Nieman Foundation at Harvard
HOME
          
LATEST STORY
SmartNews has shown it can drive traffic. Can it drive subscriptions too?
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
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.
SHARE THIS STORY
   
 
Join the 50,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
SmartNews has shown it can drive traffic. Can it drive subscriptions too?
“If the publisher ecosystem is healthy, then SmartNews is healthy. That’s going to be an important thrust going forward.”
“It’s just become daily news”: Six Florida newsrooms are teaming up to cover climate change
“It’s not a science story for us here in South Florida. It’s not some kind of theoretical exploration. It’s real. It’s what many in our community experience in their neighborhoods.”
Could technology built for advertising make public radio less top-down and more bottom-up?
Plus: A British podcast company finds surprising success stateside, the Supreme Court provides a S02E14 for In the Dark, and a documentary about Freaknik.