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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.”

                                   
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