Why It Matters that Pierre Omidyar is Doing a News Startup

pierre omidyar.pngPierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, is launching a for-profit news startup in Hawaii, where he and his family live. This is important news, and not just because he’s involved.

A few months ago Pierre and Randy Ching founded Peer News. Their first project was a Twitter-related experiment called Ginx, which didn’t get critical mass and is being closed.

Now they’ve announced Peer News’ more important move — a project aimed at creating the kind of local journalism that brings accountability and value to a community.

Pierre, in a note on the company blog, says he and his team are launching — they aim for early 2010 — based on deep research: “talking to a lot of people in the industry about journalism and how we might be able to have an impact, listening and learning as much as we can.”

I’m one of the people Pierre has talked with, but I’m not privy to the details of the new venture. In a conversation last evening, he did say this will be service combining professional journalists and citizen journalists in “a commercial model that hasn’t been tried yet.”

Tantalizing, no? Let’s focus for a second on the word “commercial,” because Pierre and team are going for something that seems to have fallen somewhat out of favor for local news startups, the notion that they can and should be profitable. Not-for-profits are springing up in various places, and while Pierre is happy to see them he also believes it’s essential to find solid for-profit models for sustainable media.

One message is for the local newspapers: Watch out. Pierre has analyzed the Hawaii media market and sees enough advertising money is going toward journalism in Honolulu “to fund a high quality operation” — but clearly not the kind that dominates the revenue stream today, namely the local newspapers.

Peer News will operate in the leanest possible way compatible with doing solid journalism and community information. It will involve social media in a big way as well. (The Omidyar Network, the investing and charitable arm of Pierre and his wife, Pam, has been deep into socially valuable media for a long time. Count on them bringing what they’ve learned into Peer News.)

Plainly, the Hawaii launch is a test bed, in part. If it works, expect more local versions in other places.

Peer News is looking for a founding editor. My advice has been to find someone local, if at all possible, but especially to find someone excellent. If you’re interested, here’s where you can find out more.

One of the people who’ll be talking to editorial candidates is Howard Weaver, a former vice president of news at McClatchy. Howard has been consulting with Peer News and offers some perspective on his own blog, including this:

I’m interested for a lot of reasons, but I’d sum it up this way: the new venture intends to demonstrate that a digitally native, technologically fluent web organization can profitably serve targeted readers who want sophisticated journalism focused on local civic affairs.

Maybe Pierre and his team have cracked part of the code for sustainable digital journalism. Maybe not. But the fact that they’re going to try, with some serious resources behind the effort, is great news.

So I’m looking forward to following the progress of Peer News. So should anyone who’s interested in the future of journalism.

(Note: The Omidyar Network was a seed funder of my long-ago Grassroots Media (Bayosphere) project. It lost money.)

One thought on “Why It Matters that Pierre Omidyar is Doing a News Startup”

  1. Aloha! This sounds like a great plan; the only problem is that there is an already existing media company, The Hawaii Independent, that has been doing this exact thing. The Hawaii Independent has a dynamic Native Hawaiian publisher, a talented team of embedded community reporters and professional journalists, and wide community support. Is Mr. Omidyar even aware of its existence? It would be much more pono to see how he could support the Hawaii Independent’s work than to start something new, with people from outside Hawaii, to compete. It could be a really exciting partnership!

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