Pierre Omidyar, Ebay’s founder and now philanthropist, pledged $250m to a new investigative reporting venture. Starting a project of this magnitude from scratch isn’t an everyday occurrence, leading us to wonder how it could look like? (First of two articles)
For a digital journalism project, 250 million dollars (€185m) is a serious investment. So far, it’s unclear whether this is a one-time investment, merely initial funding (Omidyar’s share in eBay is approx. $8.5bn), or just yearly running costs. To put things in perspective, The New York Times’ 1300 people newsroom costs around $200m per year, including $70m for international coverage alone, i.e. reporting abroad and maintaining 24 foreign bureaus manned by 50 reporters. But, by most measures, the scope of NYT operations is at the far end of the scale.
A more realistic example is the funding of the non-profit media ProPublica (see a previous Monday Note on the subject). According to its 2012 financial statement (PDF here), ProPublica has raised a little more than $10m from philanthropic organizations and spends less than that for a 30 persons staff. No one disputes that, journalistically speaking, ProPublica is a remarkable publication; it faithfully follows its “Journalism in the Public Interest” mission statement, collecting two Pulitzer Prizes in so doing.
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 New York Times P&L shows, the scope and size of its output directly correlates to the money invested in its production – causing the spending to skyrocket as a result.
Since we know little of Pierre Omidyar’s intentions (interview here in the NYT and a story outlining the project), I’ll spare Monday Note readers my usual back-of-the-envelope calculations, and I’ll stick to a general outline of what a richly funded news ventures could look like.
Staffing structure. Once again, ProPublica shows the way: a relatively small team of young staffers, coached by seasoned reporters and editors. For this, Omidyar draws the hottest name in the field, namely the lawyer-activist-Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald, who played a prominent role in the Snowden leaks (more about him: his blog on The Guardian; a NYT Magazine profile of Greenwald’s pal Laura Poitras, another key Snowden helper).
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 (I’ll come back to that in a moment) can do a terrific job.
No Guild, no unions, no syndicats à la française, please. Behind their “fighting for our people” façade, they cynically protect their cushy prebends and accelerate the industry’s demise. As a result, the field is left open to pure players – who are keeping people in stables, content-recycling factories.
Beyond that, avoiding any kind of collective bargaining allows management to pay whatever will be necessary to hire and retain talent, without relying to fake titles or bogus hierarchy positions to justify their choices. In addition, above-market salaries should discourage ethically dubious external gigs. Lastly, a strict No-Kolkhoze governance must be enforced from the outset; collaboration and heated intellectual debate is fine as long as it doesn’t emasculate decisions, development, innovation – and speed.
A Journalism 2.0 Academy. I strongly believe in the training of staffers, journalists or not. Hiring motivated young lawyers, accountants, financial analysts, even scientists, and teaching them the trade of journalism is one the best ways to raise the competency level in a newsroom. It means having a couple of in-house “teachers” who will compile and document the best internal and external practices, and dispense those on a permanent basis. This is what excellence requires.
A Technology Directorate. On purpose, I’m borrowing jargon from the CIA or the FSB. 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. This is complex and expensive: It means establishing encrypted links between countries, preferably on a dedicated network (take advantage of Google’s anger against the NSA to rent capacity), and putting servers in countries like Iceland — a libertarian country and also one of the most connected in the world. While writing this, I ran a couple of “ping” tests, and it turned out that, from Europe, the response-time from an Icelandic server is twice as short as from the New York Times!
Besides assisting the newsroom, tech staff should build a secure and super-fast and easy-to-use Content Management System. Most likely, the best way will turn out to be a WordPress system hack – as Forbes, Quartz, AllThingsD, and plenty of others did. Whatever the setup ends up being, it must be loaded with a powerful semantic engine, connected to scores of databases that will help enrich stories with metadata (see a previous Monday Note on the subject The story as gateway to knowledge). By the same token, a v2.0 newsroom should have its own “aggrefilter”, its own Techmeme that will monitor hundreds websites, blogs and twitter feeds and programmatically collect the most relevant stories. This could be a potent tool for a newsroom (we are building one at Les Echos that will primarily benefit our news team.)
Predictive Analysis Tools and Signal-to-Noise detection. In a more ambitious fashion, an ideal news machine should run analytics aimed at anticipating/predicting spasms in the news cycle. Pierre Omidyar and Glenn Greenwald should acquire or build a unit like the Swedish company Recorded Future (more in this story in Wired UK), which is used by large corporations and by the CIA. Perhaps more realistically, building tools to analyze and decipher in realtime the internet’s “noise”, and being able to detect “low-level signals” could be critical to effectively surfing the wave.
That’s all for today. Next week, I’ll address two main points: Designing modern news products, and ideas on how to make (some) money with this enthralling venture.