Last week, CJR released a new report by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, entitled “The Story So Far: What we know about the business of journalism.” To supplement Chapter Seven, “Dollars and Dimes: The new cost of doing business,” assistant editor Lauren Kirchner spoke with John Temple, currently editor of the online-only news site Honolulu Civil Beat, formerly editor of the Rocky Mountain News, about his transition from a big newsroom to a small one, and how his site is able to support himself with reader subscriptions. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.
What kinds of stories can’t you do, or do you choose not to do, at Honolulu Civil Beat that you might have done at the Rocky Mountain News?
Well, we’re still evolving, so what we can and can’t do will vary and develop over time. But we tend to be more focused than you would be at a general interest news publication. With a large newsroom, you can pursue a whole range of story types, and we can’t do that—we’re pretty focused on enterprise public affairs journalism. It’s more like we’re a department of a newspaper. And I think that’s more reflective of the new Internet economy, where you have to be good at something, and you can’t think that you’ll survive by doing all things. Because it’s just ridiculous to think, for example, today, that somebody’s going to be looking at The Des Moines Register website to understand global news, right? You look to Des Moines to understand, maybe, agriculture in the Midwest and local issues. And that may connect to global issues, but it will be through that local filter. So I think now everyone is much more focused.
What are some of the advantages of working for a smaller organization that’s a startup, with a smaller staff?
We’re much more nimble, and we’re much more able to change course to adapt new techniques. We’re not burdened by the legacy traditions of our organization; in fact, we’re having to invent our approaches. We see that in how the community we cover perceives us, in the sense that they don’t actually know what to expect from us. We’re unpredictable. While they fully understand what to expect from a newspaper reporter or editorial board or columnist, the community—and I’m talking now about elected officials, business leaders, government officials—they can tell that we play by different rules, and that we’re making up the rules as we go along. Of course, there are fundamental commitments to accuracy, independent reporting, and verifying what we report. But we’re very different. That’s one of the real benefits of being at a smaller organization—you can experiment more easily, and I think you can maybe learn more quickly.
Also you end up with a much flatter organization, so everybody stays really in touch with the journalism. If you take our organization, there are fourteen people total in the business. Every one of them, whether they’re “journalists” or not, does journalism. The person who runs our operations also shoots video, edits video, and helps with posting things to the website. The software engineers do all kinds of data analysis. The president of the company helps with editing and writing editorials. The publisher is the same way. We’re all involved in the journalism. So it’s much flatter and much more integrated an organization, and I think that builds a better understanding within the entire operation about what it is we’re trying to do, and a greater appreciation of it.
I see your site has a membership program, and that you require people to register as members before they can comment on stories. Can you describe that program and how it works?
We have different kinds of subscriptions. We’ve found that it really changes the tone and the tenor of the conversation if people’s names are known in the comments. Everybody can read the comments, but to comment yourself, you either have to become a full member or become what’s known as a “discussion member.” If you just want to be able to participate and share your thoughts, for ninety-nine cents a month, you can participate in the comments. The benefit of that for us is, we know who you are, and so you have to own your own words. People on CivilBeat.com own their own words because of these memberships.
Is the membership program the main source of your revenue?
Yes, it’s actually the only source of our revenue. We don’t have any advertising.
Did that membership program start right when the site launched?
When I’m clicking around on the site now, I don’t see anything that I can’t access, as a non-member. What kind of access does a full membership get you?
That’s because you haven’t hit your consumption total yet. Eventually you’ll hit a point that you’ll be asked to register, and that’s just asking for your name and e-mail address. Then that will give you more access. And then as you continue to use the site, you’ll be asked to support it. We came to the belief that people needed to experience the site and get hooked, essentially—that they wouldn’t understand the value of it unless they had the chance to interact with it. A free offer, or a half-off offer is effective too, but the first step is just using the site and being able to share the articles with other people. We want occasional users not to be blocked out, but we want to build a loyal following—they need to get exposed to what we’re doing, and come to value it, and come to perceive it as something that they want to pay for.
What type of membership is the most popular with your readers?
Actually, the full membership is—that’s the nineteen dollar a month plan. Very few people just want the discussion membership. People who are passionate about these issues, they want to be fully involved and they want to support it. It’s really amazing, considering that we just celebrated our first birthday. All you have to do to register is give us your e-mail address, and then you get a full membership for one month free, so you can see the experience of being a full member. And one of the benefits of being a full member is that you get a daily e-mail, which is a very popular feature, because it’s a summary with links of everything new that we’ve published, and people find that a very valuable local tool. And we also offer, people can buy up to a year’s membership for half off, so that takes the price of a membership down to ten dollars a month if they’re willing to invest right now.
Would you recommend that other news sites adopt a similar model? Or do you think that this would only work for certain kinds of news sites?
I don’t know if we know yet. I think we’re in a phase of experimentation. You know, we talk about “dollars turning into dimes” but it’s really more like dollars turning into pennies, when it comes to Internet advertising. Our approach has been that we want to build a strong relationship with our readers, and we don’t want to have a dual loyalty at this point. We want to have a clear perception that we are working for our community, and that there’s no conflicts in our organization. So we thought it was appropriate for the kind of site that we are—which is a sort of public affairs oriented site, trying to help inform citizens so that they can participate more fully in their democracy—that we felt that this was the best and clearest approach for us. But we’re not telling other people what to do.
Do you ever foresee changing that model, and accepting advertising in the future?
We’re certainly not opposed to anything, and we’re not saying that advertising is bad or anything—it’s an important form of speech. It’s just not where we are right now. We continue to evolve what we’re doing, and we keep experimenting. Right now, it’s just not our focus, but we try to be very open, and just learn from our experiences.Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner