The Future of Online Journalism: Citizen Kane

“It’s probably best if nobody lights a match right now.”

In the 1941 film Citizen Kane, the titular newspaper magnate (played with cheeky insouciance by Orson Welles) gleefully tells a doubter that he’s prepared to lose a million dollars every year in order to keep publishing. “At a rate of a million dollars a year,” he smirks, “I’ll have to close this place in… 60 years.”

Over the past decade, of course, many newspapers and magazines have lost a lot more than a million dollars a year. Drowning in tides of red ink, newsrooms across the country have slashed reporting staffs, closed foreign bureaus, traded professional photography for reader-submitted snapshots, and—horror of horrors—cut expense accounts. Attempts to shotgun-marry aging publications with newfangled Websites, such as Newsweek’s hookup with The Daily Beast, have generally ended in disaster; Newsweek’s final print cover featured the line “#Lastprintissue,” an allusion (via the “#,” a key character used on Twitter) to how online publishing has virtually eclipsed its dead-tree ancestor.

But online publishing has some issues of its own. For one thing, it costs a whole lot of money to flood the Internet with content, even if that content consists largely of stupid cat gifs and click-bait lists (“35 People Around the World Share What They Want to Do Before They Die!”), and there are indications that the display-ad model that supplied so much of that funding is starting to weaken, if not collapse entirely.

Faced with such titanic challenges—the collapse of print readership and revenues, the thin margins inherent in online publishing—how does any self-respecting publisher expect to prosper?

For The Washington Post, the answer seemed simple: find a billionaire.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos paid $250 million to acquire the Post, a fraction of what that venerable newspaper might have commanded even a few years ago. During the acquisition announcements, he promised to keep his hands off the Post’s daily operations, and there are no indications (so far, at least) that he intends to incorporate the newspaper into the mothership; indeed, it seems as if Bezos is determined to play a 21st-century version of Charles Foster Kane, maintaining the newspaper’s finances as a very rich individual.

eBay founder Pierre Omidyar was another tech magnate who considered making a bid for the Post, only to lose out to Bezos. So Omidyar decided to build his own publication from the ground up. The unnamed outlet will be run by Glenn Greenwald, the journalist famous for helping whistleblower Edward Snowden leak all sorts of interesting top-secret documents about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs to The Guardian.

“Omidyar believes that if independent, ferocious, investigative journalism isn’t brought to the attention of general audiences it can never have the effect that actually creates a check on power,” media critic and NYU professor Jay Rosen wrote in an Oct. 16 blog posting, after speaking to Omidyar by phone. “Therefore the new entity—they have a name but they’re not releasing it, so I will just call it NewCo—will have to serve the interest of all kinds of news consumers. It cannot be a niche product. It will have to cover sports, business, entertainment, technology: everything that users demand.”

Omidyar is willing to spend more than $250 million to build a general-interest publication capable of withstanding any attempts to muzzle it. “When the freedom to practice hard-hitting investigative journalism comes under threat here, he said, that’s not only a problem for our democracy but for the chances that democracy can work anywhere,” he wrote. “NewCo will designed to withstand that threat.”

Billionaires and multimillionaires, of course, have total freedom to fund whatever they want—and that could be a good thing for publications with a mission and a serious need for cash. But what if the rich investor disagrees with something that his pet publication releases into the world? If (and when) that situation occurs, it could serve as an interesting test of whether the latest version of this “generous benefactor” model can work more effectively as an impartial channel for news than it has in the past.


Image: Warner Bros.

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