6 Months In, Honolulu Civil Beat Still Testing the Market For Paid Conversation

Honolulu Civil Beat's six-month anniversary earlier this month roughly coincided with the elections, and the closely-watched online-only pilot chose to celebrate with three days of free access for all.
That's one indicator of where the experiment with ad-free, quality content and discussion at $19.99-a-month stands: proud of its journalistic progress, still testing its business model. And for now we need to settle for indicators because billionaire founder Pierre Omidyar and Editor John Temple are opting not to discuss finances -- or the size of Civil Beat's paying audience.
Over time that will be critical. Omidyar is willing to absorb generous start-up costs but wants Civil Beat, a for-profit venture, to become self-supporting.
While the daunting price tag remains for full access and participation, bargain options have proliferated for sampling what the site offers:
  • The start of stories and discussion chains -- plus some full stories -- are available free on the home page.
  • At launch, an introductory subscription was marked down from $4.99 for a month to $.99 for two weeks. Like the standing trial offer at The Economist online, this rolls over to a paid subscription at full price unless you opt out.
  • Only members can make comments. But Civil Beat also offers one-day access and the opportunity to comment at $1.49. Non-commenting access to the full discussion chains costs 99 cents a month. These do not roll into full-rate subscriptions.
Civil Beat continues to require that all fees flow through PayPal, an associated service of eBay, with which Omidyar made his fortune.
When I talked to Temple by phone recently, he described rapid experimentation and good results on the site's editorial side:
  • The election was a big event for Civil Beat, and management sprang for a major polling effort that accurately predicted the results and broke down voting patterns demographically. Civil Beat also started its version of fact-checking politicians' claims modeled on the St. Petersburg Times' PolitiFact.
  • Civil Beat has used public records requests to get a full list of state employee salaries and other information on government performance and has spun some good side stories on the barriers it has bumped into getting those requests answered.
  • "We're not doing big-I investigations like ProPublica's on dialysis," Temple said, but his staff of 12 (mostly young reporters and editors) have produced a run of stories on topics like "how does the Honolulu police department deal with prostitution."
  • Temple said that he and the staff have had less success with "topics" pages. "If it's just a civics lesson every day, people will say no thank you," he said; the audience gets much more engaged both in views and comments if there is a news peg.
Like such other online only local start-ups as Voice of San Diego and MinnPost.com, Civil Beat skips daily breaking news of crime and courts entirely and focuses on a limited number of serious topics. Temple said that attention and participation from decision-makers has followed, and Civil Beat has drawn groups of 60 or 70 for live events in its newsroom.
How about the online discussions people pay to access? They have been extensive and invariably civil, Temple said, even on sensitive topics like civil unions for gays. Whether that is because readers pay for the privilege to talk or because of the site's name and content selection, Temple marks the nature of the talk as a key success.
I asked Larry Geller, a blogger who has been highly critical of the Civil Beat concept since before the launch, for his six-month evaluation. He replied by e-mail that the site's design and navigability have improved quickly, that the public events have been worthwhile and that many stories are solid journalistically. But Geller said that he still can't get comfortable with the elitist flavor of a pay-to-participate online conversation.
"They continue to be a gated community," he wrote. "I have no problem with that as a business model, but since their work is not available to the public, can't be found by search engines, and can't be cited, it's hard to say where they fit into a world of journalism."
Temple said that he knows the approach ruffles the information-wants-to-be free crowd, but he is unpersuaded. "I'm not sure why it's complicated where we fit into the world of journalism ... If Larry wants to read the Star-Advertiser newspaper, he has to pay for it. We're not different. We just offer our product online. It is true that people who pay get the full benefits of Civil Beat, but as we've discussed, we also provide different layers of content, some paid, some free."
My own take is this. Civil Beat is unconventional and the full price is high for a local site, but there is plenty of room for experiments of all shapes and size in communities that have lost a substantial chunk of traditional newspaper content. My question is whether enough people will pay for fresh local reporting and informed, polite discussion. The jury remains out on that one.


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