Friday, January 22, 2010


Omidyar’s Peer News poised to challenge Gannett

by Larry Geller

Yesterday the Advertiser building on Kapiolani Boulevard may have rattled a bit as eBay founder Pierre Omidyar announced his selection of editor to lead his Peer News venture. A rush transcript of his conference call for local reporters is here, thanks to Ryan Ozawa.

Omidyar did not choose a local journalist to head his Hawaii-based venture, but grabbed one of the best and best known in the country. John Temple, who was editor and publisher of Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, which shut down after 150 years in early 2009. Temple will be relocating to Hawaii. He tweets at @johntemplepn. From his web page, a snip of his background:

Under his leadership, the paper won four Pulitzer Prizes and numerous other national awards for journalistic excellence. Temple also served the E.W. Scripps Co., owner of the Rocky, as vice president/news of the newspaper division.

If Omidyar just wanted to do journalism, he could probably have bought the Advertiser. Clearly, he has something else in mind. At a time when experienced journalists are exhausting their unemployment benefits, Peer News is hiring. The solicitation notes that “Hawaii experience is a plus” but, competition to report for Peer News is not limited to the Islands.

Whatever Omidyar’s plans may be, and he has not defined a business model, he has the ability to give Peer News the required kick start. The impact should be felt by our traditional media if not now, very shortly.

The Advertiser has developed a Web presence even as its print edition shrinks. With Gannett support, its web page is quite capable, and in fact, the strongest source of breaking news in Hawaii at this time. This leads to some curious outcomes, however, for the paper. It’s possible to pick up a breaking story from their website and develop and publish it on the web before it appears in print the next day. Probably that’s inevitable. Along with the slow growth of web advertising revenue, it shows that the web as a safety net for print papers may not yet be what they hoped for.

Imagine, though, that there was an alternative, capable and credible source of information on the web in Hawaii. Imagine that web surfers would no longer be so dependent on the Advertiser for their news and in-depth local information. Imagine that local news were tweeted to you from a new, alternate and reader-centered source.

While advertising-dependent paper and TV newsrooms are stretched thin and overworked due to downsizing, a web venture has the potential of expanding its breadth and depth of coverage. This must be a concern for the Advertiser, and will be for Gannett, if their web future can be undercut by a startup. Note that Peer News doesn’t have to maintain either an expensive printing plant nor run intrusive ads to pay for a power-hungry transmitter farm.

The Advertiser has recently been advertising (natch) on full-page spreads how many readers they reach. Peer News, even before it starts, has sparked interest far beyond anything the Advertiser can generate or counter. Readers are fickle, and competition could easily undercut the Advertiser’s subscription base, particularly as the relative value of their $206 annual cost is confronted by subscribers (Pierre, have you thought of running comics pages? That would grab me…).

Successful competition would also threaten the Advertiser as a player in controlling the public dialogue on behalf of their advertisers and parent, Gannett.

All eyes are on Omidyar, and I’ll bet his fat file of resumes might include some from current newspaper staffers as well as us blogger wannabes.

The best idea of what Omidyar and Temple may be hoping for may be in this snip from Ryan’s rush transcript of yesterday’s phone call:

“I think at a high level the idea is to provide a set of tools to enable the community to better learn what’s going on, understand, and debate the issues that face our community. That’s community-wide, local focus. And I want to emphasize that we’re not looking to create a news product that’s solely there to inform. One of the benefits of the web is engaging the community, providing value and serving their aspirations to have an impact. And so that should help paint the picture for you on the type of content and the audience.”

Some web experiments have changed course. One that I followed closely is The Faster Times. Their staff page still includes, towards the bottom, an essay on their original purpose. Here’s a snip:

The Faster Times is a collective of great journalists who have come together to try something new. As we launch this July, we will have more than a hundred correspondents in over 20 countries. We have someone on the ground in Kenya and someone else reporting from Lebanon. Our arts section will cover not just film and books, but also theater and dance and photography. We will launch with seven writers on books alone. These writers are not “citizen journalists” but among the most accomplished and recognized names in their respective fields.

I ran a story by one of their correspondents (with his permission) before the startup, a June 11, 2009 analysis of Obama’s speech at that time in Cairo by Toufic Haddad. How promising, I thought, that Sam Apple, publisher of The Faster Times, could have foreign correspondents at a time when traditional papers have closed their overseas bureaus.

Well, if you click on the link, today’s Faster Times looks like the Huffington Post and reads like the New York Post. A featured article discusses Madonna’s chin hairs. This may be a successful business model, but it’s not what I expected.

The Voice of San Diego is still going strong and is very much traditional in its approach. So is ProPublica, “Journalism in the public interest.” Hawaii’s great experiment right now is The Hawaii Independent, really in a startup phase, and following a hyper-local model.

At the same time, liberal media is in trouble. While Rush Limbaugh rakes in $50 million a year, Air America just went out of business yesterday. The liberal media that Rush complains about doesn’t exist—most American paper, TV or radio media lean demonstrably toward the Right.

So all eyes are on Omidyar right now as he beings his experiment, and strangely enough, it will begin right here, in the backyard of the Honolulu Advertiser and the Star-Bulletin.

Fasten your seat belts and be ready for some action in Hawaii’s media scene.


Larry -

Don't you find it a bit distressing that an editor or reporter with more direct experience covering Hawaii gov/politics wasn't chosen to head Peer News?

Did any of the phone conference participants even ask that question? I dunno... the guy selected has good credentials, but I'd think it will take him a year just to figure out who's who and get up to speed.

Rich Figel

I think they chose Temple because they want to prove the business model and then expand to other areas under his leadership.

Also, all this talk about the Advertiser is irrelevant. As you point out, they're good at breaking news. Only the Independent comes close to the type of coverage Pierre had mentioned and is mentioned in the hiring documents posted on the Web site. Enterprise and investigative reporting are lacking in the area, from what I can tell.

Furthermore, note that he calls it a news service. That sounds to me like wire service. Since the traditional media are content with having the information age beat them over the head, I think Pierre plans to sell good journalism to them for print and the Web, while creating from the ground up a viable Web service that connects with the community and vice-versa.

Nobody as of yet has mastered the creation of an online community that collects data from users, uses that data to report on that community and also uses that data to market advertisements to those users. That disturbs me, but it is only a matter of time.

Why would people provide a facebook-like profile to a news service? Because they want the power to comment. They want to be able to see various types of content (possibly). They may also want to be featured more kindly on the site. What if user comments were rated like users of eBay are? Coincidence, I think not.

Aloha folks! Is it posible that Mr. Omidyar's experiment's goal is, "Can a new web-based media outlet be launched... and promptly put out of business?" If so, Mr. Temple's outstanding record at the Rocky Mountain News seems to indicate that he won't let his new boss down.

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