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June 20 2013

19:05

Seeking an ocean of audience: Honolulu Civil Beat partners with Huffington Post to seek new revenue streams

When Honolulu Civil Beat launched three years ago, it took some contrarian stands. At a time when many civic-minded journalism startups were filing for nonprofit status, Civil Beat bet on succeeding as a for-profit. When many thought digital advertising would be the key driver of revenue growth, Civil Beat didn’t take ads. And when most news startups were trying to build an audience by giving away their content, Civil Beat was betting on subscriptions — and pricy ones, at that.

The news site’s latest move — partnering with The Huffington Post to launch HuffPost Hawaii this fall — is an attempt to balance out some of those bets in a quest for greater revenue diversity. HuffPost is, of course, dedicated to free content with wide reach, and its business is built around the kind of ads that Civil Beat ignores.

“Civil Beat is a model with a focus of trying to build something new — not just in how we write stories and deliver them, but how we pay for them,” site general manager Jayson Harper said. “Huffington Post in some sense provides us with a megaphone to give that to a larger population within the state who will hear and see who we are.”

Founded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and Randy Ching, Civil Beat focuses on politics, government, and investigations, and it charges a comparatively steep subscription price to read and comment on the site — $20 per month, higher than even The New York Times. That will remain. The two sites will run in parallel; Civil Beat will look and operate essentially the same way it does now, with some HuffPost Hawaii stories running off of its homepage and subscription prices unchanged. HuffPost Hawaii will exist as a separate site creating most of its own content, with Civil Beat stories excerpted there as well.

Civil Beat says the two sites will also maintain “separate staffs,” though that applies only to the writer-reporters, since editor Patti Epler and general manager Harper will be in charge of both sites.

The partnership is not a comment on Civil Beat’s commitment to subscriptions, Harper said, and the site is not in financial trouble. Still, “the subscription model is a very tough model to create complete financial sustainability,” he said.

Unlike Civil Beat, HuffPost Hawaii will have traditional advertising displayed alongside quick takes on Hawaii news and, according to HuffPost’s announcement, content like “slideshows of Hawaii beaches.” Harper said the Civil Beat organization will “absolutely” benefit from that revenue, though a confidentiality agreement barred him from releasing the specifics of how and if that money will be allowed to flow to Civil Beat.

“The real reason we’re doing this is because we do see ways to grow revenue and it makes sense for both parties,” Harper said, referring to potential new Civil Beat subscribers, revenue from HuffPost Hawaii ads, and the additional brand awareness that may make their sponsorships more valuable.

Civil Beat, which currently operates with six reporters and two editors, will indirectly benefit from the collaboration because it will allow Epler to hire three new reporters for the HuffPost side. “I hope that the Huffington Post staff can be covering things like the governor’s press conference, or, say, a helicopter that goes down in downtown Honolulu — they’ll do that, and our staff won’t have to do that anymore,” Epler said. “That will free up some of our beat writers to do more in-depth things,” like a recent multi-part investigation into oversight of a polluted local waterway.

In search of revenue diversity

In Hawaii, as elsewhere, the media business is in flux. Financial troubles forced Honolulu Weekly this month to announce it was publishing its final issue (though its editor has now said she is attempting a revival). Three local TV news stations merged in 2009. The remaining Honolulu daily, the Star-Advertiser, also operates with a partial paywall (the site’s front page, breaking news, and blogs remain free). But there is still some audience loyalty: Ad Age recently reported that Hawaiians are paying attention, with 47 percent of Honolulu adults saying they read a daily newspaper, one of the highest numbers in the country.

As his model for diversifying Civil Beat’s revenue, Harper pointed to the Texas Tribune, which is grant-supported but also makes significant money from events and other sponsorships. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison — the Tribune is a nonprofit, and Texas’ population is 19 times the size of Hawaii’s. Still, Harper is working to organize sponsored events and potentially allow for sponsors to claim parts of the Civil Beat site itself. “It’s not the only way to build a sustainable revenue model for online news organizations, but it’s a good start,” he said.

Epler and Harper recognize that The Huffington Post’s model is built around traffic and Civil Beat’s is not. But they hope their collaboration with The Huffington Post helps them with those sponsorship efforts, too. “To increase the share in the market of the stories we’re doing has tangible benefits — the more we can talk to our partners and see people talking about those stories, the better,” Harper said.

