I’m watching the development of Honolulu Civil Beat with great interest.
Backed by the founder of Ebay, Pierre Omidyar, the online news project was launched earlier this week.
Subscribers will play a key part in the operation, which allows them to discuss issues affecting their communities through a concept called the ‘civil square’ hosted by journalists with different expert areas.
In an article on the site headlined ‘A New Approach to Journalism’, Founding Editor John Temple (formerly of the Rocky Mountain News) explains what it hopes to provide:
We start this news service with the belief that we’re here to serve you. That means our daily work is to ask the important questions citizens might have in the face of the complex issues facing our community. And to answer them in a way that helps members reach an informed opinion, based on our reporting and the discussion that will take place as we together create the new civic square.
You’ll find that our initial coverage is centered around five fundamental beats: Hawaii, Honolulu, Education, Land and Money. For each of these coverage areas, we have identified critical issues – and now that you’re here we hope you’ll help us sharpen our focus.
The monthly fee of $19.99 to use the site is generating the most comment.
Here’s Daily Finance’s take on the pay model:
Skeptics say no one will pay such a princely sum (in Internet terms) to participate in a local journalism site, and a lack of participants could doom the online “civic square” to failure.
But Omidyar’s new startup could be timing the bottom of the paid-content market perfectly. For starters, the subtle reeducation of Web users that not all content is free is well underway. The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times are all on paths to paid content in their online forms. Since these are “must read” publications that drive lots of other news coverage, it’s hard to ignore this trend.
If they were aiming for a straight news service, then it makes sense as a business-model decision to let people know from the top that getting a quality product will take their financial support. But a civic-square vision carries a different kind of connotation and a suggestion of more, not less, openness. The implicit suggestion is that only people who pay are worth listening to. That seems to run counter to Omidyar’s description of the richness and diversity of Hawaii and “discussions that involve a diversity of points of view, conducted in a respectful and good-faith search for common ground and meaningful compromise.”
With a billionaire’s backing this project has plenty of room for experimentation, but it will be interesting to see what the people Honolulu make of it!