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June 8, 2016, 11:38 a.m.

Honolulu Civil Beat, after six years of trying life as a for-profit, is becoming a nonprofit after all

The Pierre Omidyar-backed news site is dropping its paywall and launching a membership program as part of the change.

The Honolulu Civil Beat, the six-year-old Hawaii-based news site launched by Pierre Omidyar, is becoming a nonprofit, the organization said Wednesday. It’s dropping its metered paywall and introducing a membership program. Existing subscribers will become founding members of the site.

“This seems like it’s the natural evolution for us considering what we’ve learned about Hawaii’s media and what our place in that was,” Patti Epler, Civil Beat’s editor and general manager told me. “We never really have been a retail-type operation with advertising and that type of thing.”

Civil Beat has been ad-free since it launched in 2010. It initially charged $19.99 per month for a subscription, but it lowered the monthly price a number of times over the years. Civil Beat’s debut as a paid site kicked off a news war of sorts in Hawaii, with the daily newspaper Honolulu Star-Advertiser setting up its own paywall in 2011.

Epler wouldn’t say how many paying subscribers the site had — though, as a nonprofit, it will ultimately have to disclose more details of its finances.

Civil Beat typically publishes fewer than 10 stories per day, and she said that many readers weren’t hitting the metered paywall. The site conducted an audience survey a few months ago, finding much of its readership was already getting news from — and paying for — outlets such as The Economist, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

“It seemed like with so many different things for them to choose from, we were just one more,” Epler said.

Civil Beat filed papers with the IRS to transition to a nonprofit on June 1. While it waits for its application to be approved, the Institute for Nonprofit News will act as the site’s fiscal sponsor, allowing it to begin accepting donations immediately.

In a column announcing the change on Civil Beat’s site, Epler wrote that the site hopes the move to nonprofit status will attract a wider network of supporters:

Yes, we do have a major benefactor in our publisher, Pierre Omidyar; and it’s great that he got us started and will continue to support us.

But the strength of any nonprofit organization flows from the broad support of the community. We hope that more donors like you will embrace our mission — not because you have to in order to read our stories, but because you want to help us.

The site also is hopeful that as a nonprofit it will be able to attract other types of revenue, such as grants and other charitable support. “We are hoping that it will make it easier to get grants and align with more of the charitable organizations in the Hawaii community — corporate sponsors and that kind of thing,” Epler said.

The site has a full-time newsroom staff of 14, and Epler said readers shouldn’t expect any changes in the type of coverage the site offers. By law, nonprofit sites are forbidden from endorsing candidates for office, but that’s something Civil Beat has never done. It’ll also continue to hold events.

“Our journalism is actually still exactly the same,” she said. “We’ve always been more of an explanatory, educational type organization. We’ve never had sports. We’ve never had features. We’ve never done lifestyles or any of that type of news. We’re just totally still moving down that path of public affairs journalism.”

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

POSTED     June 8, 2016, 11:38 a.m.
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