EBay and the marketplace of ideas

The New York Times‘ David Carr had an interesting piece over the weekend on the growing phenomenon of tech billionaires investing in original news content creation highlighted by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of the Washington Post and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s move to back a new venture by investigative journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill (Carr also had a separate Q&A with Omidyar).

Generally speaking, Carr thinks it’s an exciting development:

It does not take an M.B.A. to understand that the ability to capture consumers’ attention and move them around a platform, all the while extracting value, might come in handy in the media business. ITunes used cheap, uniformly priced content to animate the sales of devices like the iPod; Amazon used cheap devices like the Kindle to push lucrative content sales. EBay reduced the friction and suspicion between buyers and sellers of all kinds of goods.

Reverse-engineering those skills into the production of news could have a big impact, as publishing companies turn toward consumers for revenue, pivoting from passive delivery of news to a deeper relationship with customers.

I agree, but might even go further in the cases of Bezos and Omidyar. As I noted in an earlier post, it is specifically Bezos’ merchant’s sensibility and skill set that makes his acquisition of the Post so intriguing. As news organizations try to figure out how to monetize content directly online, someone who has figured out how to sell almost anything to anyone is a good person to have in your corner.

Similarly, as the founder of eBay, Omidyar helped create the world’s largest online marketplace — a vast, sprawling, real-time exchange where buyers and sellers of nearly any stripe and interest can find each other and exchange value.

Traditional news organizations often like to think of themselves as part of a marketplace of ideas. But they’re rarely structured, much less function, as a marketplace. Historically, traditional news organizations were in the business of telling their readers what their editors thought they should know, packaged into a bundle designed to maximize revenue for the publisher. About the best a reader could do to get a word in was to send a letter to the editor or post a moderated comment at the end of a story.

That’s not how the online information economy generally works, however. It’s much more of a two-way street, with value and information flowing in all directions at once. To survive, traditional news organizations need to figure out how to participate in that dynamic value and information exchange economy. That is, they need to become real marketplaces of ideas, not just part of a metaphoric one. Ebay is not be a terrible model to riff on as they try to figure it out.