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Weeks after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos dropped $250 million to acquire The Washington Post, another technology billionaire, eBay's Pierre Omidyar, announced a similar investment to set up an online-only investigative journalism operation with Glenn Greenwald, the former Guardian journalist who broke the US National Security Agency's cyber espionage stories arising from the Edward Snowden leaks. Though details on the new operation are scant, reports suggest the proceeds from this venture will be ploughed back into journalism. These, then, are interesting times for an industry trying to regain its equilibrium after its advertising-driven business model was left floundering by the internet. What is heartening about both the Bezos purchase and the Greenwald-Omidyar collaboration is the primacy of content. But the latter also highlights a growing trend — the rise of the personal brand in journalism.
Omidyar has a history of both supporting civic journalism and Greenwald's work in exposing the NSA's surveillance programmes. So his decision to build a journalistic enterprise around Greenwald isn't exactly surprising. Yet it underscores the opportunities available to individual journalists in the age of Twitter and blogs. Journalists can assiduously cultivate their personal reputations, building on the credibility they are afforded by the institutions they publish with — a trade that benefits both parties. Individual clout has led to blogs such as Wonkblog, built around Ezra Klein at The Post, or FiveThirtyEight (Nate Silver, of the New York Times and now ESPN), with the stamp of approval from an authoritative institution that, in time, burnishes personal reputation.
In Greenwald's case, this personal brand is now being leveraged in an entirely new way. His readers will presumably follow him to the new outlet, which will rely almost exclusively on his reputation as a hard-hitting investigative journalist to lend legitimacy to the content it carries. This, then, is an ambitious experiment in exploring alternative journalism models that can marry old media with the new.
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