Henry Farrell, associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, has a good article on how Greenwald’s new media venture is shaping up and why it is a big deal.
He says that for most people, there’s too much information out there for them to sift through. They need gatekeepers to tell them when something is important enough to pay attention to and the major media have traditionally played that role. It was seen as their job to turn information into knowledge. But they have serious constraints in carrying this mission out fully, some of which are self-imposed,
Assange and Wikileaks figured out some version of this early on. This is why they started working together with major newspapers such as the Guardian and New York Times — because this was the only way that they could get people to systematically pay attention to the information they had uncovered, and to turn that information into knowledge that everyone accepted. Unsurprisingly, however, this relationship turned out to be very difficult. Newspapers — even the most pioneering ones — have political relationships with governments, which make them nervous about publishing (and hence validating) certain kinds of information. This also helps explain the awkwardness that many journalists express toward Greenwald. While they recognize that he has uncovered many valuable scoops, they don’t see him as bounded by the same rules as they are.
On the one hand, people like Assange, Greenwald and Snowden need newspapers or similar media outlets. Without some such outlet, they are voices in the wilderness. On the other hand, exactly because newspapers play a crucial political role in validating knowledge, they have complicated relationships with governments and politicians. This leads them to actions which people like Assange and Greenwald are likely to see as compromises with power.
And this is why the new venture is so interesting. It will likely shape up as a serious journalistic enterprise. Capital of USD $250 million can hire some very good people. The venture has the potential to become the kind of news source that can turn information into knowledge. Yet it doesn’t sound as if it’ll be bound by the kinds of political relationships that most newspapers are embedded in. The Columbia Journalism Review gets this best when it describes the venture as I.F. Stone’s Weekly, if it had been lavishly funded by a friendly billionaire.
If this works, it is likely to change the relationship between information, knowledge and politics in some very interesting ways. Most obviously, it will make it even harder for the U.S. government to control the politics of leaks by pressuring newspapers not to publish stories that it thinks hurt the national interest.
Here is a profile of Pierre Omidyar, the 46-year old billionaire who is bankrolling the whole thing. Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU and media critic, is advising Omidyar and Greenwald on the new venture and he too sounds hopeful that this attempt that emphasizes investigative reporting by subsidizing it with more normal fare will work.
Rosen said Omidyar was clearly impressed by Greenwald’s driven, partisan style but he believes a broader organisation is needed to help support it. “You need editors, you need other eyes on the stories, you need lawyers, ways to withstand the pressure. You need plane tickets!” he said.
At the same time, the forms of journalism that people want are changing. Journalist “brands” are common on TV and in areas such as sport and entertainment. Donohue said it was harder to establish those brands with investigative journalism, where the lead time between stories is much longer. But Greenwald has developed a huge online following and a style that fuses comment and news that appeals to readers looking to drill down on the topics that interest them.
After interviewing Omidyar, Rosen wrote: “Part of the reason he thinks he can succeed with a general news product, where there is a lot of competition, is by finding the proper midpoint between voicey blogging and traditional journalism, in which the best of both are combined.”
Omidyar’s move sends a significant signal. Far from killing investigative journalism, as many naysayers have predicted, the new media landscape is creating more ways to fund it.
I am getting more and more enthused about this venture.