For The Huffington Post, the Civil Beat collaboration is more like its international partnerships — which include agreements with Le Monde for its French edition, Gruppo Espresso in Italy, and The Asahi Shimbun in Japan — than its other U.S. city verticals. Those international partnerships excerpt content from those news organizations, whereas verticals like HuffPost Chicago, Detroit, and Miami simply collect content related to those metro areas. In explaining the Huffington Post’s interest in Hawaii, Arianna Huffington cited her relationship with Omidyar and seemed to view the site as a chance to learn from the Hawaiian culture.

“As the world’s oasis for unplugging and recharging — and the home of the Aloha spirit — Hawaii is an ideal place to explore all these themes and to engage the community,” Huffington said in an email.

On Civil Beat itself, reaction to the partnership has been largely, well, civil — minus a few Facebook comments. “Some people were like, ‘This is the end of Civil Beat, nice knowing ya, the Huffington Post is going to take over,’” Epler said. But their model hasn’t changed, she insisted. “I wrote a column maybe two weeks ago saying, we’re not getting eaten by the HuffPost monster. That’s just not what’s happening.”

Photo of downtown Honolulu from Diamond Head by John Fowler used under a Creative Commons license.

November 15 2010

17:00

Comments and free samples: How the Honolulu Civil Beat is trying to build an audience (and its name)

“You’re starting from absolute scratch. That’s a big hill to climb.”

That’s not an excuse, but it is the reality of the news startup that John Temple is describing. Temple is the editor of the Honolulu Civil Beat, the online-only news source that made a big splash earlier this year because of its pay-first mentality. As envisioned by Temple, and by Civil Beat founders Pierre Omidyar and Randy Ching, most of the content on the Civil Beat site sits behind a paywall.

As far as startups go, the Civil Beat had news futurists curious about whether a media organization could get readers to pay for news upfront — particularly since Civil Beat has the advantage/disadvantage of starting from a paid subscription model out of the box, as opposed to introducing one after the fact. The big question — it almost seems like a sphinxian riddle — is how do you get people to pay for your work if they can’t readily access it?

In the first six months, the answer seems to be a lot of hustle on the part of Temple and his staff. They’ve aggressively pursued coverage on land use and money issues, placed an emphasis on data, and are engaging readers on and offline. And one other thing: They’re giving away free samples on CivilBeat.com.

“When you’re working at an established organization, you’re building on so much tradition. And here you’re not. You’re developing everything,” said Temple, who is more than familiar with established organizations having been editor and publisher of the departed Rocky Mountain News.

Doling out free content

Where Civil Beat has to be creative, Temple told me, is in making a connection to readers and turning them into site members. “The challenge of course is to have enough people feel that you’re essential that they want to support you and pay for your services,” he said. (Temple said they aren’t releasing numbers on Civil Beat memberships or site traffic just yet. Though he did say this: “People who are willing to sign up at the early phase of a new news product like this with high aspirations — there’s low churn rate with those people.”)

The paywall also sprouts leaks on certain days, when some Civil Beat stories are viewable to the public — generally reporting on the government or elections, Temple said. The Civil Beat homepage, as well as its Twitter feed, also provide a basic understanding of the day’s news in a less-than-closed off way. Temple said it’s been important, as a matter of marketing as well as gaining the public’s trust, to demonstrate to readers that their news is not completely hidden away.

Which is why they went one step further, offering the equivalent of “free ice cream sundaes!” with complete free access to the site on certain days. The free content days are timed around stories the staff believe are in the public interest or enterprise stories they’d like to see reach a wider audience. Temple said they recognize that in order for readers to decide whether they want to spend money on the Civil Beat, they should be able to sample it first.

What the Civil Beat shares in common with many news organizations is the belief in the strength of their journalism as the primary draw for the public, be it land development and environmental stories or campaign funding news. It’s a mix of news basics in new forms, with the Civil Beat reporter/hosts fact-checking (similar to PolitiFact) statements from politicians and parsing data for document-driven reports on subjects like public employee salaries.

“We share with the readership the experience in gathering those records and encountering government agencies,” Temple said. “In some ways that has been very provocative, because we’ve written about how difficult it is to get information and how government agencies treat us.”

