HONOLULU, HAWAII — Honolulu Civil Beat is the brainchild of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and former eBay exec Randy Ching, both of whom attended high school in the Aloha State. The pair shared a common goal, in Omidyar’s words, of “empowering citizens and encouraging greater civic participation through media.” In keeping with this mission, they envisioned a site that considered audience participation to be as important as reporting stories. The pair enlisted John Temple, the former (and final) editor of the Rocky Mountain News, to be their site’s editor-in-chief, and the Civil Beat launched in May of 2010.
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Temple thinks of the Civil Beat as “a new, virtual civic square” in which journalistic content serves as fodder for discussion among readers. “Our journalism is really question based,” Temple explains. “We’re not a news-event driven organization. That doesn’t mean that we don’t cover news, but we cover news in areas that we’ve determined are important questions for the community.” With this in mind, the Civil Beat has tackled such issues as God in Hawaiian politics, the particulars of laws governing lobbyists, and the environmental impact of a local landfill. The reporters who produce this content are referred to as “reporter-hosts”—a title which emphasizes the fact that their job goes beyond newsgathering to audience engagement.
The Civil Beat is a uniquely reader-oriented site, with staff members participating in discussions of the news alongside members. Temple believes the tenor of discussion has remained civil and respectful because of the site’s membership-based system, which only allows comments to be posted by the site’s paid subscribers. Due to the mere fact that custodians of the site can trace commentary to its source, commentators have tended to keep discussions within the bounds of decency. Commentators often use their real names when posting, allowing for a level of respect and maturity that can often be absent from other comment-driven sites. Discussions of local issues appear live on the homepage without being screened beforehand. As Temple notes, “that’s how confident we are in the level of discussion that occurs on our site”.
Though Omidyar has a number of philanthropic projects, he decided to establish the Civil Beat as a for-profit. The site is particularly distinct among for-profit media, or media in general, for that matter, in that it does not take advertising and instead operates on a membership model, with much of the site’s content lying behind a pay wall. Writes Omidyar: “We believe that a strong democracy requires an engaged society supported by effective news reporting and analysis. And we believe that this can be done in a profitable, sustainable way.” Although much of the site’s content is limited to members, the site offers several memberships of varying cost and boasts free content as well. In a climate where the future of many online journalism start-ups remains unclear, the belief is that a “pay to read” model is worth investigating as a means of achieving long-term sustainability. (Both Poynter and the Nieman Lab have weighed in on the Civil Beat model. Their respective takes can be found here and here .)
To many of us, Hawaii exists as a remote, idealized notion of paradise; but for the crew at the Honolulu Civil Beat and its readers, this small chain of islands is home. Despite its minute size, Hawaii teems with diversity. The Honolulu Civil Beat provides a central forum for the state’s eclectic citizenry to obtain information and exchange ideas. As Omidyar explained in an editorial introducing the site, “it’s about building a place where we can all learn about and better understand our home, the challenges we face, and debate and discover ideas and strategies for moving forward.”
Honolulu Civil Beat Data
Name: Honolulu Civil Beat
Principal Staff: Pierre Omidyar, co-founder and publisher; Randy Ching, co-founder and president; John Temple, editor-in-chief.
Affiliations: University of Hawaii Press.
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