Even if I do not stand to gain a farthing now or,most likely, ever, I welcome that the print/online journalism has pulled in half a billion dollars in investment in two months. At the very least, there is a theoretical chance that I might get a job that pays every month and not when someone feels compassionate.
First Amazon founder Jeff Bezos paid $250 million of his own personal cash to buy The Washington Post. Now it is Pierre M. Omidyar, the founder of eBay, who has decided to invest $250 million of his own to back a new venture by Glenn Greenwald of the Edward NSA Snowden fame and a couple of others. The second venture is expected to be a kind of global investigative journalism website.
That both these billionaires come from the world of high technology is indicative of a clear shift in the way original journalistic content will be delivered and monetized. Serious journalism is in serious need of being funded and managed in a way that not only does it make it endure but endure profitably. If content is king, that king at least needs to be able to pay the bills.
Apart from Bezos and Omidyar, there was also the relatively less heralded news in July of Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs, investing in Ozy Media, a news start-up that is supposed to be “smarter, fresher, different.” One of the stories on Ozy Media currently is about how young Indian Americans have become a political force. As an aside, I must mention the late Gopal Raju, a pioneering Indian American publisher of India Abroad and India Abroad News Service (IANS), who played a significant role in introducing young Indian Americans to the world of political power through his Washington Leadership Program (WLP). That program is now being overseen by the young and ever enthusiastic Harin Contractor and four others.
Having been among the earliest proponents of tech entrepreneurs investing in the media, I think I have an insight of some value to offer. It was in the year 2000 that I founded an online publishing and media company called Literate World in Silicon Valley with near fable-like generosity of an angle investor. I wrote about that venture a couple of years ago when Amazon began its push to become an original publisher. This is what I wrote about my own experience:
With some luck and a lot of business savvy I could have trumped Amazon by a decade. Here is how. In 2000, after raising capital with uncomfortable ease from a very well known Silicon Valley venture capitalist called Raj Singh, I set up a publishing and media company christened Literate World. The web front of that operation was literateworld.com, which was designed to emerge as the world’s first multilingual literary portal.
The overarching objective of the multilingual literary portal was to use the worldwide web to create interest in global literature and leverage that interest by publishing books. The portal began with news, features, interviews and trends in literature in the three most widely spoken languages—Hindi, Spanish and English. In less than six months the portal was receiving close to two million hits a month without any publicity whatsoever. I had plans to add 12 more languages to the portal. I am sure we could have built up a huge global readership which we could have leveraged for our own titles.
I directly commissioned 15 books in different languages with a minimum advance of $5000 paid to the first three authors. The first three of those were published in English, Hindi and Marathi to very strong critical acclaim. Unfortunately, we folded up for reasons unrelated to the publishing venture. I remember having reached out to business executives in all major publishing houses in New York with a proposal to collaborate on digital publishing. Not one of them even had the courtesy to return my phone calls or respond to email messages.
Raj Singh had the vision to recognize the importance of original and high quality content a decade before Bezos or Omidyar. We also had plans to emerge as a serious news producer with Literate World having invested in a major wire service operation. It is a pity that my venture did not survive despite the fact that the literary portal had notched up an impressive two million unique visitors soon after it was launched. The insight that I would offer to Bezos and Omidyar is that the media business necessarily requires a long-term commitment. It is not the kind of business that can be cashed out of in a couple of years. In fact, it is by its very nature a profession of passion and not a business of numbers. That said, it is absolutely imperative that any such venture is profitable. Original content has to be paid for by billions of freeloaders who roam the cyber world.
Five hundred million dollars may seem like a lot of money but journalistic content of high quality is an expensive affair. It is not something that you can stage-manage. There are so many variables and unpredictable factors. The most important factor that Bezos and Omidyar will do well to remember is that their ventures will invariably bring them in direct confrontation with governments that they cannot antagonize in their own main businesses. There will be a fork ahead in the road, one of whose arms will compel them to be adversarial and not cozy up to the powers that be. I hope they are ready for that.
I also hope that they have the stomach for a profession which in its purest form regards money with natural disdain.