Building community

As a small news organization willing to experiment with coverage areas, reader engagement, and ways readers can pay for content, Temple said it was necessary to have an open dialogue with members about changes to the Civil Beat. The company blog has become a place to discuss their journalism and ask for suggested interview questions. Temple said it’s also been useful as they’ve also tinkered with the subscription levels and pricing, offering a 15-day trial for $0.99 and adding a $0.99 cent per month discussion membership to take part in comments. (Comments are free to view, just not to leave.)

And speaking of comments, Temple says they have nothing but good things to report. Discussions have largely remained civil, even while spirited. Members use their real names or can use a screen name (though Civil Beat staff know members’ real identities, thanks to the subscription process). And what may be most surprising to editors dealing with comments elsewhere: “We don’t even have a profanity filter on our comments — anybody can post anything in our comments. It’s all self regulated,” Temple said.

The Civil Beat seems to be making its biggest bet on reader engagement, not just as a method of outreach, but also as content for the site. The debates between readers, ranging from education reform to a proposed Honolulu rail project are filled with long, thoughtful posts, often citing links for background. In turn, Civil Beat staff will invite members to write blog posts spun off from discussions or on other topical issues. “Obviously, the core content is the journalism that we produce, but the comments and the discussion create a whole other level of content,” Temple said.

They’re also reverse engineering the idea of comments as the new “public square,” by holding events (called “Beatups”) on issues like the judicial nomination process and the merger of the Honolulu Advertiser and Honolulu Star-Bulletin. The events are open to members, with non-members able to join for as little as the $0.99 commenting subscription.

Temple wants to not just inspire the daily conversation, but be a part of it — and yes, to get people to help pay for their work along the way. By making select stories open and comments visible, the strategy appears to be letting outsiders have just enough of a taste (or get them riled up for a debate) to pique their curiosity. The idea for the Civil Beat is to prove its worth as a news organization through their work while being open with readers about how they operate. And with substantial financial backing, it can afford to give its strategy some time to develop.

“If you look at most news organizations, and of course they’ve all evolved over the years, there’s still a pretty defensive posture,” Temple said. “We don’t think that’s a healthy way to approach it and I think our members have responded really positively to that. They want to feel that they can talk to you.”

June 16 2010

11:41

Steve Buttry: Behind the Civil Beat paywall in Honolulu

Blogger and director of community engagement for a new Washington news operation TBD, Steve Buttry, recently took a look at the paywall around new Honolulu site Civil Beat.

He was surprised to see the $19.99 monthly charge to access content, when eBay founder Pierre Omidyar launched his new site. But while he thinks paid-for content models can be “foolish”, he also acknowledges that Omidyar knows a digital thing or two.

In this post (published on 4 June) he reviews the content behind the paywall. In the comments below, Civil Beat editor John Temple responds to some of his observations.

Full post at this link…

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November 20 2009

23:49

4 Minute Roundup: Media Company Layoffs; Omidyar Startup

Here's the latest 4MR audio report from MediaShift. In this week's edition, I look at the deep layoffs that are planned at AOL, the AP and BusinessWeek. In the case of AOL, the company plans to shed one-third of its workforce, or 2,500 staffers. eBay founder Pierre Omidyar announced plans to launch a news startup in Hawaii that will combine citizen journalism with professional reporting to cover local civic issues. I asked Just One Question to Bayosphere founder Dan Gillmor about Omidyar's venture.

Check it out:

4mrbareaudio112009.mp3

Background music is "What the World Needs" by the The Ukelele Hipster Kings via PodSafe Music Network.

Here are some links to related sites and stories mentioned in the podcast:

Google Makes AOL's Turnaround Task Even Harder at AllThingsD

AOL Slashing A Third Of Staff; Armstrong Will Forego '09 Bonus at PaidContent

AOL shows worst not over for media job cuts at Reuters

Layoffs begin at BusinessWeek at Talking Biz News

With Latest Layoffs, AP Hits Goal Of Reducing Payroll By 10 Percent at PaidContent

Aloha at Peer News blog

Omidyar to the Rescue of Professional News? at BusinessWeek

eBay Founder Starting Online News Site at InformationWeek

Ebay Founder Omidyar Shuttering His Twitter Project Ginx, To Launch Online News Site at ReadWriteWeb

Why it Matters that Pierre Omidyar is Launching a News Startup at MediaShift Idea Lab

Here's a graphical view of last week's MediaShift survey results. The question was: "What if Rupert Murdoch takes all News Corp. content out of Google?"

survey murdoch grab.jpg

Also, be sure to vote in our poll about what will happen due to all the media company layoffs.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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