likes. Arianne Huffington’s strategy is almost similar with a heady mix of think pieces and tabloid stuff ruling the roost. For both Daily Mail and Huffington Post (which also serves as an aggregating site) the story of a photo-shopped model is big story of October 31. Daily Mail’s lead web story of October 31 is five neighbouring women whose husbands cheated on them.
In India too journalists have tried to become brands (Aniruddha Bahal with Cobrapost.com) which have the potential to get funding. Anti-establishment left-wing sites like Kafila.org, also falls somewhere into this new digital age of “accountability journalism grounded in rigorous factual accuracy,” as Greenwald calls it.
So wavering between the intensely intrusive stories of people to stolen and leaked secrets of state, digital age journalism is attracting millions in investment. Old style reportage is clearly on the way out.
The writer is a senior journalist